Engaging the workforce

HR and business leaders today face more diversity in the workforce than ever before, particularly generational diversity.

With that growing trend comes the challenge of figuring out how to create a workplace where engagement, loyalty and productivity are high, despite the differences among those demographic groups.

Currently, there is consensus that five distinct generations are active in the global workforce. Based on data from a study from the Pew Research Center1, those age parameters are traditionalists (born 1922-1945), baby boomers (1946-1964), Gen X (1965-1980), Gen Y/millennials (1981-1996) and Gen Z (1997-2012).

According to the website Statista, by next year, the primary global workforce breakdown will be 6 percent baby boomers, 35 percent Gen X, 35 percent Gen Y and 24 percent Gen Z. And in its Global generations: A global study on work-life challenges across generations, EY reports that, by 2025, millennials will comprise three-quarters of the global workforce.

Add it up, and global HR leaders and their organisations must discern how to engage a workforce built around this layer cake of generations, each with its own defining characteristics, values and attitudes shaped by the formative events of their time. Plus, even when you factor in the notion that each group has its differences, there are also commonalities that cut across generational lines that must also be considered in areas including talent engagement, learning, recruiting, benefits, retention and other HR-driven scenarios.

“Companies need to create and execute integrated talent and learning strategies to invest in, engage, retain and develop their workforce in innovative ways”, says Michael McGowan, managing director and practice leader of leadership and talent at BPI Group2. “It’s that simple. Though in practice, it’s much more complicated.”

Major challenges happening now

Diane Belcher, senior director of product management at Harvard Business Publishing (HBP), says the primary challenge in engaging a multi-generational workforce is that these groups, more often than not, differ in how they approach work/life balance, career growth, loyalty, authority and other issues that affect an organisation. She adds that HR and business leaders have an important role in creating common ground across their teams, helping them leverage their collective strengths.

“With a multi-generational workforce, it can be challenging to find the best way to motivate a team, organise work or even recognise successes when priorities vary so widely”, she explains. For instance, Belcher says, within a team, half may crave collaboration, while the other half wants to work solo. Some may rapidly adopt new tools and experiment with technology, while others find the pace of digital transformation overwhelming.

“One employee may indicate that they need more coaching and development, while another seems uncomfortable when given feedback”, Belcher says, adding that two of the strongest shifts propelling workplace change are the rise of millennial employees into leadership roles and the entrance of Generation Z into the workforce. These shifts are ultimately putting pressure on traditional leadership approaches and radically shifting expectations regarding work and learning.

For example, one such issue is team structure and dynamics.

“We are starting to see a shift where leaders are younger than the people on their teams”, she says. In fact, even as far back as 2014, a Harris Interactive survey on behalf of CareerBuilder found that 38 percent of American workers had a younger boss, up from 34 percent in 2012. Of that 38 percent, 16 percent had a manager 10 or more years their junior.

Belcher notes that a State of leadership development study from HBP found younger leaders to be the most critical of development opportunities at their organisations. The study found only 40 percent of younger leaders (36 and younger) described their organisation’s learning and development programmes as “excellent”, compared to 67 percent of baby boomers (56 and older). And the reasons why they found them to be lacking differed as well: While every generation of employee said “time constraints” were the biggest barrier to participating in development at their organisations, younger leaders were far more likely to cite things like poor content, lack of relevance to their work and lack of application opportunities as barriers.

“We are at a critical crossroads where the rate of technological and digital advancement is also bringing a vital need for employees to learn, and continue to learn, to build current skills and gain new ones”, Belcher says. At the same time, she adds, learning technologies are changing to provide more on-demand opportunities that allow employees to influence their own learning.

“So a good part of managing these changes falls to organisational learning and development teams to help create cultures of continuous learning to ensure both the upskilling employees and organisations stay relevant”, Belcher says.

Jayne Mattson, senior vice president of Keystone Associates3, a division of Keystone Partners4, says that, because there are usually at least four (sometimes five) generations in the workforce together, ensuring they are working toward a common goal for the organisation or team can be challenging, especially if managers are not paying close attention to when things are not working and working to resolve issues. Clearly, that is a productivity drain. On the recruiting front, for example, she says, making sure that generational differences are taken into account during the process can be the decider between a good or bad hire.

“Gathering timely, accurate data on their similarities and differences will help determine what the company needs to do moving forward”, Mattson says. BPI Group’s McGowan says that, given the different strengths, gaps and needs of each generation, it’s fairly clear a one-size-fits-all approach that companies have used in the past no longer works.

“Today’s scenario creates more complexity and cost to segment learning and development experiences, for example”, he says. “However, creating a prioritised and focused talent and learning strategy will optimise investment and impact across these generations.”

Generational differentiators and fears

When Phyllis Weiss Haserot, president of Practice Development Counsel5, outlines the key differences and similarities among the different generations, she says it’s important to consider which influences, priorities, mindsets, learning styles and preferred work cultures are typical for each generation, as well as their fears.

Haserot’s book You Can’t Google It!: The Compelling Case for Cross-Generational Conversation at Work offers five things to know about each generation that tend to impact significant interaction among members of each generation:

Boomers »

» Continual learners, many of whom want to keep working for the intellectual stimulation

» Resist any concept of them as “old” – watch your language!

» More tech-savvy and into social media than given credit for

» Like in-person contact

» Still eager to change the world and optimistic

Gen Xers »

» Self-reliant and want their own piece of the action

» Time is currency, like money

» Family and friends come before a boomer-type, work-centric focus

» Slacker reputation evolved to hard-working

» Don’t trust large institutions

Millennials »

» Internet as No. 1 resource, and willing to trade privacy for information and convenience

» Expect a lot of guidance and free information

» Short attention span, uncomfortable with ambiguity

» Demand transparency

» Must see career opportunities or become impatient and move on

Gen Zers »

» Hard-working problem solvers

» Concerned with privacy and cybersecurity

» Value-conscious

» Very devoted to and personally involved in social causes

» Want prompt and frequent feedback

Haserot also offers some fears that influence and differentiate the generations, based on research.

Things in common, too

When planning engagement strategies that factor in generational differences, it’s also natural, and logical, to account for commonalities, say the experts.

According to HBP’s Belcher, much of the conversation today centre on millennials and their need for “purpose-driven” work; it’s clear from much of the research that purpose is a big driver for that generation. But the reality is, she says, everyone cares about being purpose-driven, not just millennials.

“It’s human nature to want to derive some kind of meaning from daily work”, Belcher says. “The rise of the millennial generation in the workplace has, in some ways, allowed all employees to voice that need and, in turn, has given rise to an organizational need to ensure all employees understand the connection between their role and the organization’s overall strategy and mission.

Much of that work lies with individual managers and supervisors, but there is a larger role for the organization to play as well”, she says.

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