Lately, a host of articles about the ways in which Millennials have affected the nature of business have been popping up everywhere. Millennials — due to their inherent differences from Boomers — are credited with pushing companies to create cultures of wellness, flexibility and equality lest these organizations be unable to attract and retain them.
One of the latest examples is End of the corner office: D.C. law firm designs its new space for millennials. It’s an interesting read of how and why a law firm—an industry renowned for being conservative with its HR policies—changed the design of its offices for younger workers. Or did it?
The article notes a host of things about Millennials, such as their tendency toward shorter tenures than their Boomer peers, a desire for meaningful work and a focus on collaboration over hierarchy. Yet, I doubt that those things alone prompted the change (or are truly that unique to Millennials). Despite the title of the article, anyone who reads a few paragraphs in will find that, despite all the lovely rhetoric of including Millennials in decision making, the real motivator was money. “But what finally won many skeptics over, he said, was the economic argument … The new office is about one-third smaller than the old office, so real estate costs are lower.”
So, was this change really for Millennials?
There is growing evidence that workplaces designed around the human needs of their employees promote greater wellness and productivity regardless of generation. People benefit from better ventilation and sunlight rather than being cramped into poorly lit internal spaces while working hard to earn the right to feel like they live above ground. Effective workplaces, where employees have a sense of autonomy, supervisor support and opportunity for learning helps improve intent to stay, job satisfaction and job engagement—all good things for any employee and organization. Open designs and uniform office sizes—despite other issues with noise and privacy—are cheaper real estate designs and remove impediments to growth caused by feudal era status displays. (Is your office/barony bigger than mine?) These changes are no more for Millennials than the old method is for Boomers. Is there any Boomer out there who would openly say they don’t want other people to have a pleasant office environment just so they can feel special?
So, if there’s so much value to everyone for these changes, why are Millennials getting all the credit? Is there an advantage to organizations in reframing economic decisions as being concessions to their newest and lowest ranking employees? If all these changes are so good, why would organizations not want to take credit for them?
They are giving the credit to Millennials because they want to avoid owning up to their violation of the promises made to previous generations. Older workers are right to feel frustrated when they see younger employees getting to skip over the sacrifices that they made just to see the sun for a few more hours a day. They had to earn things that Millennials are getting for free. That has to be frustrating. These feelings emerge quickly in the comments section of any one of these articles about Millennial transformations.
However, by saying that the changes are for Millennials, that frustration is shifted away from the organizations who demanded those sacrifices in the first place. Instead, Millennials get blamed for prematurely demanding simple human necessities that were transformed by organizational leaders into promotion “perks.” In addition, by saying that this change was caused by Millennials, organizations also get to avoid any responsibility for the newer models when they want to change them again.
Boomers, do you remember when you were the generation demanding that things change? Are you really so different from Millennials now? Millennial bashing is a great sport, but it’s ultimately a distraction that serves no one but organizations looking to avoid responsibility for their decisions.
To be clear, I think changes that respect the value of all people—from giving them access to sunlight, acknowledging their inner lives and an opportunity to voice their ideas to improve the business—are great. I’m excited that more and more organizations are recognizing that they can be profitable and humane at the same time. However, organizations need to take full ownership of the decisions they make and the reasons why they make them. Millennials didn’t make these changes; organizational leaders did. Those leaders didn’t make these changes for Millennials they made them because it makes good business sense for all their employees and their bottom line. These decisions were made by Boomers who fought for their corner offices and senior leadership positions who realized that their organizations thrive when they motivate people to pursue excellence rather than avoid discomfort.
Only by being honest about the reasons for these changes can we make sure they actually work the way they are intended and that everyone benefits.