ONS statistics show that millennials (born between 1980 and the early 2000s) will make up 50% of the global workforce within the next 3 years. They are the future of professional services firms, and with new generations comes change, and new ideas.
A study conducted by PwC concluded that all of its employees, regardless of their age, were not happy with the firm’s attitude towards work-life balance. However, it’s millennials who speak up about the problem. This example demonstrates a wider trend; compared to older generations, millennials are more likely to highlight a problem within a firm—whether that be structural, operational, or strategic—and are willing to make changes to increase efficiency.
At Kennedys Law, employees stretch in age from 17 to 77, and range in seniority from apprentices to senior partners. “The biggest difference is young people’s ability to engage with technology—it over- rides everything. It has not overtly affected their communication skills or face to face relationships, but young people are as comfortable communicating through technology as they are verbally,” says HR director Caroline Wilson.
"It’s a bit of a myth that older people communicate better than younger people, they’re just more experienced."
“If you turn back the clock, the 77-year-old at 25 would face similar challenges as 25-year-olds do today. They’re new to the business world, are not as adept at presenting verbally, and it takes experience to be able to do that,” she says. “It’s a bit of a myth that older people communicate better than younger people, they’re just more experienced,” she says.
And even if young people do have a shorter concentration span, they’re able to focus on several things at once, suggesting multi-tasking comes naturally. “Keeping their world varied and making sure they are challenged is the most important thing to do, so that they don’t get bored,” says Wilson. “They’re doing junior work because that’s where you start in any business. However, we need to make sure we’re helping them move up as quickly as they are able, rather than holding them back, because they appear to be bored with the routine and mundane.”
Wilson’s focus is to ensure Kennedys embraces what different generations bring to the work place. “Long term, it will be dangerous if we don’t. We won’t have the next generation working for us,” she says.
Although there may be some differences between generations, research from ZS (formerly Hay Group), shows that these have been exaggerated. Instead, the salient factor is how young people’s careers are managed. “People coming into the workforce are often very optimistic and have very positive experiences, and those attitudes gradually decline over time until the middle stage of their career, when they start to increase again,” says Tania Lennon, head of the Talent Assessment and Leadership Expertise Centre at ZS.
Lynda Gratton—writing in her book The 100 Year Life—says the assumptions we make around investing heavily in the early stages of career and education, then building up financial assets no longer apply. Instead, people want to do things differently. “We are already seeing that individuals are making broader choices, not just in terms of pay but wanting to have a wider range of life experiences,” says Lennon. “Yet many of the systems and processes organisations use are still mired in the assumption of a job for life and controlling the individual’s career and development in the way they used to. This needs to change.”
This includes the desire for work to be meaningful and challenging, with high levels of freedom and autonomy. ZS’s research shows the need for opportunity to progress and develop is consistent across all generations, not just millennials.
Traditionally, performance management is based on assessing past performance, rather than determining future performance and potential. Organisations that are getting it right tend to be start-ups, whose greater degree of creativity and sense of purpose attracts younger people.
However, progress isn’t limited to smaller firms. Deloitte is changing its performance management system, with less emphasis on control and past performance, and more on development, although, “I don’t feel that has yet fully entered the way they manage projects which is, of course, the path of professional services and typically has greatest impact on people because it is where they spend most of their time,” says Tania Lennon.
Amazon, Google, Accenture, Adobe, and Netflix have also replaced rating and ranking systems with more fluid, ongoing, and real-time feedback.
“When it comes to differentiating your business from the competition, company culture is key to attracting and retaining the best talent,” says Michael Page’s UK Regional Talent Director, Beverley Nicholas. “Employees increasingly expect companies to be more open, honest, and transparent about their vision, purpose, and values—all of which contribute to an organisation’s culture.
“With talent in high demand and a greater variety of jobs on the market, candidates can afford to be more selective when searching for their next employer. They are considering whether they share the same values as a business and whether they will thrive in their culture.”
Kennedys is responding to this by aiming to be “a better working place for all generations”. They're about to launch a transparent bonus scheme for lawyers. “In the autumn, we are introducing a continuous review process and we are looking at doing spot recognition rather than an annual bonus in line with that,” says Wilson. Kennedys’ onboarding process has had a makeover as well, using an extranet to allow newcomers to get a good feel for the organisation and to do compliance training before they arrive, leaving the first day free for meeting people and doing work.
These dynamic changes in the marketplace bring into question the proficiencies that will be required in the professional services environment of the future. “How to communicate effectively, influence, and solve problems to make impactful decisions are critical aptitudes to have,” says Beverley Nicholas.
“It is important for businesses to understand the difference between the acquisition of knowledge and the development of skills; you might know a sales structure but if you are unable to implement and use it effectively, you have the knowledge but don’t know how to apply the skill.” She also says employers have a responsibility to invest in personal development programmes that help staff to adapt to advances in technology and provide them with training in presentation proficiencies, problem-solving, etc., so that they can continue to interact successfully with their customers.
Alongside interpersonal skills, judgment is essential in professional services: “Clients are paying for those competencies and the ability to combine them with a breadth of perspective, an innovative view, and an ability to forecast,” she says. Technology is not a threat, but the ability to use it creatively will be required. For example, AI can assist a firm in recruitment but should be used with care. Senior managing director of Michael Page, Doug Rode says: “Company fit is often a big deciding factor in the hiring process – does this person share the values or passions of the team and have a similar work ethic or will they cause unnecessary tension?”
“AI can help find a great candidate match from the outset—for example, automatically scanning CVs for desired keywords and filtering applications accordingly. At interview stage, AI can also be used to help eliminate some of our natural unconscious bias and preconceived ideas about where we might find the best resources to open up a wider talent pool,” he says. “However, using more sophisticated forms of AI as part of the assessment criteria can be counterproductive. Businesses risk coming up with one profile they think works for them and assessing all new candidates against it. The result would be a company culture in which everyone thinks, acts and works the same—a clone workforce. “To be successful, companies need variety, so using AI to strike the right balance between like-minded and diverse is key to cultivating a productive working culture.”
All evidence points to the fact that for many firms, old workplace structures are in need of change. This is largely driven by the fact that more young people are entering professional services firms and are recognising archaic, inefficient systems. While it’s clear that these inefficiencies are recognised across the workforce, it’s the younger generations who are driving change.
"People are the drivers of innovation, new ideas, and new working structures, envisioning the broader future of the firm."
Firms are finding that if they refuse, or are slow to adapt to changing demands, millennials are simply leaving, and as more and more young people enter the workforce, demand for change will only grow. In response to this, some firms are starting to invest more in flexible working, and a more transparent work structure—something all generations have called for. In turn, firms are seeing greater commitment from all staff and increase in productivity. While more firms are integrating technological advancements such as AI in a variety of applications, they must ensure they do not neglect to invest in their people.
Technological advancements are undoubtedly important to drive growth; however, these advancements shouldn’t be solely relied upon. A firm’s greatest asset is its people. Technology can only get a firm so far, but people are the drivers of innovation, new ideas, and new working structures, envisioning the broader future of the firm.