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There are now 5 generations in the workforce–can they work together?

March 28, 2019
Borderless Future

With people living longer and retiring later just as younger generations are taking their first jobs, for the first time ever, five generations coexist in the workplace.

For businesses, this presents an unprecedented opportunity to drive innovation by taking advantage of the extensive amount of wisdom, knowledge, and fresh perspective in their midst. But it also presents a major challenge: blending disparate groups into cohesive and productive teams.

As the president of HP’s Americas region, I have seen that blending a multigenerational workforce requires of leadership exactly what they are looking to get back from their employees: creativity.

Creativity is vital in today’s workforce given that no two generations are the same. Boomers and the “silent generation” feel they are being phased out by technology. Millennials feel they drew the short straw with the job market. Gen-Xers feel like the sandwich generation, often forgotten or ignored. Gen-Zers want to change the world but feel stymied by outdated practices. What’s more, each generation tends to believe its way of doing things is the best way. When this happens, cultural clashes invariably hamper operational efficiency.

However, I have found that every generation in the workforce has one thing in common: wanting to be heard. Not everyone agrees what that workplace of the future should look like, and that’s okay. Technology can help build a future of work that is beneficial for everyone, and by applying the right types of innovation, organizations can hear all employees and solve many of the issues that arise within a multigenerational workforce.

When you have multiple generations working together, all thinking and speaking in various ways, it is critical to provide an apparatus for communicating. Since intergenerational translators do not exist (yet), the next-best option is communication platforms where team members message one another, share documents, and collaborate in real-time on various projects.

A study of early-millennials, late-millennials, and gen-Zers found that in-person was their self-described weakest form of communication–by as much as 74%. The communication forms they say they struggle with least? Video and text messaging. This points to the fact that regardless of how we work, we have to keep connected to the most important thing: one another.

When workers feel confident in their communication channels, opportunities for relationship building arise. A Watson Wyatt study showed that companies with strong communication practices are at least 50% more likely to have below-average employee turnover rates. Further, Clear Company found that 86% of employees cited lack of communication and collaboration for workplace failures.

Tech-enabled communication allows for more communication, which means more chances to connect. And it is those individual relationships among employees that ultimately help break down generational barriers. When everyone commits to learning and using the platform, communication feels democratized across generations, and miscommunications become a lesser threat to synergy.

When considering the multigenerational dynamics within any company, the first question for business leaders to ask is, “What am I trying to drive?” For many company leaders, myself included, the goal is productivity. We want employees–no matter the generation–to be effective whether they are in or out of the office. It starts with the physical environments we create. Then, it is enabled by the technology we deploy.

I am a proponent of open-plan seating, with low-level partitions so people can see and speak to one another. The University of Arizona found workers in open seating environments were less stressed and more physically active as compared to those in private offices or cubicles. A welcoming environment, a live environment, and an environment where there is a capacity for collaboration will tend to be more effective regardless of generation. But leaders should survey their employees to find out what types of spaces work for them. According to Harvard Business Review and Facebook, even in the age of algorithms, surveying employees is still an effective way of understanding their needs and predicting future behaviors.

Driving unity across a multigenerational workforce cannot happen without a commitment to professional development. Employees of every generation are wondering what the future holds for them, and they appreciate the value that continuous learning brings to career success. A recent study by D2L and Wainhouse Research found that younger and older workers have remarkably similar preferences for workplace learning. The common thread: All generations want to stay up-to-date on latest tools of the trade.

While older generations worry about being automated out of a job, younger generations worry they do not have the training needed to succeed in the changing workplace. AARP research found 33% of workers over the age of 45 felt they were vulnerable because of their age. And according to a Deloitte survey, millennials worry about succeeding in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where physical and digital technologies merge.

The lesson for employers? Do not just drop the latest tools in the hands of employees and expect efficacy. Help your workers develop the critical skills needed for successful cross-generational collaboration in this ever-evolving world. Develop trainings that are bespoke to your company’s needs, and inclusive of one generation to the next.

It may seem like a paradox, but automation can actually help us be more human. With advances in machine learning, menial and repetitive tasks can be offloaded to virtual assistants that will enable workers of all ages to be more available for higher-level work. Virtual assistants keep track of calendars and changing schedules to ensure employees are in the right place at the right time. They can also expedite processes and enhance protocols.

These technologies might be disruptive at first, but when fully integrated into an office, they allow employees to focus on more important matters, namely, working together. Automation helps ease hierarchical tensions. Ultimately this levels the playing field some and frees up time for all generations to interact and fully realize each other’s more valuable contributions in the workplace.

A recent study by EY shows that more than 90% of gen-Zers want a human element to their teams–not just the digitally driven means they are so often characterized as wanting. I know many of my boomer and generation X colleagues feel the same way. Automation paves the way for more human aptitudes to flourish in the workplace: having one-on-one conversations, brainstorming with colleagues, and driving more empathetic interactions among generations.

Successful organizations view their multigenerational workforce not as a bane, but as a blessing. It is imperative, not just for individual organizations but for the entire working world, to embrace the benefits of an age-diverse workforce. When we come together, bound by technology, we can become more human in our interactions, communicate more clearly with those unlike ourselves, and reinvent mind-sets about the possibilities for the future of work.

By Richard Bailey

Source: Fast Company

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