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Why Corporate America Could Learn A Thing Or Two From Millennials

Take note, “been there, done that” crowd. The younger generation has a few lessons to teach.

Why Corporate America Could Learn A Thing Or Two From Millennials
[Photo: Flickr user IAEA Imagebank]

If you’ve walked around an American office recently, you might have noticed that anywhere you looked, you were likely to see someone really, really young.

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, millennials–born in the 1980s and 1990s–will make up more than half of the workforce next year, and 75% by 2030. And these young employees, as many of us managers have noticed, don’t play by the old rules.

Millennials are not much different than we were at their age–fearless, independent, and energetic go-getters. They’ve been raised with the technology tools to make their lives more efficient, which can prove the same for businesses. Interacting with my youngest hires–which, as an executive privileged with leading a stellar team in a tech-centered field I do every day–I am constantly discovering that our younger employees are savvy, smart, and committed. The kids are alright.

Still, every day I learn how different they are from their older colleagues. When I started out in the workforce, for example, I was happy to be shown to a corporate-issued computer terminal and answer to the authority of an IT specialist who told me what I could and couldn’t do with my machine. Later, we were handed a cell phone that had been chosen for us by the company that opened up new doors.

To a twenty-something year old today, that is an utterly unreasonable scenario; they demand a strict bring your own device regime. Some swear by Macs, others are die-hard PC fans. Instead of demanding uniformity, I have come to realize, it’s best to let them do their thing.

Learning From Millennials

The same is true across the board. Millennials, for example, will think nothing of diving right in to a hefty and complex project demanding huge chunks of their time. However, when you tell them that all of their time must be spent in the pale florescent glow of the office, they’ll revolt. They see no reason why they couldn’t simply work remotely, from a coffee shop, or from any other environment they find more pleasant and conducive to long stretches of intense concentration.

And they’re right: our communications technologies have evolved to the point of enabling smooth and seamless execution of tasks that once, not too long ago, required the physical presence of large groups of people around the same conference table.

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Now that documents live on the cloud, video conferencing is easy, and group chat a staple of so many offices’ lives, the old ways of doing business seem antiquated. It’s why 30 million Americans work from home at least once a week, a number that is slated to grow exponentially in the next five years.

We all, of course, still need to feel as part of a community, and we all love spending time socializing with co-workers and friends. We just want to do it on our own schedule and on our own terms.

But this issue goes beyond merely working from home. It’s about working from anywhere. The technology tools of today and tomorrow are opening new frontiers. We can visit customers in the field and use tablets to live conference with support teams, helping to ensure customers are fully equipped to make decisions and we are enabled to close deals.

So what can large corporations do to accommodate these brave new ways of doing business? The solution is for multinational leviathans to learn how to think and behave like young and lean startups.

That’s a charming idea, but it clearly has its limitations. Just like I would look out of place if I decided to dress like my Millennial colleagues and join them after-hours, so is it inappropriate, if not altogether impossible, for a giant company to pretend it’s just like a freewheeling and hip Silicon Valley startup. Instead, we have to find a middle ground.

Equip Your People With The Tools They Need

You wouldn’t normally think of Kansas City as cool. Nor, perhaps, would you associate it with young folks shrewdly shaping their own way into the workforce. But that’s precisely the case.

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Unlike New York, Silicon Valley, or southern California where I am based, our colleagues in the heartland took the liberties afforded us by our new communications platforms to the next level.

They already had a strong tradition of caring deeply for work-life balance–you’ll see few people in Kansas City missing their kid’s Little League game or forgoing a family dinner for a late-evening meeting–and now they have the tools to keep that balance better than ever before.

No one understands this better than my younger employees. On any given day, you’ll find three out of four of these so-called millennials working with remote customers, and nearly as many engaging with remote coworkers or suppliers.

Because I have equipped my team with iPads, and because the cloud allows them immediate access to all the applications and the files they need to do their jobs, it’s not uncommon for me to call a junior colleague and learn that she’s just closed a deal while having coffee with a client, or completed a big undertaking from the comfort of her own living room couch. All I have to do as an executive is give them the freedom to pursue the course that makes the most sense to them.

This freedom allows all of us to preserve our entrepreneurial spirit, and to do our jobs without succumbing to the pressures of a needlessly stifling work environment. It allows us to have a life. Of all the lessons I’ve learned from my young co-workers and friends, nothing is more meaningful.

Matt Carter is president of Sprint Business. He oversees Sprint’s Business to Business sales, including Enterprise Business, Emerging Solutions/M2M and Global Wholesale.

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