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Collaboration in a Multigenerational Workplace

Bob Little 

May 18, 2018

The world’s workforce is experiencing a radical demographic change, with multigenerational offices and multigenerational teams fast becoming the norm.

Members of Generation Z (those born between 1995 and the early 2000s) are embarking on their first jobs, Millennials are entering working life “middle age” and Baby Boomers (people born between 1945 and 1964) are adapting to evolving working cultures.

The abolition of forced retirement age(s), combined with the trend for people to live and work to a greater age, has produced a workforce – especially in the West – that spans more than 50 years in age.

Spanning Five Generations

“Our workforce has an increasingly broad age range, now spanning an unprecedented five generations,” said Maria da Cunha, Director People & Legal at British Airways (B.A.), speaking at a recent event for key HR/L&D leaders at the Financial Times’s (F.T.) head office in London (and organized by FT | IE Business School Corporate Learning Alliance).

Chaired by F.T. columnist Michael Skapinker, the event included a panel comprising B.A.’s da Cunha, with Anton Fishman, of Fishman & Partners, the F.T.’s Leyla Boulton, (Executive Editor) and Lilah Raptopoulos (Community Editor).

Rethinking Generational Assumptions

HR leaders – and senior figures in other disciplines – must rethink their assumptions about optimal team balance, experience, technology, career expectations and working culture.

For example, how can organizations inspire creativity and collaboration among a multigenerational workforce, build an inclusive and cohesive working environment, engender mutual respect and learning, and ensure that behavior and values are aligned?

Mentoring and Looking for Challenges

“We all look for mentorship and sponsorship from colleagues, along with opportunities for learning and growth – but the workforce generations are separated by tone,” says Boulton. “Younger workers need direction and help to navigate the ways of ‘opaque’ organizations. They should reciprocate by showing the older generations respect.”

“People of all ages want work that challenges them,” agrees da Cunha. “We’re seeing changes in younger workers’ expectations. They’re more overt in demanding respect from older workers. Also, they’re less willing to show respect until they feel others have earned it from them.”

“Younger working generations – notably ‘Gen Z’ – seem to be more goal-oriented than, say, Baby Boomers,” adds da Cunha. “Gen Z workers want to be challenged and stretched, and expect greater transparency of information.”

“This can create tensions with older middle managers who don’t relate well to these younger workers. This creates an L&D need to create better middle managers,” adds da Cunha.

A Fondness for Models

“I’m concerned about the degree to which we believe that ‘generational differences’ are ‘truths’,” adds Fishman. “Within HR/L&D, we like ‘models.’ We apply their rules, often, and perhaps too rigidly.”

“Part of the issue is that older people have forgotten what it is to be young – and young people don’t know what it’s like to be old,” he adds. “That’s always been the case!”

“At different stages in their lives, people need different things,” comments da Cunha. “Different generations have different expectations about their organizations. And the organization’s responsibilities towards them.”

Opportunities and a Multigenerational World

“If you’re in the ‘middle’ of the organizational hierarchy in middle working life, you’ll probably stay there. There are, by definition, few ‘top jobs’,” says Fishman.

“So, in today’s ‘flatter‘ organizational structures, there should be more opportunities for people to broaden their experience,” he adds. “This can be through being part of project teams that have formed to meet specific needs.”

Focusing on the upper ages, Fishman believes that, “There are many people in their early 50s whose careers have come to a halt. They have valuable experience but they can feel an organizational bias against them in favor of younger people.

“Moreover, people are choosing to extend their working lives – and this challenges organizations to devote more resources to managing these people more effectively,” adds Fishman.

“It’s always more important to focus on what a worker can do,” says Boulton. “Offer the person opportunities to build on their strengths so they can progress towards meeting their expectations.”

HR/L&D’s Role

Fishman believes that the HR/L&D function can help remove much of each workplace generation’s frustration by re-designing organizational structures, and career progression within them.

“Most people will never be more than middle managers. So, decide how to motivate these people and give them something to keep them developing and ‘growing’,” says Fishman.

“You should make your own job, and many of the future’s jobs don’t yet exist,” says Raptopoulos, a Millennial. “Decide what you want to do, and persuade your bosses they need what you want to do.”

“Operational managers must help HR/L&D professionals in this,” adds Boulton. “As the ‘eyes and ears’ that HR/L&D professionals need, they should provide real time information on what their people can do.”

Dispelling Employment Myths

“It’s also important to reach out to people before they start their careers,” adds Boulton. “Contact them before they go to college and university to outline the careers open to them.”

“Tell them stories about your industry and organization. Don’t talk to them in the abstract – or use industry jargon,” adds Boulton.

Agreeing, da Cunha says, “This can help dispel gender and class stereotypes for children. Moreover, lots of jobs that children ‘know’ exist, don’t. Children don’t know about lots of job opportunities that do exist. HR/L&D professionals must play their part to dispel these myths.”

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