9 Major Challenges in Working in a Multi-Generational Workplace

multigenerational workplace

For the first time in history, we now have five generations in the workplace. Ranging from Traditionalists, those born during World War II, to Generation Z who are just becoming old enough to work in the United States. With such a large age range in the workplace, organizations are essentially taking 60 years of values, beliefs and different expectations and putting them in one place and saying “Now go work!” As you can imagine this does not always end well.

However, it doesn’t take just age differences to make the workplace challenging. Today, according to Gallup an astonishing 67% of the workplace is either engaged or actively disengaged. Fortunately, much of this can be attested to the employee and managerial relationships

Why fortunate?: Because improving management technique is in a company’s control. Challenges like employee growth, higher pay, or more leadership opportunities are not always possible to implement. In some industries such as car maintenance, repair shops can only have a certain amount of employees in a particular shop. In order for someone to get promoted to say a master technician, this would require someone to either retire, leave, or die. None of these options are very positive for the company to ensure employee growth and are not very feasible. Hence, fixing managerial issues is much easier than other problems present. 

Now, back to the multi-generational problem. The solution to many of the age differences in the workplace comes down to management. As a manager, it’s important to be aware of what I like to call ‘hotspots’- essentially, areas where conflict tends to arise with age difference. If a manager has the awareness to spot and disarm ‘hotspots’ effectively, then they will quick find cohesive workplace manifesting before their eyes. Below are nine challenge areas:


Challenge 1: Work From Home Options

Here is the dilemma, 30 years ago people did not have the ability to work from home the way they do today. Nowadays, you have video streaming, applications that can track time when you work on your computer, and instant messaging. All of which makes working remotely that much more feasible. However, a few problems arise: 

  1. Not all jobs can be done remotely. 
  2. Not everyone is independent enough to work remotely.

As someone who has built a few companies where all of the team has been remote, I quickly realized that not everyone who I hired, no matter how good their resume is, will be a good remote employee. Many employers who attempt to hire remote employees also realize that in addition to not being a good fit, managers need to change their managing style. 

When addressing multi-generational, a manager needs to decide if: 1. A position is appropriate to do remotely and 2. How often should employees exercise their remote options. Chances are younger employees who by temperament are more adept with technology will push more from remote work than more senior employees. It’s your job and human resources to decide who and how much should people do remotely because each generation grew up with different technology which creates different workplace expectations.


Challenge 2: Time Off 

With the new unlimited PTO movement, many managers fear that employees would abuse this policy continuously taking time off while not putting work in. In addition, different generations can find this very cumbersome. For instance, my grandfather always reminds me that the work week when he was working was 6 days and you took Sunday off. To this day he still takes Sunday off, but will work Saturday. 

Managers should be wary of when an employee attempts to abuse this policy and other employees start to take notice. Especially if the employee is younger. In that case, more senior employees will complain that they are abusing the policy and use the common phrase “why do they get this extra privilege if I didn’t at their age?” A fair and very important argument.  In these predicament its important to remind them that they have the same rights as long as they deliver. If you notice that one employee continuously abuses the policies, as in takes lots of time off and not deliver, then it’s time to set down expectations and let them know what is required of them. If they still don’t meet expectations then it’s time to take performance review action.


Challenge 3: Work Life Balance 

Depending on what generation you ask, work/life balance can mean many different things. For Baby Boomers, it could mean being able to see your children while working a 40 hour week. Generation X, it could mean having the work flexibility to leave the workplace before the commute starts. And for Millennials, it can mean being able to work from home a few times a week to spend time with their children. Again, a lot of this variance can be attested to the technology changes that have been added to the workplace which allow more flexible work hours. Since more senior individuals tend to have had less workplace flexibility than the younger coworkers, you need to specify where to draw that line instead of leaving it to the employees to figure out.


Challenge 4: Communication Protocol

Why addressing a client should you text, call, instant message, or email? 

Depending on what generation you ask, you will probably get different responses. On one end, younger employees usually prefer to text coworkers or even clients. In juxtaposition, Baby Boomers did not have the luxury to text or email so they were left to either call or snail mail. 

With all of the options, which one is worth pursuing? 

It depends immensely on the environmental context. In the 1950s, a series of studies where done observing non-verbial communication also known as the Albert Mehrabian rule. In these studies they observed how much someone is liked and how much non-verbal communication contributed. Specifically, they tracked three different variables: body language, content, and vocal tonality.  The researchers found that content (the text in an email, writing in a letter, or text in a text message) accounted for only 7% of the results on someone’s likableness. While tonality and body language account for the other 93%. Point being, if something is more emotionally heavy, you might want to utilize your voice and body language to become more persuasive regardless of what generations is communicating.


Challenge 5: Employee to Employee Relations

The way you should conduct yourself in the workplace has dramatically changed in the past decades and varies dramatically from industry to industry. In previous decades there was usually a ‘work-self’ and a ‘personal-self’ which existed separately from one another. However, recently the workplace encourages employees to express more about their personal lives, stretching to ‘work-self’ to almost overlap with the ‘personal-self’. In other words, increasing what is socially accepted to talk at work. For instance, companies are looking at adding ‘safe spaces’ where people can explore controversial topics that exists outside of work with other employees. While this is neither good or bad, it should be noted that people are expressing more of themselves at work.

Unfortunately, for those who are more conversative in nature and who are more reluctant to share personal information about themselves would appear cold and antisocial in the workplace. As a manager, it’s important to remember that each person has their level of comfort in sharing, and learning how to engage where that line is, is key to maintaining a culture where people feel safe.


Challenge 6: Dress Code

If you wear a suit to a coding interview, they won’t hire you. If you wear a sweatshirt to a finance interview you will be thrown out of the office without a job offer. The workplace has shifted from a much more formal environments to much more relaxed in style. Not all industries of course, but those who have, have redefined what casual business attire is. Essentially just wear to work what you would normally change into when you leave work. 

Occasionally, employees try to change the dress code environment which can often lead to mixed results as one group of interns found out in 2016. Essentially, the interns disagreed with the formality of the dress code and signed a petition to have it changed. When they presented the signed petition to their managers, they were subsequently all let go. The company did not want to change its policies and found it frustrating that the interns were more focused on dress code than actual work. Understanding where to draw this line is important with dress code. There is no right answer here, except for being consistent across the generations.


Challenge 7: Work Ethic

Loosely defined, work ethic usually means working hard and getting things done. However, on further analysis, depending on what generation you ask, having a good work ethic varies. It could mean staying late to help out in projects to showing up to every meeting and getting work done on time. One extremely high friction area is figuring out what is expected of an employee in terms of good work ethic versus required work. Sometimes, younger employees would be chastised for not staying late in the office to finish work (relying on definition number one) while they would perceive as doing their job as good enough. However, unbeknownst to other employees, when some employees leave early they now have the ability to work from home after their commute to continue finishing projects.  

Managers need to shift from a face-time management (I see you therefore you must be working) to performance driven management (I see you delivering therefore you must be working). When managers make this shift, employees being the office becomes negligible and the primary variable is highlighted – results.


Challenge 8: Technology Usage

Should you, or should you not have Smartphones in the workplace? 

More and more companies now are banning smartphones in the workplace not from some older employees throwing a fit, but rather it stems from safety and productivity issues. However, while removing Smartphones and social media can make employees more productive, employers risk employees leaving because of their strict policies

Do you keep strict rules to optimize productivity or do you keep them lose and let employees have freedom? 

Whatever you choose, make sure that you are consistent. 


Challenge 9: Rate of Feedback

I want feedback and I want it now! Depending on the generation, feedback has been given at different rates in the workplace.

Just about everyone craves feedback in the workplace. However, until recently it has become the norm to give consistent feedback. I believe very strongly that managers should give feedback as often as possible to increase the workplace learning. The 360 review was a time and tried method that was used for many years, but lacked in terms of providing useful immediate feedback. Workplace feedback is analogous to relationship feedback, if you communicate often there is less ‘blow-ups’ in the relationship. I suggest giving feedback as often as possible to give people a sense where they stand. 

Jeff Butler

Jeff Butler Internationally respected speaker and consultant, Jeff Butler helps bridge generational gaps between Millennials and companies looking for their talent and patronage. Butler has quickly built his reputation as a memorable presenter with tangible solutions for attracting, retaining, and engaging Millennials as employees and customers. Within just the past three years, he has spoken at two TEDx events and multiple Fortune 500 companies such as Google, Amazon, and LinkedIn.


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