How to overcome the “generation gap” in the workplace

Written on 30 July 2021

For the first time in history, five different generations are coexisting in the workplace.

But while this is fundamentally a good thing (people living longer and being healthy enough to work later in life), it inevitably entails a number of challenges for employees and organisations alike.

In many ways, this comes down to the increased focus on workplace culture in the modern age. A wider range of ages and circumstances is bound to translate into different behaviours, needs and desires, and with a more culturally-aware workforce than ever before, organisations are far more likely to be scrutinised for their handling of it.

What’s more, the events of the past 18 months have highlighted these differing needs on a scale never seen before. 

With that in mind, this issue should be high on the agenda for employers as we emerge from the pandemic. 

What issues can arise?

The various challenges of managing a multi-generational workforce are all symptomatic of one key fact: age is a variable that determines behaviour, attitudes, outlooks and needs. 

Many employers fall foul of this, primarily because workforce management is often approached with a series of blanket, company-wide initiatives and solutions. 

This is where tensions arise.

Arguably one of the starkest examples of this is benefits, particularly because this is an area where one-size-fits-all directives tend to be applied. 

For instance, while younger workers tend to attribute more value to training and progression opportunities, Generation X and Baby Boomers often value job security over career advancement and prefer “traditional” benefits such as healthcare and employer support and contribution to their savings.

Unfortunately, this is an area that is notoriously mismanaged, with Sodexo research showing that just 10% of employees feel their incentive and rewards schemes are appropriately tailored to their lives. 

Another, perhaps more pertinent, example is the nature of the workplace itself, which is an area that has invariably been highlighted by the pandemic. 

In many ways, this boils down to the use of technology. Data shows that the more tech-savvy generations (Millennials and Generation Z) are significantly more likely to be comfortable continuing to work remotely after the pandemic. 

The survey, which comprised 2,000 respondents (evenly split between Millennial and Generation Z), found that 90% have no interest in returning to office work full time. 

Interestingly, this contrasts heavily with data showing that 60% of business leaders believe younger workers want to spend “most or all” of their time in an office. 

So, not only is there a clear disparity in how different generations wish to work post-pandemic, but a similar disparity seems to exist in how employers perceive the wishes of these generations.

Finally, employer brand and culture is an increasingly pertinent example of where the workplace generation gap is most accentuated. 

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is an area that stands out in particular, being something that is proven to resonate on a far greater level with younger workers.

In one study, 47% of Generation Z respondents said that brands should use their platform to speak out because it’s “the right thing to do”. Generally speaking, older generations tend to be less invested in such initiatives.

On that basis, it arguably falls to employers to gauge the appetite for such initiatives among the workforce, perhaps opting to make it less prominent in the company’s identity if the demographic is majority Baby Boomer or Generation X.

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How can employers overcome this?

An approach that should apply across the board when addressing the generation gap is tailoring your offerings as an employer. 

The obvious example of this, and something that is increasingly a prominent part of the HR dialogue in the modern era, is rewards and benefits. 

The often touted idea when it comes to this is that a one-size-fits-all solution is not the answer, and the generation gap is a key rationale behind that.

In achieving this, the approach employers should first take is simply to communicate with and understand the workforce on a deeper level. 

In small and medium-sized organisations, it may be feasible and effective to arrange a short one-to-one conversation (conducted by a line manager or HR manager) with each employee. This will enable the employer to get a feel for the range of circumstances, needs, desires and ambitions that exist across the workforce, and then scrutinise that information to create more inclusive and relevant benefits, rewards and career development plans.

In larger organisations, a quick and effective way to achieve a similar result may be to distribute a short survey and collate the responses. 

The potential impact of this shouldn’t be underestimated. Research conducted in 2019 found that nearly three quarters (73%) of employees are calling for a more tailored benefits package. 

The study even offers insight into which types of benefits are most popular with different age groups. For instance, those who started working in the 1980s are most interested in medical and dental insurance, whereas Generation Z workers cited unlimited annual leave as the most attractive perk.

Gauging these nuances among the workforce and delivering on them can only yield positive effects for the organisation, with upticks in job satisfaction and engagement likely to result. 

Flexibility is another area that, arguably, applies across the board when addressing the generation gap.

Given the current climate, the most relevant example of this is the post-pandemic workplace. It’s well-documented that age is a critical factor in how employees want to work for the foreseeable future, and it’s vital that employers take this into consideration when forming their plans. 

In fact, even without generational differences factored in, a recent Ernst & Young poll has shown that nearly half (47%) of workers would consider changing their jobs if flexible working wasn’t offered post-pandemic.

Thus, the consensus is clearly split in every possible way. Where engagement and retention are concerned, it’s fair to conclude that a flexible approach will be the most sensible and productive way forward for organisations post-pandemic.

That said, this mantra of flexibility can be applied in numerous different areas. For instance, a greater range of technology, means of communication, and training methods will mean employers can amply cater to different generations and personality types going forward.

Speak to a specialist

If you would like support crafting legally-compliant policies, advice on setting up a fair and motivating incentive scheme, or guidance on your plans for the post-pandemic workplace, our Employment Law and HR experts are available to help. Call 0345 226 8393 or request your free consultation using the button below.

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