Generation gap in the workplace

How to bridge the generation gap in the workplace

Do you have a generation gap in the workplace?

If you have employees on your team ranging from their 20s up through their 70s, you may have noticed a few challenges:

  • Do these colleagues have a hard time relating to each other in conversation?
  • Do they seem to have clashing processes and preferences for getting their work done?
  • Have their differences had a negative impact on their ability to generate complementary ideas and collaborate on projects to completion?
  • Do they struggle to relate to customers of other generations and adapt to their expectations?
  • Are you unable to identify common motivators for your team?

How could your business function better if you could help to bridge the generation gap in the workplace?

First, let’s review the different generations out in the workplace and the years of birth that define them:

Now, let’s examine each generation and explore how to establish a cohesive, high-performing multi-generational team.

What each generation has in common

In order to bridge the gap, we need some tools. Think of formative experiences as the foundation, aspirations as the substructure and communication preferences as the superstructure.

Formative experiences and defining characteristics

What is the background of each generation? What type of life events and upbringing does each group tend to share? How do these events impact each generation?

Knowing these things enables us to understand how each generation enters the workforce:

  • How they approach authority and hierarchy
  • How they interact with managers
  • What their comfort level is with new technologies
  • Which biases and assumptions they tend to carry with them

Here are a few examples.

Baby Boomers:

  • Largest population of war veterans and those who have served in the military in some capacity (among the current workforce); therefore, they appreciate a hierarchical, follow-the-rules culture
  • Hardworking and consumption-oriented, which are reactions to having parents who grew up during the instability and scarcity of the Great Depression
  • Belief that people must pay their dues and that age equates with experience
  • Biggest technology development in their childhood was the widespread use of TVs and phones

Generation X:

  • Grew up watching their parents work hard but perhaps still get laid off due to market or industry shifts
  • The first generation to widely experience what it was like having two parents in the workforce, which earned them the nickname the latchkey kids
  • Independent and self reliant
  • Witnesses to the rise of computers (“digital immigrants”)
  • Bridge between Boomers and Millennials (they aren’t too far from the experiences of either generation and tend to absorb qualities of both, which also makes them very flexible and adaptive)

Millennials:

  • Witnesses to the launch of the Internet, as well as the invention and widespread use of social media (“digital natives”)
  • Ability to see expanded possibilities, as a result of the rapid proliferation of new technologies
  • Open to diversity and inclusiveness
  • Appreciative of a flat, more collaborative structure, as well as the idea that the workforce is becoming more distributed and remote
  • More resistant to authority based on title or age alone – respect must be earned and based on the quality of contributions
  • Willingness to openly share ideas
  • Major news event of their childhood and young adulthood was Sept. 11, 2001

Generation Z:

  • Brand-new to the workforce, which makes them a bit of an unknown entity and a group on which employers need to maintain a pulse (older Gen Zers have graduated from college within the last few years)
  • An extension of Millennials in terms of their openness and appreciation for collaboration
  • All they know is technology (schools often don’t have textbooks, chalkboards or overhead projectors – so this group grew up on computers, smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices, and they’re extremely proficient at using them)
  • Savvy about researching online and gaining access to information, as well as the risks of working online (security issues and fraud)
  • Often less hesitant about messaging complete strangers for information or networking purposes
  • Outlook on work is impacted by the economic downturn of 2008 (the resulting career uncertainty and devastating impact on retirement savings)
  • Traditional outlook on college education is shifting. This generation has seen a boom of people earn millions from creating a personal brand on social media avenues, known as “influencers” ( ie. YouTube, Instagram).

Aspirations

What does each generation largely want out of their current job and overall career?

Baby Boomers:

  • Advancement through hard work and long-term tenure
  • Job security
  • Structure and stability
  • The promise of a pension

Generation X:

  • Mostly the same things as Boomers, but with more work-life balance through flexible scheduling (ex., 9/80 schedule or staggered work hours in which some employees work 7-4, 8-5 or 9-6)

Millennials:

  • To not just exist outside a pre-defined box, but to break the box
  • Everything without sacrifice and in less time: A thriving career, a robust personal life and the capability to travel
  • Remote work and even more flexibility in scheduling – with more of a 24/7, “work when you need to as long as the work gets done” mindset
  • More PTO, including opportunities for paid volunteer time
  • Broader benefits and HR policies that are more holistic to the whole human being
  • Better accommodation of working parents
  • To know that their company is invested in social responsibility (to them, a job is more than a paycheck – it’s an opportunity to contribute to and improve society)
  • To job hop instead of working at the same company (or position) for decades – in fact, this generation fully expects to spend just a few years at a job to learn a certain skill, and then move on to the next opportunity

Generation Z:

  • Mostly the same thing as Millennials, but with greater job security

Preferences for communication media and collaboration platforms

Baby Boomers:

  • Strongly prefer face-to-face or phone communication

Generation X:

  • Engage in face-to-face and phone communication, as well as email
  • Prefer online collaboration (ex., GoTo Meeting or Zoom) over video collaboration (ex., FaceTime or Skype)

Millennials:

  • Communicate using a mix of email, instant messenger (IM) and text
  • Use both online and video collaboration, as well as document-sharing platforms (ex., Google Drive)

Generation Z:

  • Strongly prefer the instant gratification and quick response time of IM and text
  • Strongly prefer video collaboration and document-sharing platforms
  • Haven’t had a strong need for email prior to entering the workforce, so they will have to become accustomed to using email

How to build a high-performing multi-generational team

1. Avoid pigeonholing people

Boomers are dinosaurs who are stuck in their ways.

Millennials are lazy and entitled.

Gen Zers can’t turn on a light switch without the help of technology.

As for Gen Xers – well, everyone forgets about them anyway.

We’re all familiar with the negative stereotypes – and it only hurts team camaraderie to keep perpetuating them.

Managers and colleagues alike must strive to move beyond labels. We need to get to know our team members as individuals worthy of our respect, without any preconceived notions. Managers must work hard to create an environment in which this is a central tenet.

People are much more complex than their age or any other box you try to put them in.

Everyone comes with a unique set of experiences and skills.

In fact, many members of each generation defy the generalizations described above. The average formative experiences, defining characteristics, aspirations and communication preferences for each generation are merely starting points for understanding and empathizing with people who are different from you.

As you dig deeper, you may be surprised at what you learn about your team members.

2. Understand and deploy motivators for each generation

Understanding how your various employees like to be recognized and rewarded by management is critical for knowing how to get the best work out of them.

Money, benefits and family are important to everyone. However, each generation tends to place a slightly different emphasis on these, based on their phase of life and aspirations.

For example, a Baby Boomer on the precipice of retirement may be driven more by money: Salary increases, 401(k) contributions or bonuses.

Conversely, a Millennial’s or Gen Zer’s wants may be more broad and varied: Help repaying student loans or covering costly childcare, or extra time off to spend with family or to travel.

But as we mentioned previously, everyone is unique. For that reason, it’s a great idea to directly ask each of your team members how they want to be recognized and rewarded, either by an online survey or a paper form.

This enables you to meet people where they are, and boost individual employee satisfaction and retention.

Remember to practice transparency and consistency in your intentions and methods. Employees will notice their team members being treated differently.

You should acknowledge that people don’t want to be recognized or rewarded in the same way, so you’re taking certain actions based on disclosed preferences.

3. Identify and leverage the strengths of each generation

In any team, individual differences are strengths.

Members of each generation have something unique of value to offer. You should encourage employees of each generation to not only leverage these skills for the company’s benefit, but to help their team members develop these skills.

For example:

  • Baby Boomers have mastered the art of face-to-face communication. They tend to be keen listeners and more tuned into nonverbal cues. They also understand how to do more without the aid of technology, and deploy creativity and critical-thinking skills when exploring solutions to problems.
  • Generation X has had to learn to become adaptable and nimble. What can they teach their team members about thriving in a constantly changing workplace?
  • Millennials are the early adopters of new technology. They can train other team members on how to use technology and work more efficiently.
  • With extensive experience using social media and a lifetime dependence on technology, Generation Z is adept at maneuvering through the cyber-crowds and connecting with a world that’s larger than your organization. Your team can leverage these skills for mining data to uncover user preferences and gain insight into customers.

4. Implement cross-generational training

Within your team, create a generational sandbox (a safe place for your team to play in and learn).

As a manager, your goal is to provide opportunities for team members to live in a new world for a designated period of time – to perform tasks using a method outside their comfort zone, gain a new perspective for viewing tasks and issues, and confront the strengths and weaknesses of one’s own approach versus others.’

A few ideas for “generation challenges:”

  • Request that your employees forego technology-dependent communications for a day (ex., no IM or email) to engage only in face-to-face communication – and vice versa.
  • Encourage your employees to identify a weakness within themselves they’d like to improve upon, and partner with someone of a different generation who is naturally stronger in that area. (This can be done within immediate teams or cross-functional teams.)

In regard to using different communication media, it’s important for members of each generation to get comfortable using methods outside their regular toolbox.

This will help them avoid struggles going forward into the future and not be so reliant on any one method.

  • As the workplace becomes more dispersed and virtual, Baby Boomers and some Gen Xers may find it a challenge to adapt and maintain relevance if they don’t become well versed in newer communication technologies.
  • Millennials and Gen Zers – who think nothing of texting phrases such as LOL or IDK, or who are accustomed to posting in 180 characters or less on Twitter – may require coaching in adopting a more traditional, grammatically correct writing style for the workplace. For older generations, digital shorthand is not only unprofessional, but it may as well be hieroglyphics.
  • Millennials and Gen Zers might also need to practice speaking to people face to face and learn the art of patience. By over-relying on technology to communicate, they risk losing the human element in the workplace. Instead, it’s important to understand and appreciate the richness of face-to-face communication and the art of delayed gratification.
  • All generations need to work on understanding which communication media are optimal for specific situations.

Summing it all up

To successfully bridge the generation gap in the workplace, and maintain harmony and productivity within your team, you must be attuned to the drivers, preferences, aspirations, and strengths and weaknesses of each generation.

Be intentional about helping your team members to abandon negative stereotypes, recognize the value that different generations bring and be humble enough to seek out training from others when needed.

For more information on how to help your team work better together despite the differences of individuals, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.

The Insperity Guide to Leadership and Management, Issue 2
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