Employee reviews during manicures: How millennial staffers are changing agency practices

Unlimited vacation days and executive retreats just don’t cut it anymore. Millennials — who now make up the largest share in the American workforce — have a drastically different outlook on what makes for a satisfying work experience.

“There is a big difference between the way employers managed employees 20 years ago versus millennials today,” said Ryan Fey, co-founder and chief brand officer at Omelet. “It goes way beyond competitive compensation, good insurance plans and unlimited vacation to actually listening to what’s going to make them happy and creating programs that meet those desires.”

Agencies are beginning to take note, designing programs with millennials in mind. While these initiatives are available to all employees, agencies hope that they’ll particularly help with retention, which has been especially challenging with job-jumping millennials.

Take Chicago-based Upshot, which overhauled its organizational structure last February. The agency realized that with the advent of digital, having traditional departmental divisions like creative, account and strategy hindered communication and productivity.

So it organized its employees into hybrid teams that brought together specialists from different departments. It also hosted a session where millennial and Gen X employees could discuss the generational differences to foster understanding.

“It’s a different mindset and way of working that plays on the strengths of millennials,” said Ellen Slauson, evp of account management at Upshot. “Instead of telling them how we like to work, we’re giving them the freedom to work how they like to work.”

Others, like Wunderman, are rethinking HR practices. The agency created “YouTime,” a system that encourages managers and employees to discuss goals and accomplishments in informal settings like a manicure or even a dance class, supplementing more structured check-ins and reviews.

“The older structures almost made people feel bad if they wanted to discuss raises and promotion,” said Seth Solomons, CEO of North America at Wunderman. “We are unlearning a lot of those bad habits. YouTime is an open space for them to go ahead and advocate for themselves.”

MXM created a formal recognition program that lets its employees recognize each other for exemplifying MXM values and rewarding them with points that can be redeemed for rewards. So far, nearly 1.2 million points have been sent and 900,000 redeemed. Grey, Ogilvy and Y&R have also incorporated similar programs. MXM said its recognition program boosted its retention rate to 85 percent — an increase of 4 percentage points.

Recognizing that millennials like to work across departments, some agencies also are making it easier for millennial staffers to switch from one to another.

Mullen Lowe in Boston encourages that practice, which has led to a planner moving to creative and people moving from media to PR or events planning. It even has a creative director who also dabbles in account management.

“Given their jungle-gym career trajectories, I believe such a system is definitely a draw for millennials,” said Mullen Lowe’s Kristen Cavallo. “We call these multitaskers our ‘misfit toys’ — not everyone is one, but these people are very often the glue between the different departments.”

Cognizant of millennials’ interest in working globally, Mullen Lowe set up “Mullen Globetrotters,” a program that sends three to four employees to one of the nine global offices of its client, Indeed.

Agencies are also tapping into Gen Y’s interest in social causes. Wunderman has designated “Service Days,” where each office closes for a day to work with a local organization that aligns with its values.

Omelet has its “60/60” program that gives employees 60 minutes twice a week and resources to work on passion projects. It led Omelet to create Save The Drop, a non-profit water conservation campaign with the City of Los Angeles.

Agency executives acknowledged that these initiatives can be hard business decisions, but are important for recruiting and retention.

“It is very important given their size and scale, but also the volume of their voice in the workplace,” said Wunderman’s Solomons.