Diversity in the Workplace: Minding the Generational Gap
By Sara Bauer
Your company’s workforce is most likely comprised of several different generations, each of which has unique perspectives and habits when it comes to the workplace. How can you effectively address the challenges that arise from these unique perspectives and habits and embrace age diversity within your organization? Firstly, it’s important to have at least a basic understanding of the four main generational groups who could be represented in your workforce.
These groups include:
- Baby Boomers (Born 1944-1964): Often referred to as the “self-absorbed” generation, baby boomers learned a hard work ethic from their parents’ generation (referred to as ‘traditionalists’) but tend to focus this work ethic on personal gain. They are typically educated, optimistic, team-oriented, seeking personal gratification, and focused on health, wellness and family. They tend to be verbal and email communicators.
- Generation X (Born 1965-1980): Generation X grew up in the 1980s and 1990s at a time when technology was having a significant impact on the workplace. They tend to question leadership, place a priority on work/life balance, are global thinkers and value diversity. They prefer to communicate by email or text.
- Millennials or Gen Y (Born 1981-1995): Often viewed as entitled and demanding, Millennials value leisure and balance well above work. They are not confined by structure, or a typical office space and desire flexibility and immediate reward/recognition. They are confident, often outspoken, very social, and are focused on civic duty and driving change. For the most part, Millennials grew up exposed to a great deal of diversity (in all its definitions) and, as a result, diversity in the workplace is an expectation not a goal.
- Gen Z (Born after 1996): This generation has been exposed to the widespread use of the internet from an early age. They have the ability to process information very quickly and, as a result, tend to be less focused and bore quickly. They can multi-task easily and like to balance work and play at the same time. They are global thinkers, very entrepreneurial and place a high importance on individuality. They are more demanding than Millennials, and less focused on traditional education, preferring to use the technology they have grown up to learn on their own. Their communication style is strictly technology based and largely conducted using popular apps. Even texting and Facebook are a thing of the past for this generation.
In many of today’s workplaces, employees range in age from 18 (and even younger in certain environments such as retail, grocery or hospitality) to 70+, as many people are working well past the traditional retirement age of 65. With significant generational differences in values, behaviours and ways of working, it’s important that employers understand these differences in their workplace and have processes in place to manage these differences for the overall benefit of their organization and staff team.
While each generation has very different values and styles, they also bring varying educational backgrounds, industry experience, skill sets (soft and hard) and general knowledge to the workplace. If cultivated the right way, and if teams are well balanced, the various generational groups can learn from one another, off-set each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and contribute to a well-rounded organization.
Following are just a few ways to support the effective management of generational diversity in the workplace:
- Raise awareness of diversity: Raise awareness among your employees of inter-generational differences and trends and foster cross-training, and knowledge sharing. For example, encourage “teach-outs” where applicable and look for opportunities to utilize differing generational strengths (e.g. a Millennial could lead a “teach-out” on current social media trends, while a Boomer could conduct a session on formal business communications).
- Embrace and leverage diversity: Ensure managers are not only aware of but are embracing generational diversity and using the various experiences and skill sets of their team members to their full advantage rather than viewing them as points of contention. Intentionally build diverse teams and allow these teams the freedom to develop their own ways of working together.
- Allow for flexibility: Flexibility can also contribute to a well-functioning inter-generational workplace. Structure the work environment in your organization to be as flexible as possible, as well as fair and beneficial to all. Ensure expectations regarding objectives, goals and deadlines are clearly laid out and communicated. For example, you may have mandatory in-office times and set meetings or calls, but otherwise allow teams to determine how they can best work together.
- Communicate effectively: Communication seems to be at the root of every organizational challenge as it can have a drastic impact on how an organization functions. As noted earlier, each generational group has a different preferred method of communicating; Boomers prefer email or conversations, Gen X appreciate meetings, emails and texts and Millennials and Gen Z rely heavily on social media, and have a very short and to the point style of communicating. Stress the importance of healthy and effective inter-generational communication within your teams. Compromise and collaboration will be important to help teams find a middle ground that is most effective to your business, and to their ways of working.
- Consider using assessment tools: Assessment tools, such as DISC, which clearly outlines individual strengths, traits and motivators, can serve as team development tools to bridge generation gaps. Consider using one of these tools as part of a team-building session.
Many articles urge employers to cater to the styles and ways of working of the millennial generation, so as to attract and retain upcoming talent and the future leaders. I feel that employers need to support and embrace employees across all generational groups in order to have successful and strong cross-functional teams.
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