Tackling the Challenges of the Multigenerational Workforce

Workplaces have always had multiple generations working side by side. There’s the fresh-faced younger generation of newcomers, the established middle generation that holds most of the management roles and the older generation of senior executives who are 30 or 40 years into their careers. Each of these distinct age groups comes with their own generational differences, which can cause some friction among colleagues and bosses.

The modern workplace is no different than those of years past, with Generation Y, Generation X and baby boomers all coexisting in the same office. But as more boomers work past retirement age, and tech-savvy millennials continue to graduate and enter the workforce, the stark differences in the values, communication styles and work habits of each generation are becoming increasingly pronounced.

With post-millennials— known to some as Generation Z — quickly approaching college age, the next generation will be joining the ranks of working professionals within the next few years — meaning that a four-generation office will soon become the new norm. Leaders must be ready to take on the challenge of integrating newer workers while still respecting the seniority and experience of older ones.

“As new generations join the workforce, there is a period of adaptation that’s required on both ends,” said Rich Milgram, CEO of career network Beyond.com. “New talent needs to respect and assimilate, while established talent needs to adjust and remain flexible. Companies should challenge their employees to rise above [generational differences], think outside their comfort zone and tackle problems together.”

How can leaders make a multigenerational workplace more productive, efficient and harmonious? Here are the biggest challenges that have come out of the modern work environment, and how to deal with them head-on.

Communication style

The difference in preferred communication styles between older and younger generations has almost become a cliché. Generation Y sends text messages, tweets and instant messages to communicate, while baby boomers and older Gen Xers tend to prefer phone calls and emails. Throw in the fact that younger workers tend to use abbreviations, informal language and colloquialisms, and you’ve got a recipe for serious communication breakdowns.

“In some instances older workers have been accustomed to communicating, particularly to senior management, with much more formality,” said Dana Brownlee, founder of training and management consulting firm Professionalism Matters. “They may equate this formality in communication with respect. When they’re not [given] the same formality [in communications], they may misinterpret this as a lack of respect.”

Brownlee recommended that leaders and employees make a concerted effort to communicate with their colleagues in the ways each person prefers. Bringing staff members of different generations together for face-to-face team-building exercises and ice breakers can help break down some of the barriers that can occur with digital communications, she said.

Negative stereotypes

Lazy. Entitled. Tech obsessed. Over eager. These are just a few of the terms that come to mind for many older workers when they think of millennials, and this generation is well aware of the stereotypical ideas they’re up against. But Milgram pointed out that Gen Y isn’t alone: baby boomers may be perceived by younger workers as difficult to train and stubbornly set in their ways.

“Overcoming existing stereotypes is hard,” Milgram told Business News Daily. “It takes a conscious effort to distinguish your own talents and not let preconceived notions do that for you. Workers need to match their vision of success with the work ethic that it will take to get there — meaning a willingness to go beyond what’s expected.”

Leaders can help the situation by actively looking for and intervening when there’s a dysfunction in the workplace caused by misunderstandings and generational judgments, said Joyce Maroney, director of the Workforce Institute at workforce management solutions provider Kronos.

“Older workers’ experience is valuable, but can also become an obstacle if they rely on “been there, done that” attitudes that preclude new ideas,” Maroney said. “Younger workers’ enthusiasm and willingness to try new things need to be encouraged, but also channeled. They may not have the perspective to understand all the costs and risks associated with the opportunities they wish to pursue.”

Cultural expectations

As the typical workplace evolves to keep up with changing technologies and mobile work trends, a consequent shift in cultural expectations has also occurred. This can be an especially jarring transition for older workers, who are used to having performance measured by the number of hours spent at their desk.

“For many younger managers, time spent in the office is not as vital as the results you produce,” said career expert Kerry Hannon in an article she wrote for AARP. “Yourwell-honed work ethic of being an early bird at your desk might not impress. Teleworking tends to be looked on more favorably, especially if you can get more work done by not cooling your heels in rush-hour commutes.”

On the other end, Generation Y values and expects a healthy work-life balance.

“Younger workers are more likely to come from families where both parents were working, and therefore place a greater premium on work-life balance,” Maroney said. “Their older co-workers may have expected to sacrifice a lot of their personal time to the job. Having seen parents lose their jobs despite their loyalty, [millennials] are looking for jobs where they can have a life outside of work.”

For leaders, a good way to approach this issue is to allow individuals to work in the style that’s best for them and acknowledge the efforts of each team member, regardless of their work style.

“Everyone wants recognition for the work they do, access to the resources they need and feedback that is delivered in an appropriate way,” said Paige Graham, a core faculty member at the University of the Rockies. “Honor each person’s contribution to the group and acknowledge each individual’s need for affirmation.”

For real progress to occur in the multigenerational workforce, flexibility and openness on the part of every age group is critical.

“Each generation brings their own set of skills and cultural norms,” Milgram said. “A successful office should be a melting pot of different generations, personalities and talent, all coming together toward a common goal. That is the only way a company will ensure they are bringing fresh perspectives to oftentimes common problems.”

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