There’s no ‘Gen I’ in team

by 01 Dec 2014
A homogenous approach to managing multiple generations at work will simply not be effective, writes Karen Evans.

Many HR practitioners are familiar with the three main generations present in today’s workplace, Generations X, Y, and the Baby Boomers. However, many managers see the generational differences as little more than numbers on a piece of paper. While this may be true in one regard, a wise HR professional will acknowledge the differences between the generations, and use this to optimise and develop their workforce to be the best it can be.

The differences between generations in the workplace
There are two main reasons for the differences between employees of various generations. Foremost is that they are clearly at different stages of their lives. Somebody close to retirement will certainly have different priorities than someone fresh out of university, and see their workplace and career path in an entirely different way. The second influencing factor is the global dynamic during their childhood and education. This is not restricted simply to an individual’s approach to technology and new trends, as many may think, but encapsulates social and cultural attitudes, ideas, and values that have affected them through their lives.

The Baby Boomers are those employees currently in their early 50s to late 60s.They are nearing retirement, although many are planning on working through this phase in their lives. They have lived through times of unprecedented prosperity as well as high levels of social and political change.

Generation X is made up of those that are now in their early 30s to late 40s. They have seen prosperity in the late 90s and early 00s, and have also lived and worked through the recent global economic crash. They are the first generation to have a strong focus on the environment, work-life balance, and simply want to work hard at the job that’s in front of them.

Lastly, Generation Y are relative newcomers to the workforce, with its members being aged roughly between 20 and 30. While their impact on the workforce has not been fully explored, in 2012 the International Journal of Managing Projects in Business confirmed that the generational difference between Generation Y and X is vastly more different than those between Generation X and the Baby Boomers. This is partly due to their high level of cultural, racial and gender diversity in comparison to previous generations, as well as being dubbed “digital natives.”  

How to get the most out of your employees
While it’s important for employees to fit into the company’s vision, it’s as important for HR managers to make sure the company fits in with its employees. A well-rounded workplace will obviously include staff of all ages. Thus, it’s vital to adopt a diverse attitude towards dealing with staff, and there are many studies that look into motivations and reward for employees. In 2013, Incentive Magazine explored the workplace motivators between employees of different generations. Unsurprisingly, all generations responded well to financial reward.

However, the largest discrepancy between employees lies in their career motivators. Baby Boomers were found to value informal recognition and social incentives, especially ones that support their relationships with co-workers and family. This generation performs better when encouraged with intangible rewards, and will often strive to improve a relationship with others in the organisation.  

Generation X is heavily motivated by opportunities that contribute to their learning or career progression. They are often best suited to roles which show the most obvious impact, and will seek to accomplish long term achievements. This lies in contrast to Generation Y, who values a collaborative work environment based on recognition and task objectives. Therefore, the younger generation is best applied to smaller, but more plentiful tasks.
How to manage communication and workflow for inter-generational teams
Traditionally, seniority and influence has been dictated by age. However, this is rapidly changing, as Adam Murray wrote for The Australian Library Journal in 2011. He outlined the shifting dynamics with the introduction of technology and rapidly changing skill requirements for traditional roles. As these dynamics change, so should be the way an HR manager approaches team assembly.

Based on generational motivations and employment dynamics, Generation X is often seen as the generation best suited to strategic and higher level work. This doesn’t represent leadership, however. Expectedly, the Baby Boomers thrive in workplace leadership roles, and are well suited to mentoring, taking great pride in fostering the skills and knowledge of other employees. This ties in well with the youngest generation, Y, who seek to learn incrementally, and (deep down) respect and value the authority of their elders. To this end, many members of the Baby Boomers have found themselves mentoring not the generation snapping at their heels, but the one below, teaching them in stages and passing on the knowledge they’ve fought hard to earn.

Understanding the different values and mindsets between generations is critical for a good HR manager. There is not a “one size fits all approach”, and we encourage HR managers to read and research widely when addressing this issue. As the workforce becomes increasingly diverse, can you afford not to?

About the author
Karen Evans is Managing Director at NGA.NET, a world leader in cloud-based talent management solutions.