By 2025, 75% of the global workforce is expected to be made up of people born in 1980 or after. Proactive employers are taking the time to understand what motivates millennials to reach their potential and remain loyal to the workplace. Jemelyn Yadao finds out what the accounting profession can do to nurture younger employees

Work–life balance no longer exists. This is partly thanks to a group of people set apart by their affinity with the digital world, and who currently account for just over 1,7 billion of the global population.

Millennials or Generation Y – the children of baby boomers, typically born between 1980 and 1995, and who joined the workforce after 2000 – have already initiated the new buzz phrase: work–life integration.

These twenty-something-year-old staffers may find it difficult to stay away from checking Facebook posts but they can also be found checking their work emails after hours. ‘If you think about the way millennials work, they don’t focus on one thing at a time, they multitask. They’ll have a phone on one hand, a laptop on their lap, and they’ll probably be carrying on a conversation at the same time,’ says Clare Allum, Tax Talent Leader at EY Asia-Pacific.

‘They are keen to balance their own personal interests in what they do outside the workplace with the workplace. That’s a really important thing that employers need to understand.’

Companies, including accounting firms, are feeling the pressure by millennials to rethink business strategies and to evolve not only because they now constitute the majority – at PwC China and Hong Kong, for example, millennials already make up 86% of its workforce – but also because of the potential skills they offer in today’s fast-changing business environment.

‘Business leaders recognize that millennials are their future workforce and their future leaders. They realise that to have the leadership they need to carry their organisation into the future they must understand and work with millennials in the most effective way possible right now,’ says Jennifer Deal, a senior research scientist and author of What Millennials Want From Work.

Indeed, with many companies shifting towards decentralised structures, there is a growing need for so-called multilayer leaders, which is where skilled millennials come in, says Jungle Wong, Partner, Human Capital Advisory Services at Deloitte China and a member of the Hong Kong Institute of CPAs.

‘Today, usually we have multiple projects going on and people working in small teams on special projects, therefore you need small team leaders who can coordinate people to be very creative to solve problems. That is the potential of millennials.’

However, millennials are churning through jobs faster than previous generations and some companies are struggling to keep up. A recent study by networking site LinkedIn found that millennials change jobs four times in their first decade after graduating college, compared to people who graduated between 1986 and 1990 averaging about 1,6 jobs. In addition, the Deloitte Millennial Survey 2016 showed that 44% of millennials say if given the choice, they would like to leave their current employers in the next two years.

‘They can be really talented, productive, they can be idealistic and loyal, but they are looking for a different style of workplace that older generations don’t necessarily understand,’ says Allum. ‘They’ve got a fundamentally different attitude to work from the generations that have come before them. They don’t see a job as a job for life. They are open to moving on if the job and work don’t suit them, even if they don’t have an alternative role.’

Companies in Hong Kong are finding it difficult to keep them. ‘The top three factors they are looking at are salary and employee benefits, a pleasant working atmosphere and good work–life balance. Companies in Hong Kong don’t actually score well in these areas, with good work–life balance coming in at the lowest position,’ says Natellie Sun, Country Director for Hong Kong at recruitment agency Randstad.


Millennials are often perceived as lazy, entitled and disloyal. The opposite is more accurate, says Deal. ‘The reality is that they are quite hardworking, do believe that they should be able to speak up, and are willing to work hard for their organisation as long as their organisation treats them appropriately.’

Some industries are doing better than others in meeting the needs of millennials, driven by trends affecting companies today such as the rise of technology and shift of economic power from West to East, according to observers.

‘Take for example the technology sector, particularly in China and Hong Kong, and the rise of Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba. Those companies have been able to do a better job than many international and domestic companies on engaging, embracing and retaining the technology- savvy, flexibility-focused individuals more readily and more easily,’ says Ewan Clarkson, Human Capital Partner at PwC. ‘In China, the new emerging entrepreneurs and businesses get it naturally because some of these businesses are set up by millennials themselves. It’s a very different dynamic.’

On the other hand, industries such as accounting and finance have been hard-pressed to attract and keep young talent. ‘There might be a gap between our current HR policies and practices – developed by Gen X and baby boomers – and the expectation of the millennials,’ says Eunice Kwok, Practising Director in charge of human resources, Mazars Hong Kong. This summer, the firm will launch an employee survey to find out the needs of its staff of which 50% are millennials. ‘We have to understand the millennials well and rejuvenate our policies accordingly.’

As a starting point, firms should consider ways to alleviate the negativity revolved around busy season to boost morale, suggest experts. ‘If we take assurance services as an example, how can we shift hours and improve the experience of these millennials during the annual busiest periods we’ve traditionally had for decades?’ asks Clarkson.

PwC, for example, previously invited millennial staff into the assurance executive boardroom to propose ideas as to how they could have a better experience during busy seasons, as part of a programme that aimed at driving organisation-wide behavioural change to maximise interaction and communication between staff at all levels within the assurance practice. This plays into the millennial agenda in terms of transparency and engagement, notes Clarkson. To engage millennials with meaningful work and development opportunities, PwC China/Hong Kong has also set up a shared-services delivery centre in Chengdu for its Mainland office and in Manila for Hong Kong to outsource the hundreds of hours previously spent on everyday transactional work.

Firms acknowledge that their millennials are seeking varied and interesting work. ‘They are tired of doing the same thing again and again. From an HR perspective, we need to think about whether there are any procedures or work that could be outsourced out or whether we can use robotics or AI to produce work. It’s what we call employee experience management so rather than making feel like a worker they feel like a player in the company field,’ says Wong at Deloitte.

A major focus for Allum at EY is on how to ensure that what the tax profession offers ‘makes sense’ to millennials. ‘Tax is a hot media topic at the moment, especially in countries like the United Kingdom, so I think tax has never been a more exciting place to work than it is today,’ she says. ‘There’s this important aspect of tax that no country runs without tax, so if we’re doing our job well, not only are our clients benefiting but we’re also making sure countries are running effectively. Internally, it’s about making sure millennials see that big picture.’

For each specialism, HR should focus on building programmes and processes that put employee experience at the centre, and incorporate jobs that are considered meaningful.

Changing leaders

Making organisations attractive to millennials is a large undertaking. ‘When looking specifically at millennials, and their preference for good work–life balance, it could be tempting to quickly set up flexible work or telecommuting programmes. However, this cannot be a long-term solution,’ says Sun at Randstad.

Keeping them engaged requires a leadership change, meaning alternative leadership competencies, explains Wong at Deloitte. ’Business and communication skills, how you motivate people – those are the traditional competencies. I think you need competencies around whether you are empathetic enough to understand what millennials need and think about how you can help them rather than how they can help you.’

Also, a clear employee value proposition should be defined. A key driver of this is the idea that millennials look for a greater ‘sense of purpose’ and are more interested in how organisations are contributing to the greater good than just money. In response to this need, some firms, including the Big Four, have recently been promoting themselves as purpose-driven and values-based in university campuses, understanding what millennials want.

The talent drive has also forced firms to adopt different work practices and even new services. Deloitte recently launched a new global enterprise crowdsourcing offering to allow crowdsourcing vendors to help develop new services and projects for both the firm and its clients. The new service could help on the recruitment and retention side for firm. ‘How the millennials engage, how they think about their careers, the type of thing they want to do, is very different, and there’s a natural overlay to that and to the evolution of this, to open talent models and other ways in which you deliver projects,’ Deloitte Global Consulting Chief Executive Officer Jim Moffatt told Accounting Today.

At the same time, accounting firm Crowe Horwath announced that it had ditched the traditional annual review process for promoting its people for a system that establishes goals for junior professionals to judge them based on how they’re developing their networks and generating new business.

Changing the performance measurement procedure from being key performance indicator-driven to more result-driven has the potential to influence a change in mindset among the leadership as they will be able to witness positive changes quickly, notes Wong at Deloitte. The firm scrapped once-a-year reviews last year.

‘Change the performance appraiser to a mentor who checks in on the mentee every two weeks. Performance management will become a day-to-day activity and the leadership will see how the results relate directly to retention, to people engagement and business performance,’ he says. ‘We always hear that leaders want to change their people. It’s about how to change yourself before you change your people.’ Nearly 30% of the Institute’s membership are aged 34 or below.


It is difficult to blanket millennials as a monolithic demographic with a common set of behaviours. However, this group are indeed different from prior generations in a number of ways. ‘Unlike the previous generations who work for a living, millennials work for fun, interest or personal pursuits,’ says Eunice Kwok, Practising Director in charge of human resources at Mazars Hong Kong.

Born between 1980 and 1995, millennials want to develop quickly and so are attracted by firms that offer good training schemes and opportunities that can help them move up the career ladder. ‘A clear career path is a crucial factor as it provides visibility of how my career can be developed in the long term. It also allows me to widen our exposure through working with various clients and industries in different projects,’ says Jack Chan, Manager at KPMG China, and a millennial.

Ironically, while variety is critical to millennials’ job satisfaction, employers who offer it to younger staff may still lose talent. ‘It’s difficult to generalise the situation but I think one of the main reasons [for millennials leaving their jobs] is they may have found their real interest or the stream they want to specialise in after participating in different projects,’ says Chan. There are three things that would make Chan stay: ‘People – meeting people from all walks of life and have a big team to work and play with; professionalism – different kinds of projects to work on, which broadens your view and helps build your skills; and non-work exposures – in addition to work, if a company organises corporate social responsibility activities, support and encourage staff to organize and participate in interest groups and sports games, it shows that the company cares about the community and its staff.’

This article is reprinted with permission from the June 2016 issue of A Plus, the official magazine of the Hong Kong Institute of CPAs

This article is reprinted with permission from the June 2016 issue of A Plus, the official magazine of the Hong Kong Institute of CPAs.

Author:  Jemelyn Yadao