Future-proofing HR in millennial workforce world and beyond

By Bettina Rigg and Jane Byford, Veale Wasbrough Vizards

Did you know that by 2025 millennials (essentially those born between 1980 and 1999) will form 75% of the global workforce according to research undertaken by Deloitte in its 2016 Millennial Survey? They will be more numerous than the soon-to-retire baby boomer generation.

The Deloitte research also found that two in three millennials expect to leave their current job to join a new organisation or do something different by the end of 2020.

The impact of millennials in the workplace is being felt right now and organisations, including higher education institutions (HEIs,) should be considering how to deal with this very different workforce, how their policies and processes need to change and the legal issues that may arise.

At the annual conference of Universities Human Resources (UHR) in May 2016 we explored with delegates in a legal session and in workshop sessions run jointly with the University of Exeter some of the challenges that a millennial workforce will bring and some of the risks which HEIs need to identify and mitigate. This article brings together some of the themes that came out of those sessions.

How are the expectations of millennials likely to impact on the working environment and workforces of HEIS?

Whilst millennials are, of course, all individuals, research shows that there are some significant differences between this generation and those preceding it which are likely to have a significant impact on their workplace and career expectations. 

Expect instant access to information

Millennials have never known a world without the internet, broadband, smartphones and social media being the norm. They prefer to communicate electronically, use their own devices/software and avoid face time.

Motivated by a sense of purpose

Millennials want to do something that feels worthwhile and contributes something to the world and are more likely to work for an employer who shares their values.

Desire to keep learning and to achieve

Millennials want structure, clear objectives, regular feedback and praise for a job well done. They are likely to move on if they cannot move up.

Greater flexibility

Millennials have a strong appetite for working abroad. They may want to work remotely or more flexibly and they are more likely to want a portfolio career working for more than one employer or a combination of work, travel and volunteering.

So how can HR help institutions to respond to these expectations?

HR has a key role to play in identifying areas for change and in implementing and embedding that change.

Current leadership values are unlikely to chime with most millennials and the starting point may be an analysis of what leadership values will need to look like and a clear understanding of the steps to get there. The skill set required for the leaders of the future is likely to look very different. Who are the academic superstars that will inspire this new generation and who and what will they relate to? How will this work where there is inter-disciplinary leadership? How can you ensure that the new leadership values are embedded at all levels including local leadership at school level?

The war for talent will increase and it will be those HEIs who have a creative and flexible approach to attracting and retaining staff that will succeed. This will include getting the deal right with mixed incentive packages, a flexible approach to contracts, hours and location and finding imaginative ways to allow staff to pursue portfolio careers. Many HEIs already strive to give regular feedback but the traditional annual PDR process will not support the need for frequent, meaningful feedback and there will need to be more emphasis on a constant conversation. The current career progression structures are also unlikely to satisfy expectations of rapid career progression.

Communication and interaction in the workplace will look very different and policies and processes will need to be re-modelled to reflect this. Much more interaction with colleagues and students will be electronic and involve greater use of social media. It will be vital to manage inter-generational tension given that many of those baby boomers currently in the workplace will work well beyond traditional retirement age and will still be in the workplace as the number of millennials increases.

The impact of millennials in the workplace is being felt right now and organisations, including higher education institutions (HEIs), should be considering how to deal with this very different workforce, how their policies and processes need to change and the legal issue that may arise

What legal issues are likely to arise?

Many legal issues arise and we have selected just a few of these.

A greater risk of discrimination/equal pay claims

A more tailored and flexible approach to the pay and benefits package (including the need to offer more flexible contractual arrangements) and a more rapid career progression structure increases the potential for discrimination against those with protected characteristics, especially those with caring responsibilities, as well as the risk of equal pay claims. The HE sector is making slow progress towards achieving greater representation of women at senior levels (79.9% of Vice-Chancellors, 69.5% of PVCs and 78.3% of professors are male) and whilst more flexibility should give greater opportunity for women, there is a real risk if processes for career progression and organisational culture do not change significantly and quickly.

Unconscious bias

The workplace space will be occupied by two very different types of employees whilst the baby boomers and the millennials co-exist. As well as the inter-generational tension we have already referred to, this co-existence could lead to unconscious bias favouring or disadvantaging one or other of the groups. Even if this does not amount to discrimination (most likely on the basis of age), the operation of unconscious bias in the workplace will undermine the effectiveness of the institution.

Contracts with more than one employer

The desire of millennials for a portfolio career is likely to result in them working for more than one employer at the same time (including for employers based overseas) and will mean that the model of a single employer coupled with say secondment or honorary contract arrangements, will need to change. The problems with an employee having more than one employer at the same time include practical issues such as which employer’s policies (eg disciplinary policies) will prevail, how conflicts of interest can be managed, which jurisdiction applies and what happens to intellectual property rights. New contractual arrangements will need to develop to manage these practical issues if HEIs want to attract and retain the brightest and the best.

Health & Safety

The remote working aspirations of millennials bring challenges for HEIs in how they discharge their obligations to ensure the health and safety of employees who are working remotely. HEIs need to consider how they will monitor and control the health and safety of those employees, what changes need to be made to their risk assessments and how institutional policies need to change to reflect these new arrangements.

Social media/bring your own devices

Millennials are heavy users of social media but most social media policies do not reflect this and are too constraining. Similarly, what may have previously been regarded as misconduct for the purposes of disciplinary proceedings is likely to change in line with new established norms of usage. Millennials also want to bring their own devices/software into the workplace which will bring with it issues for HEIs in terms of their data protection responsibilities and a need to constantly update their IT usage policies.

The future is now 

The landscape for HEIs is already changing and the way in which HEIs respond to the challenges of attracting and retaining millennials will be a real differentiator of success and is a key aspect of any future-proofing strategy.

Contact us

Bettina Rigg and Jane Byford are both partners at leading education law firm Veale Wasbrough Vizards.  

Bettina can be contacted on 020 7665 0960 or at brigg@vwv.co.uk.  

Jane can be contacted on 0121 227 3712 or at jbyford@vwv.co.uk.