Reinventing Work: Vietnam’s Millennials

By: Keely Burkey

A native of the Philippines with decades of working experience in Manila's hyper-competitive advertising world, 38-year-old creative director Maria* is used to straight-talk. She gave me a taste of this as we discussed one of the hottest issues in the working world: millennials in the workplace — roughly those born between 1980 and 2000, also called Generation Y.

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Compared to the awards-driven ad world Maria was used to, some would think Vietnam’s equivalent, still in a nascent stage, would be a breeze. However, the HR world usually has her against the ropes.

Discussing one recent acquisition to her department, Maria tells me, “She was good, she was fresh. [...] I hired her because of her plates in school. She has a free mind, she can work without a brief, and she has lots of ideas.”

It’s this hunger and creativity that Maria wants more than anything, and it’s precisely this that she sees lacking in the millennial workers she works with today.

A Nebulous Definition?

Millennial workers have come in force into the workplace and are here to stay. A recent Forbes article, for example, predicts that by 2030, 75 percent of the workforce will be millennials. Even today, depending on the industry or company, as much as 95 percent of the workforce might come from this generation.

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As digital natives, the way millennials work is markedly different from older generations. What are some of the defining characteristics of this generation, and how does it affect the workplace?

Jeremy Maman, Business Development Strategist at Green Digital and Co-Founder of the soon-to-be-released UpUp App, has made understanding the millennial worker (he is one himself) his bread and butter. The first hallmark of this group? A heavy reliance on technology, which many young workers use as the primary means of communication. “Everyone is on their smartphone and social media,” he said.

On a broader level, a millennial worker’s outlook, both on their job and life as a whole, is something quite new. “They expect more,” Maman shrugged. “They expect more from the manager, and they want to make a bigger impact on the company.”

Tran Thi Thu Trang, the human resource manager for CMC Saigon Integration Co., Ltd., notes that many of her younger employees care much more about a work-life balance than she’s seen in older generations. “They have more choices in work and life,” she said via email. “A company can’t [expect to] retain them if they’re not giving them new opportunities to get more benefits and higher positions.”

For many HR representatives and managers across Vietnam, this mix between a hyper-technological, multitasking working style and a more demanding, ambitious outlook has created a unique challenge for businesses. In a nutshell, Maman says: “They want to feel free, but they still want to [make] an impact in the company.”

Diagnosing the Disengaged

The contrast between the traditional work model — one that emphasises company loyalty, hard work and little recognition — and the new millennial worker has, so far, produced less-than-stellar results. A recent Gallup poll, for example, states that a staggering 87 percent of employees worldwide are not currently engaged.

Many are quick to disparage the millennial generation for not adhering to traditional workplace mores (“They’re proud of themselves, not of the work,” Maria laughed), and it’s easy to see why.

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For Maria, used to the traditional work-all-night-to-meet-deadlines approach, the emphasis on a work-life balance, mixed with a lack of loyalty to any one company, can have disastrous consequences for a company’s creative output.

“This is what frustrates me,” she said. “You hire someone. You train them. They get to be who you want them to be. And then they quit and you have to retrain people.”

The question becomes how to keep employees engaged and happy while also getting the necessary results.

Traditionally, this might have been a pay rise or a title promotion every couple of years. With the increase of social media and instant gratification, however, the rules of the game have changed. “Millennial employees right now are more motivated by benefits; they want rewards more than a pay raise,” Maman reasoned.

And if they feel like they’re not getting what they want from one company, many can rest assured that another company will embrace them with open arms.

Top-Down Solutions

Solutions to this problem, however, aren’t as clear-cut as they may seem. Rather than trying to train employees to become happy with a traditional workplace model, Maman says the problem lies more with the managers than the employees. “When the employees don’t feel engaged, it means the leader, the manager also feels disengaged.”

For managers and HR department heads alike, it comes down to how millennial workers are treated by their superiors, and everyone has their own tips of the trade.

For Trang Tran, it’s about relating to young employees with technology: “Businesses should invest in information technology systems to maximise Gen Y’s passion and potential,” she wrote.

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For another human resource professional, My, it’s about providing mentorship rather than cut-and-dried management. “We need to be stronger people as managers who are able to coach these young people, be able to show them what their areas of development are and explain their development plans and milestones.”

For Maria, it’s all about a mixture of friendship and authority. “My advice? Have them love you. I’m playing the mother all the time, so I get that devotion, I get that love.” And what if there’s an imminent deadline? “They’ll do it if you’re scary enough. It’s a mix of that — love, and being scared.”

A Whole Different Approach

While many businesses in HCMC focus on management styles to engage their young proteges, Maman and his business partner have devised an entirely different approach to engaging millennial employees and hitting company targets: the UpUp App.

This new business model embraces the technology-driven workforce through its user-friendly, gamified interface. As Maman explained, a manager can set a goal and provide “checkpoints” that the worker must fulfill along the way.

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As employees input accomplishments in real time, they accrue points, which they can then turn in for awards like coupons for restaurants, hotels and even travel tickets.

Think GrabBike’s promotional awards, but for your work.

The app is due to be launched in September, and Maman hopes that this instant-reward set-up will engage employees where traditional work models have fallen short. Maman sees it working particularly well for industries like sales and marketing, where goals are clearly and easily defined.

Maria, a self-titled “old-school” manager, sees things differently, especially when it comes to creativity. “When I ask people a question, here’s the go-to method of answering it: open Google; find inspiration; twist it slightly; hand it in.” For her, the problem lies within the literal box, and her job is to encourage her employees to explore outside of it.

“I tell them, ‘Come on, let’s take a walk. Let’s have a conversation.’ I try to get them to be comfortable and try to dissuade them from [the computer] being their default. I try to encourage them that experiences are better; seeing things is better.”

And the results? Only time will tell.

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