The Ultimate Guide to Managing a Multigenerational Workforce
January 4, 2021
By Kelley Briggs
Can workers from multi-generations blend their talents and experiences seamlessly to form a well-oiled professional machine?
Or are conflicts resulting from generational differences inevitable? The answer to the question depends on the skills of the manager responsible for managing the multigenerational workforce. Although we hear a lot about diversity and inclusion in the workplace, there is not a factor that exposes differences in the most glaring light than the factor of age. From music preferences to cultural perspectives, each generation has a unique set of characteristics that can at times conflict with workers from other generations.
How do you manage a workforce that is highly diverse in age? You read the following ultimate guide to managing a multigenerational workforce.
What is a Multigenerational Workforce?
It is not a term that you hear on the nightly news, as well as inside of the halls of academia, at least for now. However, rest assured that “multigenerational workforce” will become one of the most talked about human resources terms as we move deeper into the third decade of the 21st century.
In the broadest definition, the term means a work environment where several different generations apply their professional skills. The reason why the term has sparked intense interest over the past few years is a growing number of workplaces include employees that come from different generations.
Savvy managers will tailor their employee engagement strategies as they understand that each generation has different wants, needs, and expectations. Whether it was a transformative world event or a cultural phenomenon that took firm hold, every one of the following four generations brings something different to the workplace.
Baby Boomer: 1946-1964
The aftermath of World War II ushered in a period that experienced the highest birth rate in the history of the United States. According to Gallup, Baby Boomers comprise almost 30 percent of the American workforce. Gallup calculated that from 2011 until 2029, nearly four million Baby Boomers will reach the age of 65 each year.
Baby Boomers are the first generation to push aside the traditional retirement age of 65. This means for the first time in our history, four generations are a part of the American workforce. Many employers can expect their Baby Boomer employees to remain on the job much longer than any of the previous generations. The defining characteristics of the members of the Baby Boom generation include a strong work ethic, a focus on achieving a stable retirement, and self-motivation to complete difficult professional tasks.
Creating a meaningful employee experience for these older workers in your organization delivers benefits to every member of your team by demonstrating that everyone's contributions matter. Recognizing their contributions, celebrating their achievements, and recognizing retirement with the honor it deserves shows everyone that your company is a place that people are willing to invest years into.
Generation X: 1965-1979
Despite the attention that baby boomers and millennials receive, Generation X has also made a huge impact on the American workforce. The generation that gave us grunge music and a deep mistrust of authority now sits in many positions of power in both the private and public sectors.
Although many members of Generation X have accomplished much in the business world and had a positive impact on promoting cultural issues, the Harvard Business Review recently stated that over the past five years, about two-thirds of Generation X leaders have received no more than one promotion. Additionally, the promotion rate for Generation X professionals falls 30 percent below the promotion rate of millennials.
The lesson for management is to learn how to interact with members of Generation X, as well as devise employee engagement strategies to retain them for longer periods. Gen Xers are highly educated, with the keen ability to learn new technologies quickly.
During 2017, Millennials passed Baby Boomers and Gen Xers to become the largest generational presence in the American workforce. By 2025, Millennials should represent nearly 75 percent of the American workforce.. No other generation has received more attention from human resources specialists when it comes to advising managers on how to manage employees.
As Millennials have grown older, the priorities of the members of the generation have shifted and, in many cases, shifted dramatically. With the oldest Millennial poised to turn 40 years old in 2020, the time has arrived to reassess what drives the most influential generation in the American workforce. Despite the aging of the generation, Millennials still bring idealism, work and life balance, and a focus on career growth to the professional table.
Generation Z: 1996 to 2015
Although not yet the force Millennials are in the workplace, Generation Z will eventually have a major impact on the American workplace. The first members of the generation to enter the American workforce have already displayed differences from their Millennial counterparts. Members of Generation Z want to learn with a purpose, which means they like to connect events with the original objective.
Tech-savvy, most members of Generation Z were born after the explosion of the Internet. The generation will be the last generation to have a Caucasian majority. Because of this, managers will have to do more to develop a multicultural work environment. Unlike Millennials, Generation Z members possess an entrepreneurial approach to problem-solving in the workplace. They can multitask and they prefer to work independently on group projects.
Importance of Engaging a Multigenerational Workforce
Wikipedia gives us a general definition of an engaged employee. An engaged employee is “one who is fully absorbed by and enthusiastic about their work and so takes positive action to further the organization’s reputation and interests. An engaged employee has a positive attitude towards the organization and its values. In contrast, a disengaged employee may range from someone doing the bare minimum at work (aka ‘coasting’), up to an employee who is actively damaging the company’s work output and reputation.”
Many managers intermix employee engagement with terms such as employee satisfaction and employee experience. However, employee engagement is not about how an employee feels about working at Company X; it is all about how the employee interacts in the workplace. However, knowing how to engage members of the Baby Boomer generation requires a different strategy than the strategy used to engage members of the Millennial generation.
How important is employee engagement in a multigenerational workforce? According to a survey conducted at a company with more than 500 employees, nearly three-quarters of managers believed employee engagement is one of the “most important factors” that determines the success of the company.
Employees that are engaged at work are also motivated at work.
The problem is engaging a multigenerational workforce cannot involve a one-size-fits-all approach. It should take into account the unique characteristics of each generation.
Let’s learn how to better engage a multigenerational workforce.
Understand People, Not Trends
Reading an article that describes the latest trend floating around in the world of Generation X does not cut it if you want to increase engagement with Gen Xers. Managers must be willing to ask questions that educate them about the expectations and preferences of each Generation X worker. A manager should use different tools to learn about the people working at the company, such as during employee performance reviews and by sending out confidential employee surveys.
Modify the Job Description
Each generation brings different principles to the work environment. Millennials tend to stay at the same job for a shorter period than how long Gen Xers and Baby Boomers stay at the same job. A Gallup study discovered that Millennials place more emphasis on discovering career opportunities than the emphasis placed on discovering career opportunities by the members of Generation Z.
The key to engaging a multigenerational workforce is to ensure every employee has the opportunity to grow at a preferred pace. Managers should encourage employees that want to modify the job description the same way they encourage employees that prefer to work within the guidelines established by the current job description.
Commit to Improving Professional Skills
Employees from different generations feel engaged when their managers challenge them to improve their professional skills. You have heard the word “upsell” at some point during your career, which refers to moving customers to higher-end products and/or selling them additional items that complement the product they have already purchased. A growing number of employers have turned to upskilling the skills of their employees.
It is one thing to have employees that want to grow professionally. However, that means nothing unless employers are willing to devote the time and the money to develop new professional skills. Engaging the multigenerational workforce requires employers to create customized career trajectories for each member of the team. The company provides the resources and rewards employees that want to invest in their professional futures.
Whether you manage a 22-year old member of Generation Z or a Baby Boomer looking to extend a career, engaging your employees by developing professionals skills leads to a higher retention rate.
Mentoring Works Both Ways
Mentoring in the workplace has always helped newer employees become engaged with a company. An older member of the company spends time at work and outside of work helping a younger employee learn the proverbial ropes. Because of multigenerational workforces, some companies have initiated what is referred to as a cross-mentoring program to engage as many employees as possible.
Human resource provider Insperity launched a cross-mentoring program in 2017. Having employees across all age demographics involved in a mentoring program has enhanced employee engagement. For example, a Baby Boomer can introduce a Millennial to a couple of professional networking groups, while the same Millennial teaches the Baby Boomer a couple of new digital marketing strategies. Insperity released a report about its novel cross-mentoring program, and the report concluded the program has improved team member collaboration.
In other words, cross-mentoring has improved employee engagement.
Keeping All Employees Well-Informed
Have you ever fell out of a company’s information loop? Did it seem like everyone but you knew about the last mandatory meeting? Feeling left out in the workplace is perhaps the worst feeling an employee can have. Disengagement from the rest of the team is all but certain. The best way to avoid that type of disengagement is to ensure everyone on your team has quick access to the same information.
Although the information is the same across generational lines, the delivery system is a bit different. Gen Zers and Millennials prefer digital communication, while many Baby Boomers like to receive information in hand-written form. Gen Xers tend to drift towards the digital forms of communication, but do not discount the importance of presenting information on a bulletin board for Gen Xers.
One way that every generation in the workforce likes to receive information is through mobile devices. From a tablet to a smartphone, employees access their mobile devices frequently throughout the day. Even the Baby Boomer generation has grown accustomed to getting company news via a mobile device. With a growing number of professionals sticking with a remote work environment, connecting to your team by sending mobile-friendly emails and text messages should continue to be an effective communication strategy.
With Millennials making up the largest chunk of the multigenerational workforce by 2025, it makes sense to make mobile communication an essential information channel.
Share Your Business Strategy
We previously discussed the importance of keeping your multigenerational workforce informed about company matters. Regardless of the age of an employee, that employee wants to receive a clear picture of your business goals and the business strategies implemented to achieve those goals. The communication of your goals can include one-on-one interactions such as a performance review. Group meetings that are done in person and online represent another effective way to spread the word about your company goals and business strategies.
Develop a Culture of Shared Purpose
One of the largest generational differences in the workforce involves two-way feedback. Older workers tend to not like sharing their ideas, concerns, and feedback. Baby Boomers and some members of Generation X also are not too keen on receiving feedback from their employers. They believe the most important feedback comes from clients and customers.
On the other hand, younger workers have no problem voicing their ideas, concern, and feedback, without their employer having to solicit the information. Generation Z and Millennial employees like to seek out feedback because it represents the most accurate form of gaining information about their performance.
Bridging the feedback gap between different generations is one of the most challenging aspects of a manager’s job. However, it is important that everyone receives feedback to ensure employees work in a culture that develops a shared purpose.
As opposed to older workers, younger workers encourage the sharing of knowledge because it fosters improved collaboration. Employers that discover ways to encourage older workers to share knowledge reap the benefits of a more engaged workforce. Managers that can motivate a multigenerational workforce to cross-generational boundaries by sharing knowledge freely gain a huge competitive advantage.
One strategy to foster the sharing of knowledge is to hold professional development seminars that include role-playing scenarios.
Barriers of Managing a Multigenerational Workforce
Improved working conditions, declining birth rates, and extended life expectancies have combined to produce one inevitable result: Employees working well past the traditional retirement age. This means that for the first time in American history, four generations share many workplaces in the United States.
Because each generation has different professional goals and expectations, managing a multigenerational workforce presents numerous challenges.
As a recent human resources management study demonstrates, managing four distinct generations is not an easy thing to accomplish. The study looked at companies that employ more than 500 workers, with 58 percent of the managers interviewed saying they frequently experience some form of conflict between older and younger workers.
Let’s take a look at some of the barriers managers must hurdle to manage a multigenerational workforce effectively.
Barrier #1: Age
We can talk about gender, racial, and religious diversity until we turn blue in the face. The fact remains that age represents the largest difference between workers. A 60-year old Caucasian male has more in common with a 60-year old African American female than he has in common with a 30-year old Caucasian male. People of similar ages prefer to stick together. They share the same types of childhood memories and enjoy many of the same music genres.
The ultimate goal for managing a multigenerational workforce is to find common likes and dislikes among different age groups. Maybe it's a love of soccer or the enjoyment of a scenic bike ride. Although age is the ultimate barrier for managing a multigenerational workforce, it is not an impossible barrier to clear.
Barrier #2: Preferred Company Culture
Allen Shayanfekr, who is the CEO and co-founder of Sharestates, puts company culture in the proper perspective. "The way in which your employees receive company culture is one of the toughest and most important aspects of running a business," he said. "When the workforce is happy and [workers] enjoy their environment, the atmosphere as a whole is more productive."
Shayanfekr emphasizes he discovered that by inviting his multigenerational workforce to social events like happy hours and celebrating special occasions, his employees formed closer bonds that crossed generational lines. "Whether it's a summer pool party, celebrating birthdays in the office or hosting a secret Santa for the holidays — each of these events helps our team to grow closer and appreciate each other, regardless of age."
Barrier #3: Values
Historic events such as a major armed conflict, a once-in-a-lifetime economic recession, and monumental shifts in technology can all shape the values of an entire generation. For example, older workers understand what the United States was like before the attacks on September 11, 2001. On the other hand, younger workers have known only strict airline boarding requirements and security checkpoints along some of the nation’s interstates and highways.
Baby Boomers value individual accomplishments, with an importance placed on attaining material success. Gen Xers typically value time spent with family as much or more than climbing up the corporate ladder. Millennials like to participate in social activities, while Generation Z appears to be a generation that values personal freedom.
As a manager of a multigenerational workforce, it is your responsibility to respect the different values of each generation, while at the same time blending the values into a cohesive company culture. Encourage workers from all generations to share what they value and why they possess those values.
Barrier #4: Communication Style
The four generations that comprise today’s workforce communicate in clearly different ways. However, the difference in communication styles between Millennials and Baby Boomers ranks as the largest difference in communication styles between all the generations in a multigenerational workforce
You might call it a communication chasm.
Millennials prefer to communicate in real-time via tweets and text messages, while Baby Boomers are content with opening an email that arrived the day before and responding to voicemails hours after they were delivered. Members of Generation X and Generation Z communicate by using a blend of styles, although Generation Z can be called the first generation to make live chat on platforms like Zoom a common method of communication.
A manager’s responsibility is to understand the differences in communication styles and adapt to each generation’s preferred mode of interaction. It is a difficult balancing act, but the result should be a much more engaged multigenerational workforce.
Barrier #5: Demeaning Stereotypes
- Unwilling to work hard
- Deserving of special treatment
These are just three divisive stereotypes that some Baby Boomers have about Millennials. Some members of Generation Z, which is often labeled as a socially receptive generation, look at many Gen Xers as aloof and brooding.
CEO of Beyond.com, Richard Milgram emphasizes that stereotypes of generations can become a drag on company performance. "Overcoming existing stereotypes is hard," Milgram said in an interview. “It takes a conscious effort to distinguish your own talents and not let preconceived notions do that for you. Workers need to match their vision of success with the work ethic that it will take to get there — meaning a willingness to go beyond what's expected."
Proactive managers who detect the presence of stereotypes in the workplace can intervene to prevent the development of misunderstandings that lead to overt conflicts. Milgram believes the responsibility for removing negative stereotypes from the workplace should fall on the shoulders of older workers.
"People sometimes think that someone younger knows less, has experienced less, is less worthy of the position. I think we forget that age doesn't necessarily have anything to do with it," Milgram said. "Some people experience a lot in a short amount of time, have learned skills that we didn't, have a wisdom that is beyond their years or have a perspective that no one else has."
Adapting to a Multigenerational Workforce
Maria Black, who is president of ADP TotalSource, says adapting to the needs of different generations is the key to managing a multigenerational workforce successfully.
“For example, as the American mentality toward work continues to shift its focus to work-life balance, younger generations are beginning to incorporate more of the perks usually associated with retirement throughout their careers,” Black stated. “They are living in the now, rather than saving all the enjoyment for after they stop working.”
Millennials tend to be socially conscious, which makes them more likely to get involved in company-sponsored volunteer opportunities. Generation X is known for maintaining a stable career path that is well-defined through company resources. Baby Boomers want to mentor and help younger workers make the transition from higher education to a thriving career. According to Black, Generation Z, which has just entered the workforce, remains a work in progress.
“It’s so important for employers to highlight points of connection that cross generational lines," Black says. "Highlighting the brand and demonstrating how the company culture caters to each group will help in attracting and retaining the best talent."
Black has the following advice for managers who have a difficult time adapting to the unique needs of each generation in a multigenerational workforce:
Investing in interactive tools is the most effective way to communicate with Millennials. Instead of onboarding new employees by holding an in-person orientation, a manager can work with the human resources department to develop an online onboarding session that younger workers can complete at their preferred pace. Another way to reach Millennials digitally is by allowing them to work remotely at least a part of every workweek.
As Gen Xers inch towards retirement, concerns about rising healthcare costs become a main work-related issue. Adapting to this concern means holding educational sessions in person and/or online to educate Gen Xers in the workforce about how to lower health insurance premiums, while not sacrificing coverage. Gen Xers are also at the point when they want to move retirement assets into more conservative investments.
Baby Boomers want to focus on mentoring and to seek opportunities to help them transition to more of a part-time work schedule. Managers who recognize the changing professional needs of the Baby Boomer generation will get the most out of their older workers. The quickest way to alienate a Baby Boomer is to assign low-level work that does not involve much collaboration. Baby Boomers value relationships, which means getting them to participate in one-on-one mentoring sessions is critical to optimize their productivity in the workplace.
Adaptation Strategies for Employers
Black also offers managers five strategies to help them adapt to a rapidly changing multigenerational workforce.
Strategy #1: Create Customized Communication Strategies
Managers must understand how each generation prefers to communicate. Take time to speak with the members of each generation to discover how they like to interact. Develop a customized communication plan, but remember that there is not a one shoe fits all communication style for each generation. For example, you might have a few Baby Boomers on your team that love to interact via text messaging.
Strategy #2: Rally the Leadership Team
It takes an entire team of managers to adapt to the needs of different generations. Refer to key operational metrics, such as employee retention rates, to gauge the success of your management team. One way to get every leader on board is to have them attend an educational seminar that describes the unique traits of each generation in a multigenerational workforce.
Strategy #3: Make Education the Top Investment Priority
We just mentioned educating managers about learning how to adapt to a multigenerational work environment. In addition to live educational seminars, there a numerous online resources devoted to educating managers. If you do not have a human resources manager, accept responsibility for developing the leadership skills required to be flexible with an age-diverse workforce. Making education the top investment priority is not all about money.
It is also about committing to the time it takes to get it done.
Strategy #4: Encourage Employee Mentoring
You can delegate some of the responsibility of meeting the changing needs of your workers by selecting a few older workers to mentor younger workers. Pairing Millennials with Baby Boomers to work on projects facilitates the two-way mentoring process that we discussed earlier.
Strategy #5: Keep Your Multigenerational Team Engaged
Reach out to your team on a format most of them love to access: Social media. Keep your multigenerational workforce informed by sending out tweets and posting updated information on the company's Facebook page.
How to Manage a Multigenerational Workforce
Learning how to manage a multigenerational workforce starts with the most important principle: Never allow generational stereotypes to taint your decision-making process. The primary goal is to highlight similarities, while celebrating differences.
Here are nine more principles that should help you learn how to manage a multigenerational workforce.
Implement a True Open Door Policy
We have all heard the phrase “I have an open-door policy for anyone, at any time.” However, when the time comes to discuss a workplace issue, the door is either not open or there is no one in the office. Creating a work environment that fosters open dialogue between you and your team members should improve communication in the workplace.
Customize Your Solutions to Problems
The differences between the four generations make it impossible to use a one size fits all solution to every problem. In fact, you have to throw out the corporate manual that describes how to solve different problems in the workplace. Spend time getting to know each member of your team to understand how they prefer to communicate, as well as discover what makes them tick and what turns them off.
At the very least, semi-annual performance reviews give you a chance to learn more about your co-workers.
Adapt to Rapid Changes
As a manager of a multigenerational workforce, you can expect to wear many hats. You might have to play the role of counselor to help a member of Generation Z deal with a professional relationship issue. A couple of hours later, a Baby Boomer strolls into your office to ask about the company’s retirement savings program.
Having flexibility in your management style should improve collaboration among your team.
Establish Clear Goals and Expectations
You are more than a manager of a multigenerational workforce. Every generation in a workforce expects a manager to be a leader who sets clear goals and expectations, which helps team members work on solutions to reach the goals and exceed the expectations. Establish the team goals and expectations, and then clearly explain the goals and expectations to current team members in a group setting, as well as every new team member that has to go through the onboarding process.
Feedback for Everyone
Although age demographic experts have labeled Millennials as the generation that covets the most feedback, the fact remains that every member of your team deserves to know where they stand with the company. Annual or semi-annual performance reviews are excellent opportunities to provide feedback, but a manager should be more hands-on by providing some form of feedback to team members daily.
Schedule Inclusive Social Events
It might appear to be a daunting task, but if you work hard at galvanizing your employees by holding inclusive social events, you will be amazed at how the events improve collaboration in the workplace. A manager does not have to play the guessing game. Simply ask your employees to write down what they like to do outside of work. Then, ask them to put their lists into a shoebox for you to review.
If there is one thing your employees want that crosses all generational lines, it is they want to see their manager actively involved in daily job-related projects. This goes back to the open-door policy. Members of each of the four generations want you to be accessible throughout every workday. The most effective way to remain accessible is to join your employees when they tackle difficult and time-consuming projects.
Mix Up Your Approach to Communicating
Yes, Generation Z and Millennials love to communicate by using electronic devices. Baby Boomers and Generation X prefer old school communication methods like one-on-one interactions and small group meetings. One of your objectives as a manager in a multigenerational workplace is to get your message across clearly. This requires you to adapt to the communication preferences of each of the four generations that comprise your workforce.
Encourage Career Development
One of the most effective ways to increase your retention rate is by encouraging employees to work towards career advancement. Career advancement does not always have to be vertical moves. You can assign more responsibility to team members by having them lead projects and create company initiatives that boost employee satisfaction.
One factor that binds the generations together is the motivation to advance professionally.
How to Recognize and Reward a Multigenerational Workforce
Another universal truth that covers a multigenerational workforce is each member wants to be appreciated for working hard and achieving positive results. Unfortunately, far too many managers believe a paycheck is all it takes to show appreciation.
The bottom line is each member of your team wants to be recognized and rewarded for achieving company goals and exceeding expectations.
Let’s look at four strategies to recognize and reward your hard-working team.
We mentioned the importance of feedback in the how-to manage a multigenerational workforce section. Some managers think feedback to be always negative, but praise is a positive form of feedback that boosts employee morale, as well as gives younger workers more confidence to tackle complex projects.
The best thing about praise is that it is free and takes no more than a few seconds to deliver.
Most companies run an employee of the month campaign that recognizes an outstanding individual performance over one month. As a manager of a multigenerational workforce, you should do more than the standard employee of the month award by handing out gift cards, tickets to special events, and other fun items to reward the high achievers on your team.
Just make sure to spread the recognition to reach members of all four generations.
The amount of responsibility you give to your employees is directly related to how well you think they are doing on the job. Giving an employee more responsibility with a boost in pay demonstrates that you recognize the employee is exceeding company expectations.
Rewarding high-achieving employees with more responsibility keeps them motivated to do even more in the workplace.
Perhaps no other act rewards and recognizes an employee more than a promotion. Boosting the career of an employee through a promotion should develop a more loyal employee who plans to remain with the company for years to come.
Conclusion: The Multigenerational Workforce is Here to Stay
As a manager, you have watched countless workplace trends come and go over the years. Some of the trends ran their course, while other trends were just bad ideas. One thing is sure about the multigenerational workforce.
It is not a trend.
As workers continue to stay on the job longer, you can expect the four-generation workforce to be around for a long time. The thing that will change is the composition of the next generation to join the workforce. After the Baby Boomers retire, there will emerge a new generation that falls right behind Generation Z. When that day comes, a manager has to learn the likes, dislikes, and workplace preferences of an entirely new generation.
Chances are good the next generation to enter the workforce will be much different than the last generation to retire from it.