Today’s managers and business leaders face unprecedented challenges in maintaining a cohesive and motivated workforce. Janet Dell, president and CEO of Freeman Co., an event organization business, said in a LinkedIn blog that “for the first time in history” there are as many as five generations in the workforce, from traditionalists born before 1945 to Generation Z born from 2001 onward.
That means the potential for generational friction is extraordinary. “Work habits, social values, communication styles and even the choice of emojis in messages can create a chasm among employees of different ages,” Maurice Harary, co-founder and CEO of The Bid Lab consulting firm, explained in Forbes in April 2022.
COVID-19 lockdowns also played a role in increasing the potential for conflict. Young employees who have used computers and smartphones since childhood are comfortable with remote work. Many older employees found remote work technology challenging. Harary said that has “exacerbated generational gaps.”
However, having an age-diverse workforce blends the institutional memory of senior employees with young hires’ ability to identify the latest technologies and trends. That invariably helps companies tackle the future while ensuring that decades-long reputations and values remain intact.
Creating a work environment that allows all generations to contribute positively to the organization can be tricky. “Innovation and organizational resilience require leaders who can manage across four or five generations,” wrote Debra Hennely, founder and president of Resiliti, a management advisory company, in the Harvard Business Review.
Purdue Global University found that, on average, 93% of employees are baby boomers (born from 1946 to 1964), Generation X (1965 to 1980) and millennials (1981 to 2000). Purdue predicts Gen Z (5% of the workforce today) will account for at least half of workers by 2025.
Hennely noted the differences between generations could be “as simple as misunderstandings about vocabulary and emoji use … or preferences for communicating by email, messaging telephone, and social media.”
Generational differences also extend to fundamentals, such as work-life balance. “Expectations for the workplace and what constitutes satisfying work can vary greatly among generations,” said Harary. According to a 2021 survey by RippleMatch, which describes itself as a recruitment automation platform changing how Gen Z finds work, the most obvious conflict between older and younger generations at work is the 9-to-5 format. Younger employees want to replace it with remote work.
Other potential differences might involve “time off policies, accommodations for issues related to mental health and well-being, expression of values/advocacy for causes at work and on social media,” said Harary. “The key is to balance consistency with the flexibility to keep everyone satisfied and united.”
Another type of potential conflict is motivation. “Baby boomers may put their nose to the grindstone with an eye toward stashing away more money for retirement,” said Harary. “A millennial may seek to balance paying off [debts] with spending more time with a growing family.”
A business leader can “incentivize [a baby boomer] with a bonus,” explained Harary. “The millennial will appreciate an afternoon off as a reward for completing a particularly grueling project.”
Recognition also can be a point of contention. “While all workers want more than just a paycheck, younger employees feel it more intensely,” said Emily Lorenz, a Gallup methodologist, in an August blog. “They thrive with more frequent recognition … rich, consistent recognition that an annual review cannot afford.”
Recognition also needs to be adjusted to retain top employees of every generation. According to Gallup research, business leaders also need to distinguish between “recognition [that] supports retention and employee commitment, and recognition [that] encourages employee growth and development.”
The research found that business leaders must communicate the importance of giving and receiving recognition across all generations. Timing can be critical in determining the type of recognition. “Employees at different stages in their careers will have different recognition needs based on the style and type of work they are doing,” said Lorenz. Additionally, business leaders must “understand that recognition is not a one-size-fits-all approach. [That] can help … tackle everyone’s differing expectations and let employees feel heard.”
Another consideration that Generation Z and young millennials prioritize is a company’s reputation in society. “Seventy percent of Gen Z job candidates want to ensure that an employer’s brand is aligned with their own values,” Adam Bandelli, founder and managing director of Bandelli & Associates, an advisory firm, wrote on the Chief Executive website in January.
Nicole Mankin, an HR manager at Firmbee, a management consulting firm, noted in a June blog that intergenerational differences affect how each perceives and accepts feedback from other generations. “Generational issues in the workplace are a challenge for modern organizations because of the diversity of values and motivations determined by age and social status,” she wrote in a June blog.
A survey attached to the Reearacoen Neocareer Group report found “three in five youths view the older generation as conservative, stubborn and hardworking. Four in six [feel] that they are too fixed in their ways and traditions.” On the other hand, half of older workers “see the younger generation as carefree, idealistic, and entitled, with shorter attention spans and less resilience.”
On the ground, that translates to “older employees getting annoyed by the … arrogance of young people,” Mankin said. “Young workers do not like to be lectured by older colleagues.” Additionally, research by Reeracoen Neocareer Group shows the younger generation “feels that the older generation has no empathy [for them] as they are navigating a fast-changing world, different from the world that worked for the older generation.”
Another dynamic business leaders need to consider is that older employees are “attached to one job,” said Mankin. “Their priority is safety and stability, and any change makes them feel insecure.” On the other hand, “millennials like changing jobs frequently since they believe that in each place they learn something new and gain valuable experience.”
The report said two in five survey respondents across all age groups agreed that such differences “hinder common goals for progress … Managers [need] to handle each generation according to their motives and perceptions while creating a balanced work culture and environment that caters to older and younger employees to retain an age-diverse workforce.”
Bridging the gap
Creating suitable channels for all employees is essential. “Think of how people from … different eras came to experience work, independence and technology for the first time,” Katie Sawyer of Deputy, a management consultancy, wrote in an April blog. Older generations “predated the internet while Gen Z learned to use touch screens as toddlers.”
That requires multiple “communication styles, so everyone feels comfortable,” Sawyer said. “Use technology to make your jobs easier, but remember that it can break down [and could lead to] staff operating in silos. Grabbing a cup of coffee to have a meeting is more satisfying.”
Harary of The Bid Lab stressed companies need to use multiple communication modes regularly, saying, “An effective approach is not to rely too heavily on any one communication style or tool. Make sure [to] integrate ‘old school’ communication to put employees of all ages at ease. [That] will also guarantee … they’re productive and involved in your business mission.”
Another way to bridge the generational gap is to “encourage flexibility,” said Sawyer. “Employees will not have the same relationship to their jobs. Ask them for their preferences and support their priorities outside work. Make sure they can easily communicate their availability and find a replacement if needed.”
Hennely of Resiliti also emphasized the importance of “remote or hybrid work, a shortened work week and variable schedules.” She told Harvard Business Review such flexibility could apply to industrial and service-sector jobs, as well as white-collar positions. “Frontline workers, many of whom are required to be onsite, could be offered compressed schedules and more days off.”
Office space design “can impact the retention rates of work, both positively and negatively,” noted research from VergeSense, a business consultancy, published in November. That includes floor layout, lighting, and offering both collaborative and private workstations. The report noted, “When taken together, these … changes can improve and extend workers’ well-being and productivity.”
Another way to bridge the generational gap is to train the age-diverse workforce to work together to advance the company’s strategy and mission. Sawyer recommended training that “allows more senior employees to train their younger counterparts” rather than using third-party companies. That should “empower … staff to share knowledge.”
Training should focus not only on technical and soft skills, but also on eliminating pretenses. “The internet might make you believe that Gen Z and millennials are at war,” she said. “Both seem to have … observations about the other around fashion choices, hobbies and ethics.” Training also needs to eliminate stereotypes such as “baby boomers are bad at technology, Gen X is submissive, millennials are too soft and Gen Z complains,” she noted.
Sawyer suggests that younger employees could coach senior workers on “new technology and social trends.” Hennely stressed that “when handled well, these relationships can open minds and communication channels, increase comfort levels with technology and build inclusive networks.”
The other type of training should aim to create a safe environment for employees to express their views and receive feedback when decisions don’t produce the desired results. “When employees of different generations shut down each other’s contributions as either outdated or naive, resentments grow and trust diminishes,” said Hennely. “If you just put people together, they’re going to crash and burn unless they have conflict-resolution training.”
The result of adopting those training approaches is that “younger employees will feel more prepared for leadership, while older employees can adopt fresh approaches to work,” Sawyer said. That would create a “successful workplace [and a] culture of open, mutual respect.”
“Managers who can reframe generational differences as opportunities … must be promoted,” said Hennely. They go “beyond age-based generalizations to be inclusive” and should be “proactive [to ensure that] valued employees develop new expertise or take sabbaticals [to] reengage and prolong their careers.”
To open up promotion opportunities, business leaders could move manufacturing and service employees to training roles on safety or compliance. Hennely said that would also “take advantage of their operational experience and reputations with colleagues.”
Gallup research found when business leaders promote the right people, “employees are four times as likely to be engaged at work if they strongly agree that they get the right amount of recognition,” said Lorenz. That “holds true across all generations.”