Successfully Navigating the Multigenerational Workplace

Multigenerational workplaces can be a huge benefit to your business – assuming you know how to take advantage of such an environment.

Take a moment to look around your office. What do you seen? Granted, if you work in a trendy startup you’ll like see a lot of coworkers who are in the twenties and thirties working from a bean bag or the new hammock chair everyone was given.

However, in many offices what you’ll see is much more likely a group of people of all different ages working together towards a common goal. Some may be in their twenties, while others are in their forties, fifties, sixties or even sometimes older.

Today, for the first time in history, some work environments are comprised of as many as five different generations under one roof for – and it is presenting some unique challenges as well as benefits as we all figure out how to best communicate and collaborate.

Which Generations Make Up The Workforce Today?

Five generations sounds like a lot – because it is a lot. Here is a breakdown of the five different generations that currently make up today’s workforce:

  • Traditionalists aka The Silent Generation: Traditionalists were born before 1945 and make up less than 2% of the workforce.
  • Baby Boomers: Baby Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. They make up approximately 25% of the workforce.
  • Generation X: Gen Xers were born between 1965 and 1980. They make up approximately 33% of the workforce.
  • Millennials aka Generation Y: Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996. They make up approximately 35% of the workforce.
  • Generation Z aka Post-Millennials: Gen Z was born after 1997 and they make up approximately 5% of the workforce.

Multigenerational workforce expert, Lindsey Pollak, shared that when she started working in the late 1990’s, the workforce was comprised of only three generations and there was a clear hierarchy. “This has been totally upended because traditionalists and baby boomers are working much longer and later in their careers” explains Pollak.

Studies show that there are an unprecedented amount of people who are over the age of 85 that are still working. “So we have this expansion on the older end of the workplace and then the rise of the millennials and now Generation Z coming in,” she continues. “We’ve gone from three generations to five generations in the past 20 years.”

Challenges of a Multigenerational Workforce

As one might expect, having so many workers from varying generations, experiences, and backgrounds under one roof comes with its own set of challenges. As long as a business has more than one generation working, there will always be a level of generational conflict interfering with communication.

With a multigeneral workforce comes communication issues that must be addressed to ensure your teams thrive.

Communication barriers are prevalent in multigenerational workplaces and requires extra effort from both employees and leadership to ensure everything runs smoothly.

Austyn Rask of BridgeWorks, a research firm that delivers applied generational insights to their clients to help solve workplace issues explains, “Since each generation grew up in a different time period and developed different traits and expectations of the world around them, they often have distinct working styles that can conflict with one another.”

We have varying views of work and how it relates to our lives.

A lot of tension can grow and fester in multigenerational workplaces, and it often comes back to the fact that each generation views work from very different perspectives.

An individual who is in their 60’s or 70’s might say that work is just that – work! Whereas someone in their 20’s might think that work is a place where they can express themselves rather than just going through the motions. Anna Liotta, the founder of The Generational Institute, states, “Side by side, those two things seem to conflict.” She continues to explain that we all based on the generation in which we were born. It informs our perspective and expectations about every aspect of our life. She adds, “Those expectations are where we find a lot of the generational gaps. And in the gap lies suffering and upset and conflict.”

Our measurement of value and productivity are different.

Liotta explains, “Organizations are still antiquated in how they measure what they reward.” How we measure productivity and value is something that needs to continually shift as new generations enter the workforce. If no changes are made, it can lead to an increase in multigenerational tension.

As an example, baby boomers frequently measure time – even though they may not be consciously thinking about it. In contrast, many millennials don’t care about the clock. Instead, they focus on the value they’re producing regardless of how much time it may have taken them. This can quickly lead to resentment as older generations might view the younger generations as not contributing or pulling their weight. The younger generations may feel undervalued or restricted because they don’t feel the impulse to stick to a strict nine to five workday.

We communicate differently.

Thanks to different communication methods, your team can find a communication solution that works for each team member.
People from older generations typically prefer to communicate in person, whereas younger generations prefer email or even text. Teams must work together to accommodate each members preferred communication method.

It is mostly true that younger generations are constantly connected and only prefer to communicate via a screen. Of course, that’s a stereotype that doesn’t apply to everyone, but it is undeniably a challenge when you have multiple generations working alongside one another.

“I think the area where the intergenerational tension comes up the most is how we communicate,” explains Pollak. “In the past, for previous generations, there were rules. This is how you make a professional business call or write a letter or format a memo. It was very prescribed.”

The good thing is that today, we have more communication methods available than ever before – ranging from video calls to emails to texts. Pollak adds, “The rules have been upended about what is the right way or the appropriate way or the best way to communicate. The answer is there are no rules anymore.”

Benefits of a Multigenerational Workforce

While there are challenges that come with having a multigenerational workforce, there are also many benefits.

Here are just a few of the benefits that can come from having a thriving multigenerational team.

We are more creative.

Just like in any situation, the more diversity you can have the more creative and innovative your workers will be. People that are born and raised during different periods are going to view the world differently.

Having a team that comes from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences means that your business can take advantage of their varying perspectives. You can use this to come up with solutions to problems that may not have thought of before or even discovered if your team had been from the same generation.

We can serve our customers better.

Not only are there a lot of different generations in the workplace, but there are also a lot of different generations in the world too. “There’s a five-generation marketplace too,” explains Pollak. “If you are marketing any product or service today, you’re probably trying to reach different generations. Being surrounded by people who represent the greater market is important.”

We can all learn something from one another.

Beyond improving a company’s bottom line, another great benefit to having a generationally-diverse team is that we all are given an opportunity to understand and embrace new perspectives and learn from one another.

This learning expands to many different areas. Younger generations can learn a lot from those who have been in the industry for a longer time, and older generations have lots to learn from newer members of the workforce – especially as it relates to technology.

Each generation can learn a significant amount from others. This can promote individual and team growth - further improving workplace culture.

Working in a multigenerational workplace allows people to learn from one another and can lead to a happier and more open-minded culture.

Rask shares, “The thing is, while people from different generations may disagree on their fair share of things, a multigenerational team that can understand and respect generational differences and work around them will be so powerful,”

“Because then you have a team leveraging each other’s complementary strengths and overcoming hurdles other multigenerational teams are still clashing over. You end up with a team that balances each other’s weaknesses and amplifies their strengths.”

4 Tips to Thrive in a Multigenerational Workplace

As we mentioned, there are plenty of benefits that can be gained from having a multigenerational workplace. However, these benefits can only be reaped when people from these different generations understand how to work together in a way that is respectful and effective.

Here are four tips to help your employees understand how to thrive and work within a multigenerational team.

1. Explain the reason for your actions.

You will notice a common theme among our tips – they all relate to communication. That is how important and crucial is it within a multigenerational workplace. It is essential to provide some insight into decisions, actions, and instructions.

We often skip this step because we think there is no reason to do so. So even if an action has an appearance of being menial, it is vital to connect it a more substantial outcome or purpose that will benefit your team or your business as a whole. Doing so will help everyone find some sense of meaning in the work they do and help people to let go of any potential resentment.

2. Question your assumptions.

Working in a multigenerational workplace can help employees be more open minded and accepting.
Working in a multigenerational workplace forces employees to recognize their preconceived notions. This allows them to challenge those assumptions and to grow as individuals.

It is inevitable that we all enter into conversations and relationships with certain assumptions about people. If you’re going to have a successful multigenerational workplace, then both you and your employees need to recognize and knowledge those assumptions and challenge them.

Pollak explains, “You have to challenge your own assumptions about the correlation between age and knowledge or experience. You just don’t know anymore.”

It is also vital to question your assumptions about an individuals strengths or weaknesses related to their generation. Stereotypes don’t always apply to everyone, so it’s crucial to formulate an opinion about someone based on who they truly are and not when they were born.

3. Have important conversations.

While this tip is mostly for leaders who are heading up these diverse teams, it can certainly apply to employees as well. As a leader, you need to be prepared to have an ongoing dialogue with the members of your team. Liotta suggests the “10-10-10 conversation” method, in which thirty-minute conversations are broken down into the following:

  • 10 minutes asking the person you’re leading about what is going on with them – such as what challenges they’re facing or what they may be excited about.
  • 10 minutes spent sharing your observations as a leader – including offering advice on what they could focus on improving and what they are doing well.
  • 10 minutes taken to lay out steps an employee should take and offering any resources if needed.

Liotta goes on to explain, “We have to develop our skill set and our capacity to have an ongoing dialogue about what’s happening, and not just when we get to a crisis. It’s far better to start the relationship having deep conversations about what we want to do as a company and continue the conversation so problems, ideas, or challenges can arise earlier.”

4. Be upfront about how you like to communicate.

Communication can often be a big problem in multigenerational workplaces, so it’s more important than ever that we’re upfront about how we prefer to communicate with others.

Image if your boss asked you to get in touch with a coworker about a new project. Get in touch to them may mean send an email, but to you, it may mean that you need to physically track them down or schedule a meeting. In a multigenerational workplace, everyone needs to be more clear about how to communicate.

It may be a good idea to have occasional sit-downs with those you work with regularly to share your communication preferences. If you like to communicate one on one as opposed to in a big group, that is important for your coworkers to know, and it’s up to you to share that information.

While there are some challenges that come with having multigenerational teams, there are also lots of benefits. Organizations that have thriving multigenerational teams are seeing incredible increases in productivity. All of the tips above can help your organization thrive in a workplace that has several generations. Above all, the most important thing is to make an effort to get to know the people you work with – regardless of their age or experience.