Managing a Multi-Generational Workplace

Each generation of workers comes with different strengths and challenges, and managers should know how to balance them to build a stronger team.

Written by Lydotta Taylor

Over the last five years, I’ve spent a lot of time researching and speaking on the impact of multiple generations in the workplace. As recently as July, I spoke with the 2015 Leadership West Virginia class on this topic and our conversation confirmed that, regardless of one’s age or experience in leadership, generational differences affect all aspects of the workplace. The diversity in today’s workplace is one of the most important trends for leaders to embrace.

By 2020, leaders will potentially see up to five generations in the workplace—an all-time high—with almost half of the employees from the Millennial generation. There is a growing opportunity to capitalize on this trend and create a strong culture that allows all employees and organizations to prosper and grow.

Before we talk about how to manage a multi-generational workplace, let’s look at each of the generations and some of their defining characteristics. Most of us do not fit exactly in our date-defined generation—you will find as you self-evaluate and observe your co-workers that we all tend to display many of the characteristics from our defined generation, and we also gain traits from others. But there are some general observations we can make.

The first of the five generations we observe in the workplace today is the Traditionalists, born between 1924 and 1945. They work hard, respect experience, sacrifice for the job, observe the rules, and find satisfaction in a job well done. Traditionalists are interested in staying connected through working longer.

Prestige, position, and perks motivate Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. Although many are nearing retirement, they are planning to be in the workforce a little longer than originally expected—often a result of retirement account balances, not personal desire. Boomers are clever, resourceful, competitive, and achievement-oriented, but many find it difficult to adjust to trends such as working from home and flexible schedules.

Generation X includes those born between 1965 and 1980, a group that values freedom and responsibility. They are ambi- tious but wish to complete tasks on their own terms. They are less committed to one employer, comfortable with various tech- nologies, and appreciate relaxed and fun work atmospheres. They work to live rather than live to work.

Millennials, born between 1981 and 2000, are the youngest generation in the current workplace. This generation seeks work-life balance and is confident, ambitious, and achievement-oriented. Its members expect quick decision-making, seek reassurance, appreciate guidance and mentoring, and value teamwork and involvement. They multitask with ease and crave meaningful work.

The next generation, the so-called Generation I born between 2001 and 2015, will begin joining the workplace in 2020. This generation is the first born into the digital age and its members are proving to be very creative. They desire and crave immediate feedback more than generations before them. It is too soon to identify workplace characteristics, but we can expect technology to play a significant role in many ways.

For a leader, an awareness of the differences the generations bring to the workplace is an opportunity to create a workplace culture that brings out the best in everyone and creates companies that are powerful and effective in today’s economy. This has always been true, but the uniqueness of this workplace requires a more thoughtful approach from leadership.

I have found the following four tips to be helpful in leading multiple generations. Each tip requires the leader to focus on diversifying to best connect with all employees. Organizations that embrace this approach will find employees from all generations are more engaged and often more committed.

Diversify the organization’s compensation options, incentives, and benefits. Leaders may find that Baby Boomers want part-time options with medical benefits, Gen X looks for company-matched 401(k) options, and Millennials like more flexible work schedules. Leaders need to look closely at the possibilities, then provide and create a menu of options that will engage each generation.

Diversify your communication strategies. This relies heavily on technology. Boomers may prefer in-person meetings and Gen X emails and electronic corporate updates. Millennials may prefer instant messages, webinars, or walking staff meetings. Leaders need to allow room for a variety of communication methods to best meet the needs of all employees.

Diversify your mentoring programs. I like providingmentoring opportunities in reverse order. Typically we think of a Boomer mentoring a Millennial. Consider a reverse strategy: Allow your Millennials to mentor Boomers on new software or social media tools. You will find the Millennial is more valued by the Boomer and in turn the Millennial will learn from the Boomer.

In addition, group mentoring can be very effective and structured to meet the style of your organization. For example, provide mentoring through group meeting opportunities, using selected employees to serve as speakers, or try a more general conversation structure. Another option is to use online mentoring, or social learning. This option provides mentoring through online tools and communication. Employees can text or email mentors for advice on situations that arise. They may also seek advice on presentations or how to handle specific meeting items. This way, tech-savvy Millennials can seek the guidance of mentor on an as-needed basis, from the comfort of their computers.

Use your leadership position to bring the generations together. Too often a focus on generational leadership will divide generations in the workplace even more. Leaders should focus specifically on bridging the gaps and building the cohesive workplace culture that appreciates differences and embraces the diversity. This thinking starts at the top and you truly set the stage for finding value in each generation.

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