Diversity makes for a stronger workforce. However, different generations approach tasks with different attitudes, and the resulting communication gaps can lead to gridlock or worse. Since more than one-third of the workforce is made up of millennials and one-quarter is baby boomers, you may get called upon to bring some unifying magic to a team that's at loggerheads due to generational issues. Below are five Human Resources (HR) best practices to bridge that generation gap and get the most out of your team's diversity. When the generations are meshing well in the workplace, you'll see a high level of employee engagement and an improved workplace culture across the board.
1. Provide a variety of communication channels
Include face-to-face meetings and phone calls in your normal routines, as well as texting and emails. Older workers grew up in a generation before cell phones and email, and may prefer to communicate via in-person conversation or phone calls. In general, the younger the worker, the more comfortable they're likely to be with texting, emailing, or social media posting. Riot, an open-source collaboration tool, points out that one of the benefits they can bring to the workplace is better relationships between the generations. They write in Medium that using a collaborative workspace "can bridge the communication gap by supplementing communication in the office for all generations," and will lead to "a happy medium when every generation has their own communication preference."
2. Establish a two-way mentorship program
When trying to bridge the generation gap, always remember that each generation has something uniquely valuable to offer the other. Employment engagement specialist Tim Eisenhauer points out that baby boomers have valuable real-world experience about how the business world works, while millennials bring insights on how technology can transform many aspects of running a company. He writes, "A great way to manage a generation gap in the workplace... is to develop a mentorship program within your organization. This creates a fair and balanced platform so each party can benefit, and it can also help build stronger interpersonal relationships between colleagues." The AARP Bulletin cites a number of corporate examples of this technique, sometimes called "reverse mentoring." Social media savvy is taught by younger employees, while older employees offer coaching in the nuances of face-to-face interactions. The two-way mentorship approach is especially useful when younger workers are in leadership roles, because it encourages respect to flow in both directions.
3. Put respect front and center
Performance specialist Bonnie Monych breaks down the motivational factors that build employee alignment in each generational sector, but one common theme throughout her entire analysis is respect. People of each age group will be more open to listening to input from those who are different from themselves if they feel that their own knowledge and contributions are respected. Monych points out that baby boomers have an intense work ethic, are motivated by challenge, and appreciate being respected for their maturity. Gen X-ers, born between 1965 and 1980, want to be respected for their self-reliance and independent skillsets. Millennials, born after 1980, seek respect for their ability to multi-task, collaborate, and be flexible.
4. Don't make assumptions
Yup, now that we've handed you a bunch of generalizations, we're telling you not to stereotype. The key is to let individual people surprise you. While there's a good reason to acquire an overall understanding of generational characteristics, it's important to avoid making assumptions about the skills or preferences of any particular person. Growth marketer Aj Agrawal points out, "You need to treat millennials as individuals in the workforce, and not assume that what works for one person will work for all of them." His words are equally true for every generation. Assuming that people have certain preferences or characteristics based on their age is a form of profiling, and it can give rise to deep feelings of being misunderstood. Let each team member tell you their preferred style of working or the employee reward that would make them happiest. Your understanding of age-related tendencies can inform the array of choices you express to your team, but don't underestimate individual variation.
5. Guard against age segregation
You may very well find that your workers tend to clump up together in little groups of their age peers. It's just human nature: Conversations come more easily when everyone has a similar frame of reference. However, employees can hang out with age-mates while they're not at work. The fact is that your staff will be more innovative and productive if you make sure there's plenty of cross-pollination between the generations and a bridge between the generation gap. The executive director of Generations United, Donna Butts, has this to say: "When the generations don't mix, they're less likely to care and invest in each other." Encouraging a culture of recognition is a great way to unify your workforce and gives employees the opportunity to express appreciation for each other.
Mind the generation gap
What does the generation gap look like at your organization? Regardless of their ages, you can be confident that your employees' motivation will blossom when they feel appreciated. The younger generation may have grown up in an era where they heard a lot of praise, and for this reason may need it to be a regular part of their environment. Older workers, especially those who are Gen X or baby boomers, may not expect positive feedback -- but they will definitely appreciate it ... maybe all the more, because they'll feel like you're going above and beyond to notice their efforts.
To learn more about how to improve the employee experience for your entire workforce, access our webinar recording, "The Evolution of Connection and Need for Belonging."
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