How To Navigate Generational Differences in the Workplace

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Saphia Lanier
Saphia Lanier

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Cultural, technological, and social changes are happening faster than ever. Meanwhile, there are  five generations in the workplace (for the first time in history), adding to the complexity and challenges business leaders face. 

how to manage generational differences in the workplace ;

One way to overcome the issue is to embrace generational differences in your workplace, empowering workers at all levels to complement each other and learn to work together cohesively. 

What are generational differences?

Generational differences in the workplace refer to the varying beliefs, values, and attitudes between age groups. These differences are caused by the different experiences people had growing up, shaping their perspectives on things like work ethic, communication, and technology.

Generational differences in the workplace today

With older generations delaying their retirement, and younger generations entering the workforce, it’s creating work environments where college graduates work alongside "peers” several decades their senior.

Here’s Purdue’s breakdown of the five workplace generations:

  • Traditionalists: 2% (1925-1945) Motivated by respect, providing long-term value, and recognition. Preferred communication is in person or via handwritten notes over email. Believes in obedience over individualism, seniority by age, and hierarchical advancements. Considered to be dependable, straightforward, tactful, and loyal.
  • Baby boomers: 25% (1946-1964) Motivated by company loyalty, duty, and teamwork. Preferred communication is whatever’s efficient, such as phone or face to face. Believes achievements come from putting in the work and making sacrifices to obtain success. Considered to be optimistic, competitive, workaholic, and team-oriented.
  • Generation X: 33% (1965-1980) Motivated by diversity, work-life balance, and personal interests over company interests. Preferred communication is either by phone or in person. Believes in diversity, leaving companies if they fail to meet their desires, and rejecting company changes that interfere with their personal lives. Considered to be flexible, informal, skeptical, and independent.
  • Generation Y: 35% (1981-2000) Motivated by responsibility, a quality manager, and unique work experiences. Preferred communication is either instant messages, texts, and email. Believes in seeking challenges, growth and development, fun work life, a balanced personal and work life, and leaving companies that dislike change. Considered to be competitive, civic-minded, open-minded, and achievement-oriented.
  • Generation Z: 5% (2001-2020) Motivated by personalization, diversity, individuality, and creativity. Preferred communication is instant messages, texts, and social media. Believes in independence and individuality, and prefers working with millennial managers, innovative peers, and new technologies. Considered to be global, entrepreneurial, progressive, and less focused. 

Generational differences in the workplace examples

Generational differences, if not handled correctly, can cause friction, resentment, and unproductivity. 

The best way around this: Understand your employees’ preferences, motivations, and shortcomings. With these insights, you can make forward-thinking decisions that build harmony and trust. 

Here are several examples of how generational differences may form in the workplace, and what you can do about them:

  • Stereotyping: Older generations may consider the younger workers lazy and entitled, and the younger generations may feel the older workers are outdated. To bridge the gap, employers can use team-building exercises and training to help both sides get to know each other and work better together. 
  • Communication styles: Older generations prefer in-person and phone communication, while younger generations lean toward email and text. A workaround is to adopt and train everyone on a companywide tool that allows both video calling and texting so everyone can choose their preference. 
  • Work styles: Older managers may feel negatively about young workers who prefer to work remotely or via a hybrid style. To bridge the gap, you can educate your management team to evaluate teams based on output vs. time in the office. Also, make it easy for remote collaboration using tools like Asana and Google Docs.

What the five generations value most in the workplace

According to a survey by LiveCareer, here’s what matters most to all generations when selecting employers:

  • All generations value job prestige the most (Gen Zers — 53%, millennials — 58%, Gen Xers — 64%, baby boomers — 59%).
  • Next in line is aspect of work for Gen Zers (44%), job security for baby boomers (46%), and opportunities for growth for Gen Xers (42%) and millennials (46%).
  • The top benefit for Gen Zers (39%) is health insurance, while millennials (38%), Gen Xers (33%), and baby boomers (32%) picked flexible work.

With this knowledge, you can design packages that’ll attract and retain talent.

But don’t jump to conclusions just yet. 

We may think of Gen X as first-gen latchkey kids — a fiercely independent group of problem solvers who still check email and love to work solo. And then Gen Z as digital natives who prefer to make group decisions… on Snapchat.

But everyone is unique and shouldn’t be judged based on their “generation.” As managers, take the time to get to know your people as individuals.

“Use a survey during the onboarding process to ask about preferences on things like work-style preferences, communication expectations, and decision-making processes," says Deb Muller, founder of HR Acuity, an employee-relations software.

Why having generational differences in the workplace is good 

Having a diverse workforce comes with benefits. In LiveCareer’s survey, almost 90% of respondents agreed that generational diversity in the workplace is positive. Another 87% said it was an opportunity for each generation to learn from one another. 

The benefits of having a generationally diverse workplace include:

  1. Diverse perspectives: Each generation brings unique experiences and values to the workplace, leading to more creative problem-solving and innovative ideas.
  2. Training opportunities: Employees can skill-build by learning from older and younger generations. The young can learn from older colleagues who have more experience, while older employees can learn from younger colleagues who may have a fresh perspective on technology and social trends. 
  3. Mentorship: Older employees can mentor younger colleagues, providing guidance and support as they navigate their careers.
  4. Improved communication: Generational differences can lead to misunderstandings, but they also allow employees to practice active listening and clear communication.
  5. Better decision-making: Decisions are often more well-rounded and effective when you consider diverse perspectives.

“Generational differences can impact everything from efficiency and productivity to creativity and risk tolerance,” explains Muller. 

Much like gender and racial diversity, generational diversity has a richness you can’t fake. For example, older generations who’ve seen it all have the wisdom and experience to see past the latest crisis, market shift, or distracting trend.

“They rarely overreact, and their calmness can do wonders to keep a team focused when things get stressful or intense," continues Muller. “On the flip side, younger generations are fearless about shaking things up. They have a natural curiosity that keeps them open to learning and trying new things earlier than others.”

How to manage generational differences in the workplace

Generational gaps can lead to friction within because of different expectations of how things should be done. However, it can also present opportunities for business and career growth.

Successfully navigating these differences requires leadership that fosters inclusion, open communication, and understanding.

If you’d like to achieve this, use the following tips:

  1. Encourage cross-generational mentorship: This helps employees learn from each other’s experiences and perspectives. For example, pair an experienced employee with a younger one on a project, allowing them to share insights and learn from one another.
  2. Embrace diverse communication styles: Adapting to the communication preferences of different generations can prevent misunderstandings. Hold in-person and digital meetings, and ensure important updates are shared through multiple channels.
  3. Offer tailored professional development opportunities: Understand that employees of different ages may have different career goals and provide them with relevant development options. For instance, offer various training programs focused on upskilling, leadership advancement, or retaining career knowledge.
  4. Implement flexible work policies: Flexibility in work hours or location can cater to the needs of employees across generations, fostering satisfaction and motivation. Consider options like remote work or flexible hours to meet individual needs while maintaining productivity.
  5. Foster a culture of mutual respect: Encourage open dialogues about generational differences to increase empathy and understanding among team members. Organize moderated discussions where employees from various age groups share their experiences and challenges at work.
  6. Celebrate generational diversity: Highlight the unique strengths each generation brings to the workplace by showcasing their achievements or contributions publicly. Showcase success stories on internal newsletters or company social media channels, emphasizing how their diverse skill sets lead to positive outcomes.
  7. Solicit feedback regularly: Encourage employees across generations to voice their concerns or suggestions, making them feel supported and understood. Use surveys or one-on-one meetings as platforms for open communication regarding any issues related to generational diversity.
  8. Promote inclusivity in decision-making processes: Encourage collaboration among different age groups when devising strategies, promoting a sense of ownership and contribution among all generations. Invite representatives from each age group to participate in brainstorming sessions to generate diverse ideas.
  9. Lead by example: Demonstrate respect, empathy, and collaboration with everyone daily. Engage equally with employees of all ages, sharing knowledge and seeking understanding to create a harmonious work environment.

Ultimately, it’s all about how well your leaders manage and inspire employees to work together. So set the foundation by training your management teams to engage with different generations in your organization. Over time, your workplace will become a place anyone can join and feel valued. 

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