From T to Z: Integrating a cross-generational workforce


March 13, 2019 / Productivity / Greg Atkinson

The modern workforce is unique in history as it is the first time as many as 5 generations are represented. From Traditionalists, to Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millenials, and now Gen Z – how does a company integrate employees that span so many generations? And further, how does it satisfy each generation’s career aspirations? The key lies in understanding how the different generations view authority, relationships with colleagues, and personal goals.

What’s in a name?

The commonly accepted categorisation of generations comes courtesy of the Pew Research Centre:
Traditionalists: Born 1928 – 1945. Having survived the Second World War, this generation is concerned with security and safety.
Baby Boomers: Born 1946 – 1964. The ‘Me’ generation are motivated by power and authority.
Gen X: Born 1965 – 1980. The first generation to worry about work/life balance, and actively seek entrepreneurial opportunities.
Millennials (Gen Y): Born 1981 – 1994. This generation is much less motivated by material possessions. They seek a higher purpose, and value flexibility and personal autonomy.
Gen Z. Born 1994 – present. The newest cohorts to enter the workforce. These are the true digital natives.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll loosely refer to ‘older generations’ and ‘younger generations’. Although a very simplistic categorisation, which is unable to take the nuances of each generation into account, it does offer a handy binary understanding.

Who’s in charge here?

Integrating a cross-generational workforce
Who’s the leader?

A generation’s view of authority very much affects how it relates to supervisors. For the older generation, seniority is earned through hard slog, years in the trenches, and the experience this brings. Therefore authority is to be admired, and due deference shown. For the younger generation, skill and intelligence often count for more than experience. These employees feel that the best performing person should be elevated, regardless of age or experience. This fundamentally different view of authority means that older employees may see younger ones as disrespectful upstarts. Younger generations respond by decrying ‘outdated’ hierarchy. If older employees find themselves reporting to a younger manager, these problems are further exacerbated.

Regardless of one’s view on how authority is achieved (whether through experience or expertise), respect is undoubtedly earned. And luckily, both experience and expertise can command respect. Which means each generation has the opportunity to impress the other. The company need only give employees this opportunity through cross-generational mentoring.

Instead of automatically assuming that the mentor must outrank the mentee (in terms of job title), recognise that skills can be transferred multi-directionally. An older employee may benefit from a crash course in Keynote by their younger supervisor. At the same time, the younger supervisor can ask for advice on how to deal with a difficult client, based on the wisdom gleaned over many years.

Mentorship need not even be formalised. Everyday help and advice between colleagues demonstrate expertise and experience. For Kalido users, opportunities to ask for and give help are just taps away. An employee can find someone to show them shortcuts on a Mac, teach them the secrets of power dressing, or find an audience to practice on for an important presentation. Employees must simply be willing to learn (from someone older or younger, but undoubtedly wiser).

In this sense, ‘authority’ for all generations will refer to an expert on the subject matter, not merely the power to issue instructions.

Where’s the ‘Me’ in Team?

multi generational teams
You need to make the most of those team members who want to collaborate and those who want individual responsibility.

In terms of how employees think about teamwork and personal responsibility, the generations also differ. Older generations think of work processes in terms of a conveyor belt system. They will personally take responsibility for their chunk of the work, then pass it on to the next person in line. These employees think that if each person in the process does their work, the entire project will be satisfactorily completed. Teamwork is thus the successful completion of your stage.

Younger generations view teamwork a little differently. To them, collaboration is a holistic process. Everyone gets involved at every stage of the process, from the initial planning to the final execution. Communication between colleagues is thus key, as everyone needs to be kept in the loop. Pulling one’s weight is contributing to the group decision-making process.

Both viewpoints have their merit. A smart company can take advantage of the personal responsibility favoured by older employees and combine it with the transparent communication of younger employees. The Agile practice of planning sprints is an example of such. At the start of each sprint (usually a week-long period), the work that must be completed is agreed to by everyone involved. Work is not issued by supervisors, rather each employee undertakes to complete certain tasks. They are then fully personally responsible for these tasks. Every individual has a clear idea of what’s expected of them, and what they can expect of colleagues. Additionally, each person’s views are heard, and concerns addressed. This creates transparency in communication.

For older generations who need to ‘own’ a piece of work, sprints give them clear goals to achieve. For younger generations, the collaborative spirit of sprints means they’re kept in the loop, as part of a greater whole.

What’s the bigger picture?

how to manage someone who is older
Everyone’s north star is different.

What motivates each generation and gets them to work in the morning also differs significantly.

For older employees, higher salaries, promotions, titles, and retirement plans rank high on the list of motivators. These employees also frequently see the work as a means and an end in itself. They will strive to hold the company line and do their best to contribute to the company. On the other hand, younger employees are more concerned with questions of ‘How happy am I working here?’, ‘What’s the point of what I’m doing?’ and ‘What difference are we making to the world?’ Younger employees will often pursue meaning over money. They may see being able to bring pets to work as more important than the corner office. They may also be more inclined to question established rules, in order to see what the point really is.

Personal success therefore looks very different depending on where one is standing on the generational timeline. An older employee who regularly works late and finally gets promoted may see this as a valuable investment. In contrast, a younger employee who can get to Cross Fit, walk the pup, and squeeze in drinks after work may think they’re doing things right.

Knowing what’s important to a colleague, and how it differs from one’s own ambitions, is crucial to creating cross-generational harmony. And the only way to create this understanding is by fostering better relations between colleagues. Instead of seeing the regular late worker as a workaholic and brown-noser, understanding that they’re a single parent trying to send their child to college puts a different light on their determination. And knowing that the young colleague suffered a stroke at 22 from stress makes their commitment to exercise and work/life balance quite reasonable.

Creating networks on Kalido is an excellent way to encourage more understanding and interaction between colleagues. Network members can see each other’s full profiles, including skills, interests, hobbies, and affiliations. Colleagues can see who someone is outside of work, as full-fledged people, rather than one dimensional job titles. They can also chat and call each other for free from the app.

Networks also encourage colleagues to socialise outside of work. Companies can create book clubs, or after-work running groups, or an amateur movie critics network and many more. All of these let employees pursue their interests and share their passions, with the added benefit of doing it with colleagues – people who share their work schedule and understand their industry. Knowing someone on a personal level, and understanding what’s important to them, builds greater trust and empathy. This helps to bridge the gap between different generations.

Integrating a cross-generational workforce is thus an exercise in understanding how each generation relates to authority, co-operates with colleagues, and what each wants out of life. Companies who can appreciate the viewpoints of each generation, and create an environment where they co-exist harmoniously, will reap the rewards of having the enthusiasm of youth and the experience of age on board.