Understanding the Future

Rising from associate to partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers in only 10 years, Terri McClements knows what it means to be young and successful. Now as the U.S. human capital leader at PwC, McClements has shown a commitment to understanding a new crop of successful young people: millennials. With the “NextGen” generational study, McClements and PwC set out to disprove or validate some of the stereotypes about millennials in the workplace.

McClements recently spoke with Diversity Executive. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

What led you and your team to study millennial work patterns?

By 2016, almost 80 percent of the workforce of PwC’s firms around the world will be composed of millennials, so for us quite simply this was a business imperative. We undertook this study, one of the largest of its kind, because our firm wanted to more acutely understand the motivations and aspirations of our current and prospective millennial employees, especially as their attitudes compare and contrast to their non-millennial counterparts.

What about your background prepared you to conduct the survey?

Because a large percentage of our workforce is already composed of millennials (approximately two out of every three PwC employees is a millennial), we have a good understanding of what attracts, motivates and inspires Generation Y. That being said, we believed that partnering with recognized academic institutions on this topic would help us gain a better understanding of what we saw internally and anecdotally, and would also provide greater credibility as we began to share our results externally.

As a result, the “NextGen” generational study was conducted in concert with researchers from the University of Southern California and the London Business School. The study compiled survey responses from 44,000 PwC employees throughout the world across 18 global territories, professional service sectors and generations.

What questions and hypotheses were you hoping to investigate? Did the results align with your expectations?

We went into the study with an open mind, and a desire to understand what stereotypes of the millennial generations were supported by the data. There have been long-held perceptions about the millennial generation — some of the most common negative stereotypes are that millennials want constant praise, have a sense of entitlement and do not want to work as hard as their predecessors. One of the more positive assumptions was that, as digital natives, their grasp of technology made them well-equipped to work in an increasingly globally connected world. Ultimately, the study both refuted and confirmed ideas about millennials.

Since the millennials studied were all PwC employees, does that skew the results slightly, or would you expect largely the same results in any body of millennials?

Our primary motivation in conducting the “NextGen” generational study was to understand our own current and future employees, so it made sense for us to start there. That being said, we believe that the perspectives and motivations uncovered in the study are not unique to PwC, and that other organizations can learn from our research. Ultimately, any organization will need to evaluate a study like this one in light of their own unique employee population and business objectives, and decide which, if any, actions they should take as a result.

Did your team make any conjectures as to why millennials value work-life balance more than their peers?

Part of the reason we engaged USC and LBS was to stay away from conjecture — we really wanted the story to come from the data. Ultimately, what the research told us was that flexibility in where they work and how much they work are key drivers in millennial satisfaction. Our goal is less to understand why that is the case, and more to make certain that our environment is a flexible one, where our people are able to make time for what’s important to them personally. Luckily, we had a strong flexibility program in place that gives us a great head start on addressing this issue. We continue to look for ways to provide greater flexibility to all of our people, millennials and non-millennials alike.

Did you expect the result that millennials are not alone in wanting greater flexibility?

In a word, yes. We knew from internal measures, such as our annual global people survey, that flexibility is one of the most important issues and challenges we face as an organization. The “NextGen” generational study reaffirmed that flexibility will continue to be an area where focused attention is needed.

If many, but not all, of the stereotypes about millennials are untrue, why was this information penned specifically on millennials? Was their any evidence suggesting that millennials are more vocal than their counterparts and that’s why the stereotypes exist?

Well, before embarking on the study, we did not know if the sterotypes would be found to be true or not. Our primary motivation was to understand the needs of an increasingly large portion of our workforce, who happen to be millennials. As to why the stereotypes exist, I think with each new generation there comes a desire to define and understand them in the context of previous generations.

What specific actions has PwC taken to implement the results gleaned from the survey?

First, we have widely communicated the results of the study to our partners and our people. One of our diversity principles is that we consistently look for ways to leverage the power of our differences — meaning that each of our perspectives, while they may differ, only add to the rich fabric of our organization. By communicating how millennials are both alike and different from their non-millennial counterparts, we are able to foster a greater understanding between the two populations, thereby creating a more efficient and effective organization. We have also taken a look at the results of the study and compared them to our existing talent strategy, and made adjustments where necessary. In some areas, such as flexibility, it means continuing to build on our existing strategy. In others, such as a preference by millennials for in-person conversations when it comes to their performance, it means committing to a new level of open and honest communication between managers and staff, in which delivering feedback and on-the-job learning happens in real-time.

What advice would you give companies to try to establish more supportive work environments for millennials?

I would encourage them to take the time to listen to their staff, make sure feedback mechanisms are available, and to be sure their talent strategies are flexible enough to accommodate a number of different workings styles. One of the megatrends we’re seeing in the marketplace is a scarcity of talent, and it’s much more expensive to replace talent who have left the organization than to develop and motivate existing staff. For that reason, it’s in an organization’s best interest to create an exceptional experience for their current staff, and do everything they can to establish the kind of culture their people want to be a part of.

A summary of PwC’s study may be found here.

Eric Short is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.