Bridging the generation gap – learning from the millennials August 2017

By FRANCES OKOSI, Published in Management

In a recent report , "Legal Department 2025 – The Generational Shift in Legal Departments: Working with Millennials and Avoiding Baby Boomer Brain Drain", it was found that only 26% of law firms have a succession plan in place that aims to empower millennials to take on leadership roles in the firm.

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The report surveyed 153 attorneys working in corporate legal departments to identify how they're preparing for the generational shift, as baby boomers retire and more millennials join the workforce. According to the survey, law firms, for the most part, aren't doing anything to prepare for this generational shift.

In addition, according to the survey 74% of millennials know they will understand tech advancements faster than other generations, 70% want a high level of involvement in decision-making and 63 % anticipate being promoted. Another 63% said that a work/life balance was important to them.

The survey found that law firms today are confronted with more workforce obstacles than before. Managing a multigenerational workforce and handling the influx of millennial corporate counsel alongside the departure of baby boomers is one of these challenges.

"This generational shift involves everything from the perception of millennials (the good: they're tech-savvy, and the bad: they're job hoppers) to how colleagues interact to the need for effectively capturing and sharing baby boomers' institutional knowledge before they leave... Capturing baby boomers' extensive experience while making the most of millennials' traits and skills is a delicate balance, but the vast majority of legal departments are not striking the right balance, or worse, not even acknowledging the challenges facing them."

Working with millennials can be challenging for older generations who might not understand aspects of their workplace behaviour. Addressing these differences and learning from their approach is not only beneficial, it is essential.

Communication

Judging from a large number of workplace forums, employee surveys and other feedback tools, millennials are often seen by older generations to be complaining. However, millennials see these tools as a means of communicating, a place to voice their concerns which, in the process, can provide valuable opportunities to address workplace issues. Millennials are more open and communicative in their approach, and require frequent feedback. While the older generation can see this as nothing more than moaning, better communication is beneficial and is key to effective management. As such, millennials are leading the way in creating working environments that encourage open dialogue.

Commitment

It can also appear that millennials are not committed to their jobs, as they appear happy to leave if better opportunities come along. When I review CVs, and see someone who has had many different jobs in a short space of time, my initial reaction is that they will not be a stable part of the team. However, being willing to step out and try something new can be a good thing – too many people are afraid to make a change and they end up staying in jobs or situations they find unfulfilling. So, while it may appear to be a lack of commitment or loyalty, millennials are also offering a lesson in embracing change and pursuing fulfilment.

Office hours

Keeping long office hours is another area where the generations differ. My generation tends to view working from our desks as the default/best option, regardless of whether that requires being in the office through the night or over weekends. If we are closing a deal, we stay until all the work is done and the papers are signed, even if that takes all night. However, the younger generation see things differently and will be asking themselves – is there not a better way to do this? Could I work from home, or access technology that allows me to complete this part of the job at home? The focus on agile working arrangements is increasing because the upcoming generation is demanding it. We are seeing technological progress that is being driven by millennials and their quest for work/life balance.

Technology

Further, the stereotype millennial is always busy on their phone and posting on social media, something that can annoy older generations. Even during business meetings, it's becoming the norm for people to be on their phones or tablets checking their emails and social media apps – not really being present in the room or fully focused on the matter at hand. Millennials are showing us how to embrace developing technologies. Social media has provided us with many new business development tools and smart phones and tablets have made a huge contribution to remote working. There is no doubt technology has, and will continue to deliver significant benefits. But, for me, getting the balance right is key.

Asking

Another strength of the millennial generation is that if they want something, they ask for it. If they don't understand something, they ask for the answer. If they want to grow in their careers, they don't sit and wait for someone to tap them on the shoulder as part of some unseen promotion process, they want a clear explanation of the development path and the steps they need to take to progress.

At times, this can come across as demanding or wanting to be "spoon fed". But this can actually be a good thing. The mindset of wanting more information, wanting to learn and grow, is one that should be nurtured and encouraged. Then, when we have provided them with the tools and pathways, it's up to the individual to take responsibility and run with it.

Perspective

I am learning to change my perspective on how I view millennials to better manage the members of this generation in my team. But this is a two-way street – millennials must also take the time to understand older generations and acknowledge benefits that can be gained from their ways of working. We should embrace the positives from each side of the generational divide – there is so much to learn from each other.

In the process, we will bridge the gap.

Okosi is a Partner in the Finance & Banking Practice, Baker McKenzie (South Africa).