There Are Now 5 Generations in the Workforce – Can They Work Together?

How to get your boomers and gen-Zers (and everyone in between) on the same page, despite their different styles.

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 ranks. 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 Gen-Zers want to change the world but feel stymied by outdated practices.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.

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Every generation in the workforce has one thing in common: wanting to be heard.

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.

Building capacity for collaboration and communication

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 percent. The communication forms they struggle with the least? Video and text messaging. This points to the fact that regardless of how we work, we have to stay 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 percent more likely to have below average employee turnover rates. Further, Clear Company found that 86 percent 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.

Creating spaces that match our mission

When considering the multigenerational dynamics within any company, this is the first question business leaders should ask: 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.

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Don’t just drop the latest tools in the hands of employees and expect efficacy.

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.

Easing fears with professional development

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 one-third of workers older than 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 training linked to your company’s needs and inclusive of one generation to the next.

Leveraging automation to create time for collaboration

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 high-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.

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Successful organizations view their multigenerational workforce not as a curse but as a blessing.

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 percent 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 curse 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, coupled with technology, we become more human in our interactions, communicate more clearly with those unlike ourselves and change mindsets about the possibilities for the future of work.

This article first appeared on Fast Company and was republished with permission.

[Top photo: Doomu/Getty]

Richard Bailey is the President of the Americas at Hewlett-Packard. He is responsible for the performance of HP’s business across PCs, Printers, Graphics Solutions, 3D Printing and Managed Services for both commercial and consumer segments.

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