Inter-generational workforce can spark innovation

Thoughtful management of inter-generational teams leverages each group's unique strengths and fuels innovation, market observers say, but note a sea change in corporate culture led by today's digital generation.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

Having three generations of workers--Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y--under the same roof could be a recipe for disaster if managed carelessly. But market observers and players say the whole of the strengths, innovation, knowledge and experience gained from having generational diversity at the office is greater than the sum, and well worth the effort.

Today's workplace is increasingly multi-generational. The influx of Generation Y into the working world is steadily growing and its predecessors, Generation X and Baby Boomers, are increasingly finding themselves working or even reporting to colleagues who have not hit age 30.

With three generations occupying the same office, "managers need to understand the work styles and motivations of all the generations" in order to make the best of the scenario, said Charmine Sim, human resources director of IBM Singapore, in an e-mail.

While there is no concrete consensus over the exact birth dates of Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y, the identification of the idiosyncrasies of each generation is less ambiguous.

Born after World War II ended in 1945, Baby Boomers possess a "live to work" attitude and are willing to go the extra mile for their employer as they appreciate job stability and security, according to Mark Sparrow, managing director of recruitment firm Kelly Services Singapore. In an e-mail interview, Sparrow pointed out that Boomers enjoy making decisions with clear goals and responsibilities. Boomers also tend to be task-oriented, said IBM's Sim, adding that they prefer formal ways of communicating, such as face-to-face meetings, memos and e-mails.

Born between 1961 and 1981, Generation Xers place great importance on work-life balance and are resourceful and independent, Sparrow said. Yet, Gen Xers are also highly collaborative and adaptable, Sim noted. They can accustom themselves to digital technologies and build interpersonal relationships through different forms of communication, be these roundtable discussions, phone calls or e-mails, she pointed out.

Having grown up in the digital age, Gen Ys (born between 1982 and 2001), also known as Millennials, are described to be extremely tech-savvy and prefer text-based communication styles--vastly different from preceding generations. They subscribe to text messaging, microblogging and instant messaging (IM), Sim recognized.

Gen Ys want to be treated as equals with the rest of their older colleagues, she said. Similarly, Sparrow recognized that this group craves a flexible working lifestyle and the freedom to develop and advance themselves--which shows that they are not intimidated by authority or afraid to speak up. Gen Ys hold high expectations of their career and want their work to be challenging and meaningful, Sparrow pointed out. As he put it, Generation Y is like "Generation X, [but] on steroids".

Referring to Gen Y as the Net generation, Don Tapscott, CEO of Tapscott Group and author of Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World, said in an e-mail interview that he is convinced today's young adults are "ideally suited for today's new corporations, [as] they are savvy, confident, upbeat, open-minded, creative and independent".

These qualities, however, also make Gen Ys quite a challenge to manage as older colleagues may prefer a traditional, less collaborative style of working, noted Tapscott, who also gives talks on organizational transformation and business strategies.

Conflicts and misconceptions
Sparrow from Kelly Services concurred, saying that a lack of understanding of the different generations' working styles would inevitably lead to friction and clashes. Having no common business objective can also exacerbate the situation, he said.

For instance, Gen X and Y may view Boomers' "work to live" attitude as bootlicking, whereas the work-life balance that Gen X and Y desire may seem like laziness in the eyes of Boomers. Furthermore, having grown up inundated with social media and Web 2.0, Gen Y has a reputation for being inept communicators who rely heavily on technology and devices for interaction, he noted.

On the flip side, Gen Y's adroitness in multitasking--for instance, chatting on IM and working simultaneously--has caused the older generations to think the former have poor concentration skills and a lackadaisical attitude toward doing their job, Sparrow added.

IBM HR director Sim said business units and work teams in the company can sometimes have as many as four distinct generations working side by side, comprising veterans, Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y. Within this mix, the generational differences are clearly seen, along with each individual's life and career stages, approach to work, view on authority, and company loyalty, she pointed out.

According to Sim, IBM has a Generational Diversity program for its staff, which looks at the lifecycle of employees and their needs at different phases of their career, from recruitment to retirement. This is to ensure that the company delivers a best practice employment experience for all its workers at every stage of their career, she explained.

Sim said another challenge lies in keeping mature employees optimally engaged, whether because of the looming retirement age or unease about working with (or under) younger colleagues. IBM makes it a point to engage them so that their relevant knowledge and experience can be made available to the organization on an ongoing basis, she stated.

"Diversity fuels innovation and innovation requires different perspectives, experiences, skills, and high levels of creativity. [Hence], appreciating and understanding the value of age diversity is critical in today's workplace," Sim concluded.

Thoughtful management gives results
Sim stressed that when employers have an inter-generational workforce, managers or team leaders must be "thoughtful about sharing and retaining the knowledge and experience" of each generation of workers. Otherwise, a company runs the "risk of losing crucial skills and knowledge", she added.

Apart from a common business objective and having open discussions of their unique working styles, Sparrow from Kelly Services also advised managers to be aware of the distinct methods in engaging the different generations.

For instance, assigning Boomers to be team leaders of a certain project would fulfill their inclination for position and prestige. Gen Xers would appreciate being given autonomy to achieve goals--that were set for them--using their own resourcefulness and creativity. Gen Ys enjoy having opportunities to multitask and be flexible with their working hours, and to work creatively in teams where they are welcome to offer ideas and suggestions.

The benefits of having three different generations in the same workplace, Sparrow said, are that managers can tap all their strengths at the same time; the generations also have a chance to learn different perspectives from each other.

Taking the lead from youth
Tapscott offered an alternative perspective, stating that Gen Y workers are a powerful force for change in the workplace. He reasoned that while companies should still respect the needs of their older workers, they should alter their corporate culture and management approaches as more Gen Ys start working--such as reverse mentoring, where the younger generation of workers become mentors.

Adopting the practices of the Net Generation and learning from them are smart routes for any company to stay ahead of the game, he commented.

"Properly cultivated, [Gen Y's] attributes can be a critical source of innovation and competitive advantage to the organization...I'm convinced the Net Generation culture is the new culture of work. Its norms may turn out to be the key indicators of high-performing organizations in the 21st century," said Tapscott.

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