The real value of engaging with younger employees

“I started working for Co-op when I was 18, as a Customer Team Member, and now I’m 24 and a Store Manager with a Business Degree.”

Staying ahead of the curve is a challenge all businesses should be focusing on, and who better to contribute to this challenge than your younger employees. As we get older, how we think changes; psychology professors Alison Gopnik and Tom Griffiths have shown that as adults we know more, so consequently we look for solutions that fit with our experiences, ignoring the ‘crazy possibilities’ our younger selves would have imagined.

So, how can you tap into the imaginations of younger employees?

To celebrate International Youth Day, we’re sharing the stories of 24-year-old Della McDonald, a Co-op Store Manager in Huddersfield; and Paul Wrigley, Plant Director at the Kellogg Manchester Plant. Both Della and Paul are involved in initiatives to engage and hear from younger employees.

Della’s Story

Della is part of the Co-op Young Members Group, which brings together younger employees and members to talk to other young people and to develop projects for the Co-op.

The group is involved with co-creating products, campaigns and services, as well as helping to develop strategy, spot trends and naval gaze on what the future might look like. Impressively, this isn’t just a talking shop: the group has a clear role, supported by governance structures and with direct links into the Co-op Exec and Board, the group’s views and expectations have an impact on what the Co-op does.

Here’s Della with more about her experience of being part of the group:

Why do you feel the Co-op Young Members’ Group (CYMG) is important?

Because it supports the Co-op in reaching out to those networks of young people that don’t typically fall on the radar of Co-op. The Co-op is an historic company that is well known among the older generations, but not as well among the young. CYMG helps bridge that gap by bringing the work of Co-op closer to young people and makes it more visible.

We are a group of six young people aged 16-25 from across the UK, but it’s more than just us six, we want to grow our networks and connect with more young people to get involved. We are active on Twitter @cymb so anyone can follow us, find out more or get in touch.

What have you learned so far?

Considering I am a Co-op colleague already, I have learnt more about the business than I could have ever possibly come across working in stores. In stores we’re very much focussed around our local communities and the local causes we support, so we don’t really see the bigger picture, such as the work of Co-op Foundation, or of Co-op Academies; or even down to the role of our elected body, the National Members’ Council, and the part they play in the business and decision-making.

I probably joined the CYMG thinking the positioning for young people here is far worse than it is. The Co-op has made so much headway in the way they do things and involving young people and it hasn’t been a compromise to the way they have done business for all these years. All the work we are doing within CYMG is to help progress this further. I would say that my eyes have been opened to just how diverse the Co-op is: there is a preconceived idea that there’s an older generation of co-operators that are against new ways but that’s not the case! There is so much support internally for the growth and development of the Co-op, it’s inspiring.

For me, adding value to the company I work for was the main goal. I’ve gained so much in terms of my own development and career development from being part of such a great movement, so it seemed only natural to want to give back to that through the CYMG. I feel that if I can be a part of something that in any way helps to progress the co-op movement and makes a difference then I will be happy. I started working for Co-op when I was 18, as a Customer Team Member, and now I’m 24 and a Store Manager with a Business Degree. If I can help even just a close network of young people realise the potential support they can have from such a great organisation and help them to access it  - given there’s so much more now than when I started -  then I would be happy with my first 12 months on the group.

Would you recommend other organisations take the same approach and why?

I would recommend it if their goals are similarly aligned, as there is so much value to be added through bringing together generations of knowledge and skills. Most large organisations have been around a while and were started in a completely different economy, in a time of different tastes and trends. There are still so many aspects of business that will remain traditional too. Bringing the two together can only be good, if it’s embraced by all, so it can be successful for the business.

The Co-op is proof of that: it’s an organisation started by the people for the people. Those people were originally men, but the Co-op also let women join; today, it is a diverse organisation that embraces change and absorbs cultures and trends of all kinds to continue to be there for the people.

From your perspective, do you think businesses need to communicate differently with the new generation of employees?

In my view every business has a new generation of colleagues at some point in their life cycle. If a business communicates in a way it always has without reviewing that approach at all, then it is not embracing those new generations. That is not to say that communication needs to be revamped entirely but, with anything new, there are naturally elements of change and with that change comes adaptation. Communication lands differently with everyone and I think that applies on a generational basis too.

Paul’s Story

As Plant Director of Kellogg Manchester, Paul Wrigley is passionate about hearing from the younger employees at the Plant and has gone as far as to set up a Next Generation Committee. Paul tells us more:

Why did you set the group up?

At the launch of the Kellogg European Supply Chain strategy, there was a lot of discussion about the next generation and how we need to change Kellogg to appeal to future talent. It got me thinking: we already have the next generation on-site in our apprentice team and working in support functions, and we hadn’t really engaged with them as a distinct group that could help us think about and shape our plans for the future. So, we brought together a group of younger employees and gave them a blank piece of paper to explore how they would like to see Manchester Plant change, as well as the rest of Kellogg, and to hear what their needs and aspirations are. Soon afterwards, the European Supply Chain also created a European Next Generation Network.

What have you learned?

They have very different ideas and needs than other generations. Technology is important to them and they like to see change happen fast. It’s surprised me that some of the less obvious aspects, that other groups have become accustomed to, really matter to them, for example: workwear style and quality image.

What have you done differently as a result of what the Next Generation group has said or done?

We are trying to encourage them as a group to manage their own initiatives and find solutions or improvements that they can implement themselves with our support. Here are a few things we are implementing from the Next Gen’s feedback:

  • Email addresses for everyone on site: this is not current standard practice

  • Workwear: they are looking for alternative suppliers and styles

  • Recruitment: for the Apprentice Recruitment this year they suggested a short video to be shared on social media. They came up with the story board, organised the film crew and requested I front it. They provided me with a script and set up a morning of filming to get it done. It’s the best apprentice ad we’ve done!

  • Team building days: to include all Next Gen Members as, currently, only individuals coming through the apprentice route get to do the much-anticipated outward-bound week

The team has carried out a first feedback session with me and I have given them the freedom to tell me how they want to engage with the lead team going forward: monthly, quarterly meetings/discussions, a yammer’s their choice.

Would you recommend other organisations take the same approach and why?

I would say that organisations need to think about how they are designing their communications and engagement plans to respect and consider the different groups they have in their teams. I guess a kind of inclusivity for comms, that respects that different people absorb messages and are reached in different ways. Age is a big factor, as technology now plays an increasing role in how people consume information and data.

My advice would be to talk to your different generations and find out what works for them. Having extra pairs of eyes and ears feeding back what colleagues think and sharing an objective perspective challenges you to try new things, re-evaluate what you do and helps keep up the energy to sustain your communications and engagement plan.

Need help engaging with a particular group of employees? Enthuse Communications specialises in engaging audiences that businesses often find hard to reach. Contact us on for more details: if you provide the coffees, we’ll bring the cakes.


Suze Howell