Handling generational differences in the workplace: 6 pointers

Generational differences in the workplace shouldn’t stop you from engaging your frontline workforce the best you can. Here are tips to fill any gaps.

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I kind of feel that 60 is the new 40,” says Ciarán McKinney, 61-year old manager at Age & Opportunity. The entire workforce is slowly shifting as baby boomers continue working past the traditional retirement age.

The trend is mirrored on the other end, too. The teen employment rate in 2021 is the highest it has been in the last 10 years. These new workers are the first generation Z members to enter the workforce, and many are starting as frontline workers.

What does this mean for you?

Generational differences in the workplace affect many industries, but frontline workers are usually the most diverse. Over 33% of frontline workers are over 50, and the low barrier to entry means many frontline workers are among the youngest workers.

Your workforce demographic is more diverse than ever. You have employees belonging to multiple generations with different internal communication styles working together. To get the most out of them, you need to manage them effectively.

Managing a multigenerational workforce takes practice and understanding. You need to understand generational differences in the workplace and approach each generation in a way that suits them. 

Generation breakdown – understanding the differences

If you’ve read the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, you might remember Atticus Finch’s advice:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Taking Atticus’s advice to heart, you should remember that while you can define a generation by a few key events and common traits, you must view the person as an individual first. 

To find common ground with different generations, let’s understand the environment they grew up in.  

Baby boomers

Commonly called baby boomers, the generation born between 1946-1964 represents close to 40 million members of the American workforce. 

For most of their work-life, they either communicated face-to-face or used emails and phone calls. They might be known as the tech-averse generation, but 52% of baby boomers own a tablet.

Generation X

Generation X includes those born between 1965-1980. It is the second-largest generation in the American workforce (53 million active workers).

They were also the first generation that saw both parents in the workforce as normal. This might have made many Gen Xers independent and self-reliant. 

Millennials

Millennials, sometimes referred to as Generation Y, were born between 1981-1996. With 56 million millennials in the American workforce, they are the largest generation at work today. This is true in the UK as well, where roughly 50% of the workforce consists of millennials.

Millennials grew up surrounded by technology. The internet and mobile phones became common during their childhood. 

The best way to communicate with them is usually by texting. On average, millennials spend 48 minutes a day texting, higher than any other group surveyed. 

But try to avoid phone calls as 75% of millennials find them time-consuming. 

Generation Z

The newest addition to the workforce, Gen Z, was born between 1997-2012. They represent a small but growing group. 

Gen Z is best known for its passionate beliefs around diversity, climate change, and a desire to change the world.

Here’s what Casey Winch, CEO of Tallo, has to say about that:

“If you’re in the business of recruiting Gen Z, you need a diversity and inclusion strategy, and you need it now.”

Gen Zers came into a world with widespread access to technology. You can call them digital natives. They are likely to possess excellent tech skills and communicate using text messages, instant messaging, and social media. 

Effective communication in a multi-generational workforce

Generational differences in the workplace can be difficult to manage in human resources.

Working with a multigenerational workforce doesn’t have to mean struggling to balance everyone’s needs. You can use the range of experiences from different age groups as an advantage.

Some companies have done this effectively.

Pair different generations together intentionally

You can get higher productivity by mixing older and younger generations as teams. It increases the productivity of both older and younger employees. 

Riva Precision Jewelry went for this when it faced a skilled labor shortage. It hired young workers who lacked skills and paired them with experienced employees. 

This addressed their labor shortage and made both groups happy. Older workers were compensated for their time teaching, and the newer employees gained experience in the industry.

Offer flexibility to older employees

One way companies have stayed engaged with older workers is by offering them a flexible schedule. This can even include working at multiple locations.

Companies like Home Depot and CVS have started implementing snowbird programs that allow older workers to transfer to a warmer store during the winter months. These workers tend to defer retirement since they can fit work into their schedules easily.

“A good number of our pharmacy customers are going to be mature customers, and as part of our focus on diversity, we want a workforce that reflects our customer base,” according to David Casey, CVS’s vice president for workforce strategies. 

Find a way to provide coaching to younger workers

The nursing field has struggled with an ageing workforce and retaining new workers. Baptist Health Lexington was no exception.

Managers at the hospital struggled to find time to meet with staff about career concerns, but millennials longed for career mentorship. They hired an on-call career counsellor and saw an 11% decrease in turnover.

The return on investment (ROI) and worker satisfaction encouraged Baptist Health Lexington to keep the change.

How to handle generational differences in the workplace

Use multiple communication methods to manage generational differences in the workplace

We’ve seen how some frontline companies are crafting policies for a multigenerational workforce, but finding solutions for your workers might take time. There are some general ideas you should keep in mind when managing generational differences in the workplace for your frontline staff.

Keep things conversational, not corporate

Keep the team communication distributed over communication channels by complexity and importance. 

If you’re praising someone, do it over the phone. Guiding someone, opt for face to face. 

This is especially important as companies adapt to more text-based communication for frontline workers. You can easily approach a coworker in the break room, but a casual conversation on the company’s texting app takes practice.

In general, you want a reason to message someone. If you see a coworker you need to speak with commented on a company post, try to initiate a conversation. 

Understand that people might take more time to respond to your feedback than you are used to. Some generations are more sensitive about respecting their free time and may wait to reply until they are at work again.  

Prioritize flexibility

Jacquelynn Wolff, a Boston resident, received an offer for her dream job. But it was in New York. She didn’t want to leave, so she discussed it with her employer who agreed on remote work. 

“It lowered my stress levels instantly. I’m able to work better for my team, too, because I don’t have to worry about adjusting to a new city or a long commute.” 

She isn’t alone. Workers worldwide are asking for a flexible work environment. 

About half of the global workforce would consider quitting a job if workplace flexibility ends after the pandemic. 

But work flexibility might mean different things for different generations. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Work-life balance varies from person to person.

Ask your employees. Survey them and find what they prefer. 

Include everyone and adapt your feedback style 

Frontline employees tend to work away from the office. You can’t give feedback to them using a thumbs up or facepalm (not that you should do that with office employees either). 

So what’s the best way to congratulate them on a job well done or correct their errors?

That varies with each generation.

“Older generations tend to be more linear and traditional, while younger generations are looser and more spontaneous around time and place,” says consulting CEO Tammy Erickson.

Younger generations grew up with likes and shares of social media. They like frequent attention. Sixty-six percent of Gen Z preferred feedback every few weeks. 

You can send a shout-out tweet to a millennial and Gen Zer. They may love it. Baby boomers and Gen Xers might not share this response.

Older generations tend to prefer face-to-face meetings. Suggest improvements in one-to-one meetings and congratulate them in front of their colleagues for maximum effect. 

Ask your employees how they prefer to learn about their performance. Not every millennial has a Twitter account, and not all baby boomers enjoy phone calls.

Connect with your multigenerational workforce on multiple communication platforms.

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6 tips to improve your workplace communication skills to engage every generation

With that in mind, let’s end with a few tips that will enhance multi-generational communication for everyone. 

  1. Ask! Survey for group feedback and keep track of what each individual prefers. You may find your workers follow a similar pattern to their generation, or they may surprise you.
     
  2. Use a multidimensional approach to communications and try to reuse content to suit as many people as possible.

    For example, if most of your workforce prefers in-person meetings but others learn better on their own time, record videos of in-person announcements to reshare later.
  3. Pass the tools of internal communications to your employees. Employee-generated content is compelling. You can add personality, create meaningful connections, and put a face to the dry policy updates.
  4. Have a central repository like Blink that can mix rich content like videos and images with conversations and calls. Keeping everything in one, mobile-friendly place makes it easier to reach others and communicate the way that works best for everyone.
  5. Keep channels open for constant feedback about what could be improved. Don’t assume a few changes at the end of the year will be ok going forward. Remind employees to approach you about possible improvements when they can, and make sure you’re available.
  6. Make it human. Let your employees see you at home, record videos on your way in, accept things that are a little messy for the sake of authenticity. Likewise, don’t expect perfection from your employees. 

Final thoughts: handling generational differences in the workplace

With so many generations at work, you will see generational differences in the workplace. It’s essential to understand and acknowledge them. 

Let your frontline employees define themselves. A millennial can excel at soft skills, and a baby boomer can adapt to newer technologies. Effective communication grows from an environment that is open and adaptable.

Offer flexibility and show your workers that you are invested in their continuing careers. Adopt communication tools that cater to all generations and make it easier for everyone to be heard. 

Focus on what’s similar instead of different to keep moving forward as a successful frontline team.