Study: How to best manage millennials

What leads to good relationships among employees? Appreciation, workforce diversity and the use of their preferred social media channels are three key elements.


If you want good relationships with your employees, you ought to be doing a whole lot more than just talking about your culture.

You have to be authentic and appreciative and speak with them, not at them. That was the conclusion of a half-dozen studies on internal communications presented at the 2015 International Public Relations Research Conference in Miami.

Among the most rigorous investigations was that conducted by Rita Linjuan Men of Southern Methodist University and Huan Jiang of Syracuse University: “Toward An Integrated Model of Internal Relationship Management.”

They surveyed 391 employees from mid-size and large corporations to identify the foremost drivers of good relationships among employees. They found that the key ingredients to good culture are authentic leadership, two-way conversations (that build trust) and a culture that rewards and provides stability.

They weren’t the only ones who found that “supportiveness” and showing appreciation are essential to success in today’s environment.

What motivates employees to have stronger relationships with employers?

It turns out that appreciation is as strong a driver of loyalty as money. Richard Waters of the University of San Francisco and Denise Sevic Bortree of Penn State undertook an exhaustive study on the nature of what motivates employees to have stronger relationships with employers: “It Is Not About the Money.”

They conducted 4,521 intercept surveys in San Francisco and found 212 people who worked full-time and also volunteered. Using the standard Grunig relationship survey questions, they asked those 212 how they felt about the nonprofit for which they volunteered and about their employers. The results showed that they all had significantly stronger relationships with organizations that didn’t pay them than with the employers that did.

The reason? The nonprofit organizations show their appreciation.

Why does it matter? It turns out that, when the organization they work for shows that they appreciate them, employees are more loyal, are more committed and have much higher scores on trust, satisfaction and commitment in terms of Grunig relationship scores. Waters and Bortree concluded that the most effective strategy for improving internal relationships was reciprocity, demonstrating gratitude and keeping promises.

What do millennials want as compensation?

Waters and Bortree’s conclusions were backed up by research conducted by Ryan H. Reber and Holley Reeves of the University of Georgia. They tackled the thorny issue of employee engagement among millennials: “Connecting Generation Attributes, Leadership Development, and Employee Engagement: An In-depth Investigation of the Millennial PR Professionals.”

They conducted personal interviews with 39 PR professionals in the millennial generation and found that the most important motivator was praise or acknowledgement of their work. Though they are attracted to competitive compensation, they are as interested in meaningful, socially responsible work as they are in the paycheck.

Reber and Reeves’ interviewees echoed the call for authentic leadership that Men and Jiang found, saying that they want leaders who earn their trust through authenticity and building rapport, but without micromanaging.

Here’s an interesting side note, given the storm of controversy over discriminatory laws popping up in various states: Millennials also expect to work in a diversified office environment that provides them opportunities to socialize with different types of people, both during and after work.

Does the use of social media lead to an engaged workplace?

If you were thinking that the way to millennials’ hearts is through social media, think again. Researchers Michele Ewing and Andrew Christopher of Kent State University set out to answer an intriguing question, one that most internal communications pros have asked themselves in the last year or two: “Social Media and Internal Communications: Does the use of social media contribute to the creation of an engaged workplace?

To get to the answer, they conducted a series of interviews with human resources and communications professions, working in companies with stellar reputations for their culture.

Their findings are preliminary but the short answer is: “Yes, if done correctly,” social media can help build a sense of community and drive employee engagement.

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Their most important finding was that you have to use the social platforms that employees are already using. If employees are active on Facebook or Twitter, then meet them there. If they spend most of their time on Pinterest or Periscope, don’t try to make them use Jive and Yammer.

They also found that, regardless of which channels they use to communicate, today’s employees should feel that their voices matter and that they’re an integral part of the business solution. So, tailor content based on their interests and whatever social platforms they’re using.

Other best practices they found:

  • Focus on core culture in your policies, and avoid overly legalistic and threatening language.
  • Anticipate inappropriate content, and figure out ahead of time how to deal with it.
  • Employee engagement leads to increased collaboration, innovation, productivity, advocacy and retention.
  • Create opportunities for employees to participate in discussions and share company knowledge.
  • Be prepared for increased mobile use. Few, if any, will access social networks only through their desktops.

How does social media affect engagement of internal stakeholders?

Research by Emily S. Kinsky and Kimberly Bruce of West Texas A&M University and Kirk Scarbrough and Aaron French of Teach For America found much stronger endorsement for social media use in their study of social media and internal stakeholders: “Re-inspired”: Using Social Media to Encourage Internal Stakeholders.”

They tested the impact on employee engagement of a 30-minute video, as well as that of a podcast, emails, conference calls and a weekly video recap. They interviewed employees after they were exposed to a variety of content, finding tangible impact across the board.

Their conclusion was that social media connected and motivated employees, reminded them of their shared purpose and helped them see the impact of their work.

Katie Paine is the founder of Paine Publishing, where a version of this article first appeared.

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