Managing Four Generations in the Workplace

Managing Four Generations in the WorkplaceA great deal has been written on how companies need to prepare for the knowledge exodus as Baby Boomers retire in droves and for the great shift in the workplace population that will ensue. However, the reality is that Boomers aren’t retiring in the numbers originally expected. In recent years, the average retirement age has steadily been creeping up, and Baby Boomers are expected to push it even higher. (A recent Gallup Poll indicated that 24% of Boomers plan to retire at age 65, with another 49% expecting to retire at 66 or older!) At the same time, Generation X and the Millennials have come into their own as workers (each group currently makes up about 34% of the workforce), and the next generation after them is on the verge of entering the workplace, too.

What does that mean for companies?

Baby Boomers will continue to work alongside their current Generation X and Millennial colleagues and will still be around when Generation Z joins the workforce.

As young and old find themselves sharing the workplace and working next to and with each other more than ever before, senior leaders, managers, and HR professionals need to be prepared to manage a workforce spanning at least four generations with wildly different ideas about work ethic, work/life balance, and long-term career goals, among many other issues.

Adapting to an Age-Diverse Workforce

When managing workers of any age, it’s important to understand their motivations and what rewards they value. After all, “you get what you reward,” as the old saying goes. While younger workers may be gunning to get that next big promotion as quickly as possible, older workers (more than other age groups) typically prioritize an environment in which they’re valued and respected for their knowledge and experience. Older workers often also value a more flexible work environment that requires fewer hours but includes more vacation time and maintains their benefits. (The latter is particularly important to employees near retirement but who aren’t yet eligible for Medicare).

For example, realizing that about 50% of its 18,000 employees would be over 50 by the year 2020 (today that age group Adapting to an Age-Diverse Workforcemakes up about 25% of the workforce), in 2007 German automaker BMW sought advice from the workers on one manufacturing line and numerous “technical experts” on how to redesign the factory floor for an aging workforce. In all, BMW’s “Today for Tomorrow” project led to 70 changes. They included laying new floors, outfitting workers with special shoes, installing easier-to-read computer screens, letting laborers sit instead of stand, and piping in more daylight.

Eventually these and other changes spread through the entire company. By adapting the workplace for an aging demographic, BMW has figured out how to keep its experienced—but aging—workforce around longer, thereby preventing productivity drops caused by en masse retirement. Although the development of these new programs was spurred by concerns about losing experienced workers, it’s yielded policies that have no doubt been appreciated by younger workers, too. After all, those younger workers at BMW will one day (the company hopes) be older workers at BMW.

Companies are also implementing flexibility in their operating policies to provide perks that appeal to workers in various age groups and life situations in order to keep them around longer. For example, organizations that want to keep Generation X employees around often offer benefits that help these employees balance family life with their jobs, such as flextime schedules, more vacation days, parental leave, and telecommuting options. To appeal to Millennials, some companies are targeting that group’s interests by offering them increased job flexibility, rotational assignments, formal mentoring programs, and support for their volunteer efforts. And to keep older workers happy, some company incentives (such as the “snowbird program” at CVS Caremark) let them transfer to stores in other regions on a seasonal basis. The ability to spend the winter months in warmer climates (a big reason for retirement) entices many of those employees to stay with their organizations rather than retire.

These are just a few examples of how companies are coming up with creative—and effective—ways to address the needs of different generations who are in the workplace at the same time. When managing a multigenerational workplace, engaging all employees in a conversation about their needs is the critical first step toward meeting the needs of each demographic. After all, when it comes to motivation and engagement, one size never fits all.

4 Action Items to Breakdown Generational Barriers

In addition to offering programs to attract and retain workers of all ages, it’s important for HR departments to facilitate smooth interactions among the generations. Encouraging employees to ditch blanket generalizations is a good first step. HR can also take several other specific actions.

1) Training

Training is a two-way street: younger managers must learn how to motivate and engage older workers, and more seasoned employees need to learn how best to approach a supervisor who is younger than them. As you design your training programs, keep the following in mind:

  • It is a common misconception among new managers that they must know all the answers from the moment they’re promoted. Teach your junior managers that it’s okay (and expected) for them to consult with their employees. With that information in hand, a manager’s job is to set priorities and goals, then engage employees of all ages on how to reach those goals. Encourage junior managers to seek guidance from senior employees (who may have insight on what works in the organization’s culture) and take advantage of their knowledge and experience to learn and to make better decisions!
  • With older workers, don’t ignore the elephant in the room: have an open discussion about how, regardless of anyone’s age, it can be hard for someone to work for a manager who knows less than he or she does. Teach senior employees how to approach a less seasoned manager to offer suggestions without threatening that person’s authority or making him or her feel unqualified to lead.

2) Accommodation of Different Learning Styles

The Baby Boomers ushered in the era of fax machines, whereas the Millennials grew up with the Internet. Each generation’s experience with technology can shape its different learning styles. So be sure to build training that accommodates multiple learning methods, including in-person, online, and self-paced programs.

3) Reverse Mentoring

When most of us think of mentoring, we typically picture a senior executive helping a more junior employee. This arrangement certainly has its benefits, particularly if an older team member is interested in transitioning to fewer hours. However, reverse mentoring, in which a junior team member helps a more seasoned employee, has its own appeal, too. For example, it can enable older workers to learn the latest trends or technology they need to know to stay current. In any mentoring relationship, be sure to set goals, identify measurable outcomes, and celebrate achievements.

4) Multiple communication methods

Using multiple communication methods is smart business within any team. When big age gaps among team members exist, however, sending messages via several platforms can be especially useful for making sure that everyone gets the same message. IMs, texts, e-mail, written memos—use them all to ensure that you reach all teams via their preferred communication methods.

Summary

MultigenerationalEach generation brings a unique set of skills into the office. Fostering an environment of open communication with understanding and respect for those differences will go a long way toward strengthening a company’s ability to remain competitive in the marketplace. With older generations staying in the workplace and younger generations joining them there, the multigenerational workplace is rapidly becoming the norm, not the exception. So don’t just watch this scenario play out on its own—take action now! A workforce strategy that addresses the presence of different age groups of employees head-on can demonstrate how age diversity (with the differences and similarities it brings) can create stronger companies.

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