The need to truly engage employees in their work has been gaining traction among companies. But management hasn’t figured out how to do it well. And the constant inflow of millennials into the workforce will make that job harder for many employers still struggling to understand what makes this generation tick.

Those are some of the findings and conclusions from a TalentKeepers engagement study entitled “Workplace America.” It’s the firm’s 10th annual study, and, as it notes, worker engagement continues to rise in the corporate consciousness. Survey responses from more than 700 interviewees indicated that 83 percent of companies represented consider engagement a strategic priority.

“A solid majority of American employers, 64 percent, now budget and allocate funds specifically for engagement,” said Christopher Mulligan, TalentKeepers CEO. “But too few, only 23 percent, calculate the financial cost of attrition and poor engagement, a basic building block to sizing the problem and determining budgets and assessing ROI for future planning.”

So although employers recognize the importance of engagement and spend money to make it happen, they aren’t really willing to take a hard look at the cost of turnover — or, as TalentKeepers calls it, of “poor engagement.”

And, with the job market expected to grow by at least 10 percent in 2014, more employees will soon have the option of leaving a dissatisfying job to try their luck elsewhere. None are more likely to do so than millennials.

“Millennials are extremely hard-working and can be incredibly productive. But they are more mobile than other generations,” Mulligan said. “They will tend to job-hop more often.

“Partly it’s because they saw their parents get downsized out of jobs they’d held for years. The message from their parents was, ‘Build a personal toolkit of experiences and skills and be flexible in considering a career that would encompass a number of organizations.’ That lesson changed their outlook on their career courses.”

Millennials question everything

According to the study, 13 percent of all new hires leave their jobs in the first 90 days, with another 26 percent departing on or before their first anniversary. With nearly four in 10 new hires gone after their first year, most companies are spending more time screening and orienting candidates rather than finding out what might make them stay longer.

When it comes to millennial hires, the situation can be even more frustrating.

Millennials expect to be listened to and to be heard by their employers. Otherwise, they’ll walk.

“Millennials have distinct preferences about their work. They are unique and very different from Gen Xers and baby boomers,” said Mulligan. “They are very hard-working if you enable them to thrive. But managers need to know what makes them tick and what their hot buttons are.”

Yet most employers have no specific management training track that focuses on working successfully with millennials. And those that do make an effort to address the issue in training generally fail at it, TalentKeepers said.

“Millennials question everything,” Mulligan said. “They want to understand why they have to do certain things a certain way. A manager can’t just say, ‘Because that’s how we do it.’ You need to explain why the processes and policies have been created as they are, and be open to millennials asking if something can be done in a different way if it achieves the same objective.”

For millennials, the overall workplace environment trumps the relationship with their boss in terms of job satisfaction. The days of “People quit bosses, not jobs,” are over, at least for the younger workers. They are looking for feedback, they want to be involved in the process of their jobs, and they want to know what success looks like and how they can advance in the company.

No work-life balance

Understanding their attachment to social networks is imperative for successfully managing this generation, Mulligan said. They stay connected to their social network day and night, and they will bring their social networks with them to work, because they never leave them behind.

“What managers of millennials need to understand is that they integrate work and non-work in a different way,” Mulligan said. “Their idea of work-life balance is different from other generations. They bring their life to work and work to their home.

“They may well be checking work email at 1 a.m. It would be a mistake to assume that, because someone is checking online sources like Facebook and Twitter during the day, that it isn’t work-related. They get the information they need to do their jobs online. They don’t read the Wall Street Journal.”

Mulligan advises employers of millennials to embrace their social networking and build on it to create an environment in which they can thrive. “You can provide them with a social network at work. If you don’t, they’ll invent their own,” he said.

Companies that, with the input of these young workers, establish social networks will reap the rewards. Something as simple as an internal blog, a lively company Facebook page or Twitter campaigns will engage millennials.

“Integrating ‘social media’ technology into the workplace offers enormous potential for learning and training, communication and networking, group problem solving through crowdsourcing, and more,” said Craig Taylor, a TalentKeeper vice president and principle author of the study.

Embrace social networks

TalentKeeper ranks companies by Best-in-Class and “all other” based upon the self-reported engagement practices disclosed by respondents. Its survey uncovered a wide gap between the Best-in-Class and the rest when it came to using social media and networks in the workplace.

“Social networks, both internal and external are being leveraged by 53 percent of the Best-in-Class organizations and 20 percent of all other companies in the U.S.,” the study said. “When participants in this study were asked what the ‘Next Big Thing’ will be in employee engagement, one of the most frequent responses was ‘Social media integration.’”

But if just one in five “all other” employers are willing to embrace social networks, the outlook isn’t good for engaging the millennials they hire and hope to keep around.

“Unfortunately, even simple strategies are going largely ignored with 96 percent of respondents not planning on providing ‘opportunities for social interaction’ as a strategy to engage employees,” Taylor said. “Great success has been demonstrated in marketing and recruiting using social media to celebrate and advertise corporate culture. However, it is virtually non-existent in plans to be used with current employees for 2014, with only 2 percent of organizations planning on using it as a strategy to engage employees.”

Remote, but staying engaged

In addition to what happens in the workplace, employers need to pay attention to how they interact with workers who don’t regularly come to the office or job site.

Millennials embrace technology, and as a result, are comfortable — and may even prefer — remote working situations.

Other research has shown that most organizations today employ workers who work outside the office at least once a week. Many now have employees who never come to the office. Yet when it comes to engagement, these employees might as well be on the moon.

“Of those organizations that have virtual/remote employees, 28 percent have no initiatives to engage them, and if they do, those efforts are ineffective,” the study said.

Mulligan said the key to engaging remote workers is recognizing they need the same communications that onsite workers have.

“Remote workers, especially millennials, want to come in every once in a while to maintain those relationships and connections,” he said. “They want to be connected to the company, to be in the know on what’s happening. Management needs to provide them good access by planning webinars, for instance, maybe once a week for remote workers. You need to give them opportunities for networking, learning what’s happening in the organization, having that connection to the organization.”

Asked to what managers of millennials could take to improve workplace conditions for them, Mulligan offers these:

  1. Provide more of the “why” behind policies and procedures, offer more justification for why things are done the way they are.
  2. Be flexible whenever possible. Don’t say “No, we can’t,” but “Let me see if we can.”
  3. Be adaptable. Each one of the Gen Y employees on a team will have different hot buttons – and good leaders need to adapt to those hot buttons.