Anyone reading the business press can be forgiven for thinking that different generations of American workers are lying in wait for each other like a modern-day Game of Thrones, or at least squabbling for control. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Intergenerational work forces can function just fine, as long as everyone is aware of each other’s needs.
At this point, members of the workforce typically fall into one of three categories:
- Boomers: Born between 1946 and 1964, Boomers represent a large portion of the retiring workforce. They are also the most sizable generation, amounting to 76 million, with attitudes and values shaped by events such as the Vietnam War and Space Exploration. They’re socially conscious, with a tendency to see possibility and opportunity.
- Gen X: Born between 1965 and 1980, with about 55 million of them in the U.S., Generation X represents three in four government workers, and about three in five private wage and salary workers. It is the smallest of the generations in the workforce and is bookended by two generations that have been thoroughly studied. This generation has been shaped by events such as the rise of mass media and personal electronics, as well as the end of the Cold War.
- Millennials. Born between 1981 and 1997, and with 66 million members, the fastest-growing segment of the workforce, forming 25 percent of the workforce now and slated to be 50 percent of the workforce by 2020. This generation was “born digital” and has attitudes shaped by events such as 9/11.
To be sure, everyone is an individual, and just because a trait is common throughout a generation doesn’t mean it always applies to a specific person. That said, there are a number of stereotypes that do tend to apply to the specific groups:
- Working space. Because Millennials are used to being in constant contact, they prefer open, collaborative workspaces. Gen Xers prefer having their own offices, with the size and décor being a status symbol.
- Work location. Millennials are used to using smartphones and other portable devices anywhere. Gen Xers prefer working in an office so they can be with their coworkers.
- Communications modes. Millennials prefer the immediacy and brevity of email, instant messaging, and texting. Gen Xers feel that building a quality relationship involves spending time together in person, and being able to read body language.
- Work rewards. Millennials prefer learning and development, flexibility and time off, and only then cash. In fact, they’re willing to take unpaid time off. Gen Xers prefer the cash, both for merit and for seniority.
- Motivation. Millennials want to have constant feedback, education, and new opportunities. While Gen Xers are motivated by status and title, they also want to feel they’ve made an impact.
- Hours worked. Millennials tend to feel that they should get their work done in 40 hours—or less if they’re efficient. Gen Xers, being interested in spending time with people and in the office, may spend 40 to 60 hours per week in the office, as well as being available on-call after hours.
- Authority. While both groups respect authority, Millennials tend to focus on what they can learn from them, while Gen Xers respect their status.
It’s not like either of these groups and their preferences is better than the other. But problems can occur when the two groups come into conflict over one or more of these areas.
So what are some ways companies can bridge the gap and make both generations happy? (As well as the outliers in either generation who may feel differently?)
- Give employees the opportunity to exchange a cash bonus for vacation time.
- Rotate jobs. This is a win-win for both generations: Millennials get more learning, and Gen Xers get more status.
- Standardize communications channels, such as by using electronic forms, rather than relying on one form of communication over another. When everyone is submitting the same form, it removes the possibility of confusion over communication method, style and tone. E-forms help control and route common requests, which ensures approvals occur quickly.
- Determine which functions must be performed in the office, which can be performed elsewhere, and which employee roles can work more flexibly. Before offering BYOD privileges, it is important to set up secure mobile access to internal systems. For instance, enterprise content management (ECM) systems offer a wide range of functionalityto ensure that once the employee finishes accessing privileged information, all data is cleared from his personal device and he is logged out of the session.
- Have Gen Xers mentor Millennials. The Millennials get to learn, while the Gen Xers get to create impact.
And don’t forget to use technology. Millennials default to “fixing” broken processes, an attitude that can come across as disruptive unless it’s properly channeled. Encourage millennials to diagram business processes to ensure they are as simple, logical and consistent as possible, then let them work with organizational stakeholders to translate them into automated workflows. Cutting out the busywork associated with expense report submission, invoice and purchase approval, travel request submission and contract approval is one way to support efficient-minded millennials that will satisfy overwhelmed Gen Xers, too.
Such programs can also help attract Millennials to your company—an increasingly important factor as Boomers retire. (Particularly for government agencies.) Studies from PwC, such as Millennials at Work: Reshaping the Workplace, have shown that the potential for their own personal development was the factor that most influenced 65 percent of Millennials’ choice of a job, the single largest factor. And 64 percent said they have a priority to make the world a better place. So programs that accentuate these wishes make your company more attractive to them.
And by the way, don’t discount those Boomers. The computer industry has been criticized for ageism by believing that people over a certain age—sometimes as low as 35—are no longer capable of working in IT. While they may not know the hottest and newest programming techniques, they often have a vast institutional memory about the industry and your company’s field that transcends knowing one particular tool. By recognizing the skills and needs of the diverse workforce, employers will have to continually adapt talent strategies and operations to attract talent that can work together.
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