Multi-generational workplaces

There are challenges, but they are far outweighed by the benefits


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This is the first time in American history that it’s not unusual to have four, sometimes five, generations working side by side. It has caused a good deal of disruption, except in organizations where it is viewed as an opportunity rather than a problem.

Is it challenging? Yes. However, consider the spectrum represented: new ideas as well as institutional wisdom; technological comfort as well as informational depth; and a workforce that understands customers of all ages. If you have a variety of generations represented, together they embody one perfect person. But there are perceived generational differences:

1. The perception is that the younger generation does not have a strong work ethic. That’s not true, but they often do work differently. They may be less inclined to be on site and more comfortable communicating via technology rather than in meetings. And they’re more in tune with work/life balance, in part because they may have watched their parents put in 130 percent and rather than get the gold watch, be downsized.

2. There is concern about how tasks are approached. Veteran employees have often been characterized as being process-oriented, while younger generations are more inclined to be results-focused. While the latter may focus on high productivity, they may be happier with the flexibility of completing a task at their own pace and managing their own time, as long as they get the job done right and by the deadline.

3. Loyalty toward employers has been found to decrease generationally — the younger the generation, the less loyal they appear to be. Changing jobs is no longer considered negative. Organizational values also play a larger role in retention because cultural compatibility is integral to job satisfaction.

4. How respect is shown toward authority can be confusing to older employees. Mutual respect is expected among younger people. They’re more comfortable with authority figures and are not impressed with titles or intimidated by them.

But let’s go beyond the perceptions:

1. Cross-generational communication is productive when managers and team leaders take steps to bring the generations on to common ground. If blended into functional work teams, older and younger workers can share knowledge and collaborate on devising strategies, developing new processes and handling service issues. This kind of close collaboration cultivates understanding, trust and respect.

2. Curious employees can be urged to embrace new and helpful communication tools and explore shared interests.

3. Bonds are created through workplace affinity groups that come together around common denominators like background and philosophies. Anything that encourages meaningful communication and connection between employees of all ages benefits the organization.

4. Employee surveys may bring out the sticking points. If used, they must be responded to and addressed within a short time. People need to be heard. They don’t need to be right.

5. Innovative workplace practices allow flexibility in where and when work is done without career or benefit penalties. Cross-generational discussion about this leads to acceptance.

6. If possible, finding ways to offer more choices in benefits addresses the diverse preferences of employees.

7. Communicating in multiple ways to respond to generational differences and learning styles takes into account comfort levels with technology, as well as face-to-face or print communication.

8. Offering training programs that help employees understand and respect differences among the generations is not only fascinating, it also saves time and money in the long run.

9. Peer mentorship offers opportunities for networking among employees of all ages. The result of teaching one another is increased skill and mutual respect.

10. Capitalizing on, rather than resisting, various social orientations and team preferences encourages people to do what they do best. For instance, making use of those who can multitask and those that require singular focus encourages colleagues to help one another.

11. Really listening to one another leads to acceptance. When we say we don’t have time, we need to ask if we have time not to, because time taken now, saves time in the long run.

12. Consider the success that one company had when they designated the last three months of tenure be devoted to the retiring employee sharing institutional wisdom. They found that younger people starting seeking the advice of the soon-to-be-exited person, while the retiree appreciated what the newest professionals had to offer. 

Gerri King, Ph.D., is president of Concord NH-based Human Dynamics Associates, is the author of “The Duh! Book of Management and Supervision: Dispelling Common Leadership Myths.” She can be reached through www.gerriking.com.

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