Why Your Government Needs to Be a Hipster Organization

The millennials who will replace today's government workers are looking for a very different workplace culture.
May 11, 2015
By Julie Thuy Underwood  |  Contributor
Julie Thuy Underwood is assistant city manager of Daly City, Calif.

A hot topic around public-sector organizations is the large wave of retirements that they expect over the next three to five years. Who will replace these retirees? Millennials, that's who -- those now roughly between the ages of 18 to 34.

But is your government or agency prepared for this wave of recruitments and new hires? Have you put updated policies and systems in place? Have you designed an inclusive, forward-thinking culture? Have you shifted your attitudes to maximize the talent this workforce brings?

The answers to questions like those will determine whether your government is well on the way becoming what might be called a "hipster organization" -- the kind that millennials are eager to join. Short of that, you may have a "trending organization," one that's at least heading in the right direction. But if your government's culture values status quo above all else, you may be looking at a "dated organization." You have a lot of work to do.

Here are some key questions (also available as an online quiz) that should help you figure out where your government or agency falls on this continuum:

1. Does your organization place a high value on communicating a vision, goals, challenges and the big picture?

Millennials are hungry to know the big picture. They have a curiosity and interest in all work-related matters -- even if those matters lie far outside of their defined area of responsibility. What value does your organization place on communicating? If it's not a priority, then you will lose this talent to other organizations that do make it a priority.

2. Do employees have opportunities to learn new skills, gain valuable experience and possibly advance in their careers?

The days when employees stayed in one organization for their entire careers are a relic of the past. This generation does not see long-term value in pensions and other government benefits. "Organizations borrow talent, they don't own it," says Alex McIntyre, city manager of Menlo Park, Calif. We must emphasize the importance of harnessing as much of an employee's talent as long as he or she is in our organization, to cultivate and enhance that talent, and to realize that sometimes this means helping the person find a better opportunity elsewhere.

3. Do employees have a say in their work environment or workplace conditions that affect them?

I have witnessed a hesitation from some of my baby-boomer colleagues about having employees weigh in on this. They're concerned that employees will misunderstand their role in the organization. But this is a generation that will not "take their lumps" and continue to work in an environment that does not value their input.

4. Do you offer flexible work schedules?

Does your organization allow employees to work from home occasionally or on a regular basis? Would you consider job-sharing or allowing someone to go part-time? What about non-traditional approaches such as the 9/80 work schedule? This is a generation that will make career decisions based on life-work balance. They value having an enriched life outside of work and want their leaders to model this as well.

5. Are employees able to access workplace email, servers or key applications using their personal mobile devices?

Most millennials have never known a world without the Internet, mobile technology and social media. They find these tools easy to use and just part of life. And since they like having flexible work schedules, they value being able to access work from anywhere and at any time.

6. Does your organization have a diverse workforce?

Millennials are more racially diverse than any other generation; 43 percent of Americans in this age group are non-white. They want to see diversity in the most global sense, from race to gender to age, at all levels of government, and they want see that diversity reflected in management positions.

7. Do your managers provide ongoing feedback and input to employees?

Millennials want a continual feedback and communication loop with their managers. Millennials were raised with lots of feedback, though most of it has been positive, so they're not used to negative feedback. Managers will need to shift how they provide feedback, being careful not to focus purely on what's wrong and what needs improving but to also spend time highlighting what has gone well.

So, now that you've answered these questions, how does your government or agency stack up? If you were able to answer most of these questions affirmatively, you have a hipster organization. You're cutting-edge and are open to continually improving.

If you answered positively to half of these questions, or you occasionally see your organization doing some of these things, you have a trending organization. With a little more effort, you'll be attracting and retaining those millennials.

If you could not answer most of these questions positively, you have a dated organization. It will be a challenge to shift the culture, but with leadership and commitment it can be done.

For insightful leaders who are willing to take this challenge on, it's worth the effort, and not just for millennials. Baby boomers and the generations that came along after them will still be working in government for many years to come. They too will see the benefits from these changes - even before the influx of millennials.