Managing millennials in the workplace means providing a variety of work stations to choose from.

You need to be flexible when managing millennials in the workplace.

August 30, 2018
3 minute read
Last updated January 22, 2019

You need to be flexible when managing millennials in the workplace.

By Erin Balsa August 30, 2018

If you’re a manager, there’s a good chance you manage a millennial. According to Pew Research Center—and data from the U.S. Census Bureau—millennials make up 35 percent of the American workforce. When you view that workforce as a pie, millennials own the largest slice.

Pew defines the millennial generation as anyone born between 1981 and 1996, but definitions vary according to the source. In our recent People Management Study, we defined millennials—otherwise known as Gen Y—as employees between the ages of 24 and 41.

The purpose of our study was to uncover common traits of great (and not-so-great) managers. To this end, we asked 5,103 people to answer questions about their bosses. We found a correlation between millennial employees and a desire for flexibility.

Millennials want a flexible working environment.

Twenty-two percent of millennials who rated their managers “great” (a 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale) said those managers were casual with rules. In comparison, only 13 percent of Gen Xers and 12 percent of baby boomers with great bosses said their bosses were casual with rules. This tells us that young workers have less patience for rigid workplace policies than previous generations.

Chart showing that millennials think great bosses are casual with rules

When millennials, Gen Xers and baby boomers identified other traits of great managers there was less of a generational gap. The biggest divide was flexibility.

Our findings support what Deloitte discovered in its seventh-annual Millennial Survey. Researchers gathered information from 10,455 millennials across the globe. All were college-educated and working full-time. One major takeaway was clear: for millennials, flexibility is key to loyalty—and employee retention.

Survey respondents ranked aspects of working at an organization such as “opportunities for continuous learning” and “reputation for ethical behavior.” Fifty percent of millennials indicated that “flexibility” was very important to them.

Chart showing that millennial workers want flexibility

They also found a link between flexible working arrangements and millennials’ desire to stick around. Of those who planned to stay at their current job for at least five years, 55 percent said their company is more flexible now compared to three years ago. Of those planning to quit within two years, only 35 percent noted an increase in company flexibility.

The takeaway: Companies who offer more options for where and when employees can work see less millennial turnover.

Managing millennials in the workplace means providing many casual seating options

Flexibility can reduce millennial turnover—but it can’t be a free-for-all.

The data shows a need for managers to be flexible with rules, and for companies to be flexible with working arrangements. But, boundaries must be set. There’s a thin line between freedom and chaos.

It’s okay to be casual with some rules, like letting someone take the occasional last-minute vacation day instead of giving two weeks notice. Certain rules need to be followed. For example, businesses in the financial services industry should create and enforce rules around BYOD to protect company data.

Allowing tech-savvy millennials flexibility shows you care about providing work-life balance. Yet, it’s important to communicate clear expectations around what is acceptable and what is not. A company culture that’s built upon transparency and communication is good for employees of all ages.


  1. As a Gen X, I think I appreciate flexibility as much as the Gen Y but I was raised, at home and in the work force, to work hard (long hours, level of loyalty and committment that fits into a little box of 9-5, your given holidays and a paycheque). Having my perception in such a small box creates anxiety and guilt over leaving for appt, working from home etc. I know it is crazy and it is my issue but I feel it would take a level of trust with my organization to truely feel comfortable and believe I wouldn’t get fired or my hand slapped for working out of a coffee shop or working in a way that is outside of my little box. Part of me celebrates the Gen Y’s ability to be flexible and own it, the other part of me wonders if there is a lack of productivity. I could argue and see both sides of this coin but it doesn’t change my wish for the flexibility or my level of comfort over acting on it.

  2. Flexibility in an organization is valuable for staff, we work flexible times that suit you, and then get a half day Friday off every 8 weeks, and everyone gets a turn within their department. We noticed this also helps in staff taking less time off for dentists appointments, specialist appointments and so on, where you usually need to go in working times, our management teams are mostly from Generation X and staff is also allowed to work from home when needed.

  3. We instituted flexible work arrangements a year ago and have seen improvements in our culture and morale. Everyone appreciates it, not just millennials.

  4. While some managerial traits fluctuate in importance, I think we all are seeking a manager who is an advocate for us and direct enough to share what we can do better

  5. Great article! We have conversations about millennials and how they work all of the time. They are the future of our organization and they really do like the flexibility that our organization offers. We can see a lot of the things that this article mentions in our organization.

  6. I am a Human Resources Manager and my personal behavioral style consists of very low formality (3 sigma low). I am incredibly flexible and try really hard to express to all of our employees that not everything is truly a big deal. We have an employee handbook and we have policies and procedures, but where we can be flexible we try hard to be. We offer flexible schedules to meet individual needs. When you can be flexible, your employees appreciate it and in turn are willing to be flexible for you in other instances. Millennials are to Generation Xers as Generation Xers were once to Baby Boomers. Times, they are a changing and it’s not a bad thing (says the Generation Xer with very low formality).

  7. Milennials will demand a new kind of management. They are motivationally driven. HR professionals need to ensure that motivational questions are a part of the interview process. We need to ensure that there is a proper motivational fit between the employee and the company. It’s almost more important than flexibility.

  8. A lot of employers now offer the flexible schedule. It allows you to come in when you choose, so long as you work during the core hours the business is open. Millennials do like this especially because it allows them to sleep in a little bit or it allows them to get up early and get home early. Good article.

  9. We have a growing number of millennials in our organization and we are proud of their achievements. While our business by necessity requires more structure and has to limit flexibility we strive to balance that by our use of PI and other tools as well as a strong Talent Acquisition team to identify ideal candidates for our culture along with a strong development plan and while we work hard, we put a lot of effort into playing hard and doing our part to give back to the community as well.

  10. Flexibility can be a great motivator within the right parameters, but you have to be very careful as well. For example, you can’t allow a parent more flexibility in the workplace than a nonparent. Just because a parent has kids activities and the like shouldn’t mean that the parent gets more flexibility than the nonparent simply because the parent made different decisions in life outside of the workplace. As a parent and manager of others myself, I try to be very mindful of that in my own context. In addition, I firmly believe there is also something to be said for discipline in the workplace, and in life in general. There’s a reason the military makes soldiers polish their shoes and make their beds. Does it have any relevance on the field of combat? No, but it does instill discipline and the ability to carry out orders. I’m not suggesting that we manage a workforce like the military at all, far from it, but I am saying that there is value to instilling discipline, accountability, and the ability to do what’s expected of you when it’s expected of you, not just when it may be convenient for you. I fully realize I am in the minority, however, and I do understand there is a time and place for everything.

  11. I wonder if there is any correlation between the patience (C) drive and millennials. Is there any demographic information showing that millennials are statistically more likely to have lower patience drives (drive for more flexibility) or a higher likelihood of having a C>D (casual with rules) factor combination?

  12. I agree with Jennifer. I too an a Gen Xer. I would love the flexibility that this article discusses and see a lot of the millennials we have on staff requesting this…..some have been able to get and other have not because I am also in the chemical industry and the plant has a set production schedule and all other staff have to support that.

  13. Our company has become more flexible with some rules, such as requests for personal time off. However we are in the construction industry where we are busy for only 8-9 months out of the year. It can be very difficult to accommodate last minute time off requests during the busy construction season. Something unique, we actually had to write a “Deer Hunting Time Off Policy” because of the flood of PTO requests we would receive for the Minnesota deer hunting season. A large percentage of our workers put in for time off during this period.

  14. I love that thought that flexibility can reduce millennial turnover. As a millennial, I would rather work flex hours then 9-5 everyday. Based on my behavioral assessment, I thrive best when I make my own schedule.

  15. Learned some new things about Millennials in this article, but I think the most important takeaway is that Millennials need flexibility in the work environment and if that is provided to them they will have more loyalty to the company and their manager and most likely to stay with the company longer.

  16. My sister and I were just talking about a gap in flexibility she’s experiencing at her global organization. The more seasoned/baby boomer people say they “got ahead” by being willing to relocate to wherever they were needed in the country. They expect millennials to do the same and are not willing to consider other options. I’ll share this article with her to get her thoughts.

  17. I’m not a millennial, I’m Gen X but, honestly, I think I relate with millennial’s pretty well. The flexibility they desire is something I would love as well. It could that early on I was privileged to work in HR and have off every other Friday. It was awesome!

    I work in the chemical industry, it’s definitely more conservative and traditional with work hours and schedules. Hourly plant works can all the interesting schedules because it helps with production. Try that same thing in the office, you might as well be asking for a 60% raise. It’s a foreign concept. I think that in addition to your generation, it’s where you were raised. Many of our managers are not from suburbia and have more traditional views on work hours.

  18. As a millennial I absolutely agree that work/life balance is the key to create tenure in your organization. Allowing employees to take time off to see family or a spontaneous trip without the repercussion of time off shaming can absolutely create less turnover. Keeping it fair and having clear guidelines on how you can make your work week flexible will improve employee moral

  19. Excellent insight. Very interesting to see data backing up these trends. Building flexibility into work is certainly appreciated when possible.

  20. I agree that flexibility is important, but I think flexibility should be important to ALL groups of employees. Just because a more senior employee has ALWAYS worked the same schedule, at the same desk, in the same office; doesn’t mean that they might not like some flexibility. I’m glad that the millenials have brought the importance of flexibility to the forefront of many organizations, I just hate to see Gen Xers get penalized or overlooked.

  21. I am taking a class on adult learning theory and I believe the principles and practices related to that correlate to managing generations in the workplace. It is understood their are differences in generations, however, if we take the following approach, I think it is a good foundation.

    o Adults want to learn
    o Adults learn best by doing
    o Adults will learn best what they perceive they need to learn (motivation)
    o Remember, adults bring experience to the training situation (how can we use it?)
    o Adults prefer informality
    o Adults need variety in the training
    o Adults need to know how they are doing

    In Practice
    o Show the benefit
    o Be hands-on
    o Teach exact procedures. Clear and concise. No short cuts.
    o Ask them to share
    o Create comfortable environment
    o Provide feedback

  22. 50% of my team are millennials so this is second hand to us. The older executives still don’t see the need for it, but giving the workforce the space to breath and have a life that isn’t just about working has made retention and employee moral improve every year that we’ve looked and listened to our most valuable asset: our team. Flexibility works the other way as well. If we need them, the will sacrifice their free time to help the team achieve our goals as well. Our goal is don’t burn people out and have fun.

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