For perhaps the first time in history, it is not unusual to encounter four generations participating in the workforce simultaneously. Navigating the differences is forcing managers to up their game, turning from one-size-fits-all techniques to management philosophies tailored to the new intergenerational office.
Although Generation X (those born between 1966 and 1976) and Generation Y (born between the 1980s and 2000) workers comprise just over half of the current US workforce, Baby Boomers at 41 percent, hold the majority of leadership positions, according to Lee Hecht Harrison (LHH), a leader in human resource thinking. “Baby Boomers are typically more accustomed to interacting face-to-face or using the telephone when working with colleagues, whereas younger managers are used to facing a computer screen and emailing to communicate. Boomers’ workplace tempo varies from their Gen X and Gen Y colleagues — Boomers grew up in a more leisurely time, Gen X in an age of accelerated schedules, multi-tasking, and information,” he advised.
“We see diversity as a competitive advantage,” says Peter Alcide, President and Chief Operating Officer at LHH. “Specifically, we continually assess our workforce and offer unique training and development opportunities to individuals that are designed to unlock their full potential. We also identify leaders at all levels to participate in leadership development programs that offer coaching, education and continuous training to help them build the skills needed to lead a diverse workforce.”
When managers view differences as strengths, the potential for collaboration is powerful, especially when fostered in inclusive workplace environments.
To learn how managers need to view each generation of workers, experts have developed profiles, providing clues how best companies can nurture their younger prospective leaders. “We anticipate younger staffers will need to develop faster, take on important positions and acquire leadership skills at relatively early stages of their careers,” according to the LHH report “Managing Today’s Multigenerational Workforce”.
Gen X workers “are used to work-life flexibility, and have changed jobs frequently for increased salaries, more benefits, and to climb the corporate ladder,” LHH adds.
Additionally, it will take a different style of management to elicit leadership from this generation. “Sink or swim doesn’t work with this generation — coaching, guidance and increased opportunities and responsibility are what most will respond to well. Presenting them with opportunities to go out of their “comfort zone” to enhance their management and leadership skills with coaching from the sidelines can help foster a leadership mentality,” LHH reports.
When it comes to Generation Y workers, conflict may appear when younger employees are faced with Boomer Generation management style. “Managing Gen Y can sometimes be challenging for Baby Boomer managers or even Gen X managers since Gen-Yers don’t hesitate to challenge the status quo. To overcome this, managers should understand how to be democratic and ‘partner’ with their Gen Y workers and treat them as equals.”
Baby Boomers, although older and with one eye toward retirement, are seen as valuable to companies. “The competition for older, more experienced decision-makers will intensify, setting off a recruiting war for these premium knowledge workers and managers,” according to LHH.
“The Baby Boomers are the ‘Me’ generation, the first generation to become Internet savvy and make work-life balance a movement that has permeated our workforce culture. They are also one of the most valuable segments of our workforce today. Many Boomers are planning for retirement, which will potentially inflict the largest ‘brain drain’ corporate America has ever experienced,” according to the report.
Accordingly, employers should find ways to provide flexibility and ownership of projects or teams for their valued Boomers. Because the generation is career-oriented and values the good things in life, “organizations that initiate ways to help Boomers continue working and making an income on their terms so they can enjoy more of their life will retain more of these premium workers than those companies who try to stick to the standard ways of management.”
Examples of What’s Working
The global consultancy firm Deloitte has found collaboration and an engaged workforce are key to overcoming difficulties from intergenerational employees. Cisco, for example, has made collaboration central to its decision-making process. “The company’s strategy was to change how decisions are made at the company, making collaboration its core,” according to Deloitte.
“One of the examples that we cite in Deloitte’s Multigenerational Workforce report highlights how Cisco improved the collaboration if its workforce,” says Mike Gelles, director at Deloitte Consulting LLP. “Instead of having senior leaders own specific business units and exert leadership for specific products and functions, Cisco switched its focus to making decisions through a complex web of cross-functional councils and boards. This strategy improved the engagement of its people because employees were part of the creative process instead of just recipients of leadership mandates.”
In the federal government, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) launched the “Idea Factory” website. The website was an example of crowdsourcing developed by the Department of Homeland Security. The website gave employees the opportunity to submit ideas and get feedback. Another program developed a mentoring service where more veteran employees helped newer employees.
An Engaged Workforce Pays Off Dividends
Dr. Betty Kupperschmidt, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, is cited by a Boston College meta-study of intergenerational workforce issues as saying that despite potential conflicts, intergenerational management can provide advantages for everyone, “Though it is clear that employees from different generations and life stages bring varied mindsets, preferences, and work styles to organizations, when managers view differences as strengths, the potential for collaboration is powerful, especially when fostered in inclusive workplace environments.”