3 Ways Forward-Thinking Companies Are Engaging Millennials

Sure, "Millennials don't just work for a paycheck -- they want a purpose," but how does that translate into an actionable strategy?

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By Ashish Gambhir


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

"Millennial" has become a dreaded word in HR departments across America.

The connected generation currently makes up about 38 percent of the workforce, but that number will swell to 75 percent by 2025, and business leaders have made precious little headway in parsing apart their psychology. What motivates them? What do they want out of their careers? Why do they keep coming in late but never taking vacation?

If you need empirical evidence of the disconnect, look no further than Gallup's most recent numbers on millennial engagement: They put the disengagement rate for Generation Y at a staggering 71 percent. Applying that statistic to America's total workforce underscores a distressing reality: Roughly one in four of the country's employees is a disengaged twenty-something.

Related: 6 Ways Millennials Have Changed Business Practices

Yep, that's a grim assessment, and it reflects a hard truth: Industry needs to figure millennials out, or else risk productivity levels plummeting even further than they already have. The estimated fiscal loss from employee disengagement tallies up to $500 billion per year, according to Gallup. One can only imagine the potential fallout when the percentage of millennials in the workplace leaps from 38 percent to 75 percent eight years from now, if nothing is done to reign in the disengagement tide.

As Jim Clifton of Gallup eloquently phrased it: "Millennials are altering the very social fabric of America . . . changing the very will of the world. So we, too, must change."

So, what's the secret sauce? What's the key to "generation me"? There are myriad theories out there; Gallup alone espouses a six-pronged solution for "attracting and retaining millennials."

Moving from abstract statements to concrete solutions can be a particular challenge when it comes to engagement, however. Sure, "Millennials don't just work for a paycheck -- they want a purpose," but how does that translate into an actionable strategy?

To crystalize strategies for getting millennials motivated, I talked to Dom Perry, VP of PeopleWorks at Chili's Grill & Bar, and Karen Leland, founder of Sterling Marketing Group, about how they recommend handling the freshest generation.

Related: Why Office Perks Aren't Enough to Attract and Retain Millennials

1. Don't just "understand the need" for meaning -- build it.

"Through feedback and focus groups we know that millennials want to be heard, connected, unleashed, known and inspired," Perry says. "Knowing this allows us to tailor how we engage with our millennial team members in all aspects . . . . We can ensure we don't just create a comfortable work environment, but actually our team members' best lives."

Owned by Brinker International, Chili's has cultivated a stellar reputation for engaging its millennial workforce, ranking No. 11 in the country on Fortune's 2015 "100 Best Places to Work For Millennials" list -- well ahead of "Great Place to Work" giants Google (No. 25) and Twitter (No. 31).

As I wrote in a recent blog post, Chili's encountered severe burnout issues on the heels of the economic recession.

So, it went into overhaul mode. Seeing that purpose and meaning -- not gross pay or perks -- were the issues at stake, it adopted Gallup's "5 Essential Elements of Wellbeing" as a corporate philosophy, transforming abstract existential concepts into manageable pillars of lifestyle. It also developed initiatives that offer distinct paths for achieving those goals: yoga and exercise programs for physical well-being; meal creation competitions for work wellbeing; college tuition supplements for financial wellbeing, etc.

A tangible means of measuring success is also crucial. Chili's accomplishes this via a pulse survey platform called the Chili's Connection Board placed in every location that routinely pushes questions about the "5 Elements" to staff. Team members can engage directly with the board to complete quizzes that are both fun and culture-building ("What's you favorite superhero?") and more serious ("Are you happy at work?").

Related: Why 'Kids These Days' Make Great Workers

2. Prioritize social impact.

Leland's research has yielded a number of conclusions about the millennial mindset -- including the importance of community wellbeing and social impact.

As Leland wrote in a recent article, millennials are hands-on soul-searchers. Making a difference "isn't exclusively about money," she says. "Simply passing around the proverbial cup for charitable donations won't cut it to get staff pools fully invested in a cause or overarching company culture."

Unless you're a 501c3 or an NGO, chances are profit is king at the decision-maker table -- meaning that corporate social responsibility generally must be prioritized outside of business hours.

There are heaps of ways to accomplish this, as companies like NuStar, Deloitte and VMWare demonstrate. Salesforce offers a full seven days of PTO to all employees exclusively for volunteering, and gives the top 100 volunteers annually a $10,000 grant to donate to a charity of their choice.

When employees feel like their company's mission goes beyond dollar signs, they have more confidence in every aspect of their work, according to Leland.

Related: 3 Ways to Attract and Hire Diverse, Hardworking Millennials

3. Gamify, gamify, gamify.

Think gamifying personal metrics like exercise and social impact cheapens the activities? Think again.

Gamification is at the root of best practices like Salesforce's. It drives a sense of competition that fuels deeper engagement. If I'm volunteer No. 110, you can bet I'm taking an extra day of volunteer PTO to try to break the top 100 and earn $10,000 for my choice of charity.

That sort of motivation requires transparency: You have to know who volunteer No. 100 is and how many hours they've worked in order to beat them out for the last slot. The easiest way to accomplish that? Leaderboards. Choose a challenge, set up a data integration, and voila.

Leland explained the breadth of possibilities that can be derived from such a simple device: "If a company's goal is to improve staff physical fitness and, in doing so, lower the city's escalating obesity rates (and mortality and economic concerns related thereto), challenges might include skipping the elevator and taking only the stairs, drinking eight glasses of water a day or taking a local exercise class during the lunch break."

The use case applies just as evenly to a Chili's-style environment of building meaning as it does to a Salesforce style.

Millennials are much more easily engaged than most executives think, provided you understand what's important to them. I founded MomentSnap with these three pillars front of mind, in no small part because of the rampant mismanagement of America's hourly millennial workforce.

Perry suggested to me that the perceived generational disconnect is mostly due to the age gap rather than any tangible disparity.

"As a millennial myself, my belief is we are some of the most misunderstood people. If you know me, inspire me, connect with me, unleash me and hear me, I will be forever loyal," he says, "but isn't that what we all want, regardless of whether we are a millennial or not?"

Ashish Gambhir

President and Co-Founder of MomentSnap

Ashish Gambhir is a 15-year veteran of the employee engagement sphere. He is the president and co-founder of MomentSnap, a mobile-first employee empowerment platform designed for hourly workers. He previously co-founded social media listening company newBrand Analytics (acquired by Sprinklr), where he helped companies like McDonald's and Subway optimize per-location performance on an enterprise scale.

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