The Challenges and Benefits of the Multi-Generational Workplace

The Challenges and Benefits of the Multi-Generational Workplace

Gerri King, Ph.D.

Imagine a gathering where people speak different languages, come from a variety of cultures, and see the world through diverse lenses.  Consider that multi-generations in an organization might replicate that situation. 

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.

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% 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, i.e. the younger the generation, the less loyal they appear to be. Changing jobs is no longer considered negative. In fact, not doing so may be perceived as lacking ambition. 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. They find it natural to interact with their superiors and to ask questions, which is not seen as a sign of disrespect. 

What we know. 

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, for example, 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. Lunch discussions focused on shared interests in books, sports, travel, and music are not just for fun because they result in building the team. 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.  They need their say, they don’t need their way, but they do need to know why they didn’t get their way.  It is the latter that is often ignored.

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 such as health care coverage and retirement accounts 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. At the very least, it explains a lot.

9.  Peer mentorship offers opportunities for networking among employees of all ages.  The result of teaching one another is increased skill and mutual respect.  It is said that a mentor can provide wisdom minus the pain of acquiring it. 

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. Again, diversity is the basis for a functional whole. 

11. Listening to one another - really listening – 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.  And, finally, consider the success that one company had when they designated the last 3 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.  The result was that those remaining heard what happened and began perceiving generational differences as an asset rather than an annoyance.   

Gerri King, Ph.D., president of Concord NH-based Human Dynamics Associates, is a social psychologist, organizational consultant and 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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