Perhaps more than ever, the workplace is a multi-generational environment. Due to an unfavorable economic climate, relatively few Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are retiring these days. This leaves many managers with the challenge of managing teams made up of employees from distinctly different generations, each with unique strengths, weaknesses, needs and attitudes. Attitudes, in particular, are important for managers to consider. According to a massive 2015 study conducted by Utah-based software company, Workfront, the three working generations express frequently conflicting opinions of themselves and each other.
A good place for any manager to start is by addressing each generation individually and looking for ways to make those employees more productive, engaged and fulfilled. Take Millennials, for example—it’s no secret Millennials love their smartphones. And while 55% of Millennials surveyed by Workfront describe their generation as “most productive,” older generations do not agree. Only 16% of Gen Xers and 6% of Baby Boomers describe Millennials as “most productive.” Managers may think banning smartphone use in the workplace is a smart policy to increase the productivity of Millennials, but that’s not necessarily true. A Pew Research Center study on mobile etiquette found 29% of young adults report frequent use of their smartphones to catch up on tasks they need to accomplish. Rather than cutting Millennials off completely, a smarter, more nuanced management approach would be to ban smartphone use exclusively during meetings, brainstorms and trainings.
Just as Millennials can benefit from more structure, Gen Xers can benefit from having new work opportunities. Gen Xers are very confident in their productivity. Workfront’s study found 74% of Gen Xers believe their generation is “most productive,” and a majority of both Millennials and Baby Boomers agree. To keep Gen Xers engaged, managers should look for opportunities to provide new challenges by giving these employees tasks beyond the purview of their normal jobs. Try assigning a Gen Xer to manage a special project, or to assist with a big client proposal.
It’s also important to beware of any concerns Gen Xers have with rapidly evolving technologies. Less than a third of Gen Xers describe their generation as the “most tech savvy.” Education and training related to technology can be very good for business. According to a study conducted by IBM on the value of training, eLearning initiatives can boost a company’s productivity level by 50%.
While Baby Boomers are the oldest generation and closest to retirement, they remain a significant segment of the workforce. According to the Pew Research Center, there are 44.6 million Baby Boomers still working today. For Baby Boomers, one area of concern is their ability to cooperate with younger generations (at least according to those generations). The Workfront study found 61% of Baby Boomers describe their generation as “most friendly/helpful,” but other generations hardly agree. Only 12% of Millennials and 22% of Gen Xers describe Baby Boomers as “most friendly/helpful.” One thing managers can do to bridge this gap, real or imagined, is implement more team-building exercises. Team-building exercises are broadly effective at improving workplace dynamics.
Once a manager has addressed the unique make-up of each generational segment on his or her team, it’s time to look for ways to integrate the generations and help people work better, together. One fascinating statistic to emerge from a 2016 Deloitte study of the Millennial generation, is that Millennials are very hungry for mentorship—61% reported having a mentor and 94% of those said they received good advice from their mentor. Given the vast experience and wisdom of many Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, it seems there’s a ready-made formula in place for establishing mentor/mentee relationships at work. Managers would be smart to initiate a mentorship program as a way to help integrate employees from different generations.
Managing people can be very complicated and challenging, especially when dealing with a multi-generational workforce. But like anything else, the rewards can be well worth the effort if managers are sensitive to differences and committed to solving problems creatively and unifying their teams.
Yorton Clark Jr. is professor and Chair of the Business Administration Department at MidAmerica Nazarene University and the newly launched accelerated online Bachelor’s in Business Administration degree completion program.