Employers understand the importance of diversity in the workforce and with many organizations now employing five or six generations of employees, they have ready access to a diverse pool of mature and emerging talent that can bring enormous benefits to the business.
However, this can also create challenges. How do employers motivate and engage multiple generations of staff members, from the older traditionalists and baby boomers through to Gen X, Y, and Z, when each has its own preferred style of working?
Understanding the Multigenerational Work Styles
Different things motivate people at different stages of their working life. Baby boomers, for example, are motivated by monetary rewards, but they also value things like flexible retirement planning. They often prefer recognition from their peers rather than their supervisors. Gen X employees like to work independently: they see career progression as being based on merit rather than rank or seniority, and they also count flexibility among their rewards of choice.
Gen Y employees are motivated by training and development opportunities, and they value stock options as a monetary reward, while Gen Z is more interested in social rewards, such as mentorship and ongoing feedback than money. They also like to be given responsibility and projects that make a positive impact on the organization.
This is one the widest point in the cross-generational workplace divide, as the pace of developments in digital technology that are so readily embraced by the younger generations can leave older employees feeling left behind.
Baby boomers and traditionalists are known to favor voice communications, but both they and Gen X were also the first generations to start using early electronic communications. They would probably look for a balance between email, voicemail, face-to-face communications, and meetings.
Having grown up with the internet, Gen Y workers probably struggle to perceive a world of work where fax or even cell phones were considered revolutionary as a means of communication, even more so in the case of Gen Z, whose preferred communication channel is the messaging platform.
One thing that employees across all generations have in common is a desire for feedback, but they have their own preferences for how they receive it. For baby boomers, it has to be in person, frequent, and supported by evidence. Without it, they can end up feeling that they might not be doing a great job.
Gen X was the first generation to be proactive in asking for feedback from their employer; what’s more, they prefer to get regular performance updates rather than annual or more sporadic appraisals. They value opportunities to grow and develop, and for this generation, receiving feedback is closely tied to their aspirations for career progression.
Having grown up in the digital and social networking age, Gen Y views feedback as something that can be received instantly. They appreciate regular feedback and respond well to positive reinforcement. Gen Z, meanwhile, expects feedback from their manager at least every few weeks in order to stay in their job.
Uniting the Multigenerational Workforce
One thing that all generations have in common is the desire to be understood, accepted, and valued and to feel a part of some sort of tribe or community. There are solutions that employers can use to engage employees of all ages, not just with their organization, but also with each other, as intergenerational expert Henry Rose Lee explains.
“The older generations tend to worry about becoming irrelevant and ending up with a closed mindset, so reverse mentoring is very useful,” she says. “Two legal clients of mine now get their baby boomer board directors mentored by younger Gen Y employees on things like new software, and the impact of AI, etc.”
Among younger workers, communications styles are largely based on being brought up with and totally embracing technology. They have grown up online and use social media as their tribe, which older generations never had to do. In creating a more unified working environment employers should think about setting up a buddy system, pairing employees from different generations and encouraging cross-generational collaboration that can pay huge dividends in terms of shared knowledge and experience.
“Setting up an innovation hub also encourages joint and co-led projects, with mixed generational hub team members or leaders where the structure, stability, and strategy of older generations meets the innovation, novelty, and flexibility of younger generations,” adds Lee. “When that works, you have a dream team.”
Creating a diverse benefits package is another key step in establishing harmony across multiple generations of employees, says Lizzie Benton, company culture consultant at Liberty Mind.
“Employers should provide a good range of choice; for example, flexible working, nursery vouchers, bike-to-work schemes, gym memberships, financial support, etc.,” she says. “By allowing employees to adopt up to three benefits that are relevant to them, you make them feel valued as an individual, and serve everyone’s needs.”
Adapting the workspace to meet everyone’s idea of a motivational work environment can also pay dividends. For example, Gen Y and Z like an agile, flexible work environment, while baby boomers are often more comfortable staying at their own desk. Providing open plan areas for larger team collaboration and quieter areas for those who may need to work on their own means that everyone has access to their ideal workspace where they can be more productive and do their best work.
When it comes to giving feedback, the best strategy for employers is to give it more frequently and without waiting to be asked for it. A system should be in place that allows employees to provide their feedback on things like reward and recognition, internal communication, and training opportunities. Employers need to show they are listening and prepared to respond.
Having demonstrated an understanding of how different generations prefer to work, employers also need to see beyond the stereotypes and recognize that every employee has a unique set of expectations, skills, and knowledge shaped by their life experiences, and must be defined by what they bring to the business rather than their age.
With a culture that supports all aspects of diversity in the workplace and good managers who can recognize the different needs of staff and adapt their leadership style accordingly, employees from every generation can realize their full potential, engage more closely with their colleagues, and bring huge benefits to the business.
Alison Coleman is a freelance journalist and editor, with 24 years experience, founder of Coleman Media, and a Forbes contributor. She covers stories on all areas of business for national and international online and print publications. Follow her on Twitter @alisonbcoleman or check out her latest work at www.alisoncoleman.co.uk.