The multi-generational workplace is here

Baby Boomers? Millennials? Gen X? Alistair Shepherd has ideas for the generations working together.

By 2020, most companies will have four or five generations working side by side. These are individuals often with fundamentally different experiences that can lead them to communicate differently, and value different things in the workplace. Regardless of whether HR and L&D leaders embrace this shift in diversity or not, addressing this change presents a challenge.

Generally speaking, we often see misunderstandings between the generations, with one generation blaming another for all the problems in the world.

But actually, if we put aside surface level differences, there’s quite a lot of common ground. The Harvard Business Review reported that the various generations all have the same basic desire – to do meaningful work. However, their definition of meaningful work may be different.

Find a common purpose

As an example, baby boomers tend to be slightly more goal-oriented in their purpose. For generation X, accomplishing career goals is a key component of meaningful work. They also focus much more on maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Millennials, on the other hand, are driven by company culture, values and having a purpose at the workplace as well as how they get along with their coworkers.

While each group’s working style may be different, they all intrinsically have the same desire – to do something meaningful.

Keeping these varied outlooks in mind, what can organisations do to create purpose and make the workplace meaningful for all employees involved? The answer lies in effective team-building. HR, L&D and team leaders need to step in and take an active role in developing their teams, instead of focussing solely on business outcomes.  

Consider the above example of meaningful work and adapt that to your strategy on teamwork. While each group’s working style may be different, they all intrinsically have the same desire – to do something meaningful. There are many techniques you can incorporate to ensure your teams are motivated to perform at their best.

If you can agree to this common purpose within the team, their working styles and processes can flow from here. The way you can leverage this, for instance, is through a discussion between the team members.

Whether conducted anonymously or openly, allowing the different generations to give a clear view of what motivates them and how they would define the team’s purpose, lays the groundwork for a well-functioning team. Once a shared purpose is established, it becomes easier to agree on actions. Each action can be based on the question ‘does this align with our purpose?’.

Goal-setting across the generations

Effective goal-setting can help improve employee engagement and elevate overall performance, and these need to be tailored appropriately.

Vishen Lakhiani, author of ‘The Code of the Extraordinary Mind’ breaks goal setting down across the generations. Baby boomers tend to want recognition for the effort they make. They are not afraid to work, but want to be appreciated. When setting goals with them, it is useful to allow them to feel that they will get some status from it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a promotion, but they need to feel relevant.

Gen X generally value their independence and want to feel in control of their lives. As mentioned before, work life balance is important for them. One way of setting goals for them is through empowerment.

Make them accountable for the results, but give them flexibility in the delivery. Help them to define clear goals that are measurable and time based, and don’t need to be micromanaged. Trust them to deliver but hold them accountable to it.

Millennials seek challenges and value experiences that enrich their lives. Help them set goals where the results get them excited. Give them mentors and autonomy to manage on their own. Mentors can come from the baby boomers and autonomy can be guided by the gen X group. Allow them to experiment, but remember to hold them accountable for the results.

Establish team norms

Working as a team to formally define norms can have positive benefits for the team as well as your company. A set of agreed behaviours can provide both control and security within relationships. Norms also build trust, accountability and responsibility.

A norm can be anything from what time to arrive at the office, to how to behave during a meeting, or how the team makes decisions. Let’s look at an example of dress code: What is the appropriate dress code for the office? Baby boomers may very well believe that a suit and tie is the only option. Millennials on the other hand may insist on a t-shirt and a pair of jeans.

A set of agreed behaviours can provide both control and security within relationships. Norms also build trust, accountability and responsibility.

Let the team decide on a norm that they’re most comfortable with, something that satisfies all parties through open communication and discussion. The conversation isn’t always going to be straightforward, but once you all agree, you will have a team that’s secure in what is acceptable and what is not.

Policies should really be there to support employees in doing meaningful work, not get in the way or serve as a set of arbitrary rules for the sake of giving management a sense of control.

Leverage available technologies

According to a recent Gallup report, 87% of millennials value professional development and career growth as very important to them. HR and team leaders need to facilitate learning experiences that foster engagement and support autonomous working.

New developments in tech, such as AI-powered chatbots, democratise team development in a completely new way. For the first time ever, digitised coaching is available to all employees, not only to members of the c-suite.

Cross generational team members might have different experiences and motivations, but ultimately this is what’s going to foster new ideas and drive growth within organisation. It’s important we focus on ensuring that different generations work well together and with a little bit of work and experimentation, we can lay the groundwork for running successful companies with happy employees.


About the author

Alistair Shepherd is founder of Saberr


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