Generations at work

Q: Generational differences and its impact in the workplace have been a hot topic in the news for some time. There are many factors that have contributed to a new reality in business, including learning how to integrate five distinct generations in today’s workforce. As an executive, how have generational changes in the workforce impacted your business?

A: We live in an interesting time. A number of factors have converged, leaving us with a greater number of generations coexisting than we have ever seen before in history. From longer life spans to later retirements to delayed parenthood, I think we are seeing new fluctuations in the definitions and makeup of those generations as well. Consequently, generational change has been a recurring topic and theme in the media, in business and at conferences for the past several years.

This is a new era for business. For the first time, we have five distinct generations in the workforce, bringing both opportunity and challenge. Personally, I like to focus on the opportunity that any new development can bring for business.

Whether I am at the office or out in the business community, I often look around and think "wow, they just keep getting younger…" (but no one really wants to finish that thought, because if they’re getting younger that cannot possibly mean that I’m getting older).

This is an intriguing time to be in business. Each generation brings their unique strength and challenges. But the changes in the workforce are not just the result of generational differences in the employees or generalized philosophies and traits assigned to each.

One generalization that I would agree with is that younger employees are typically more comfortable with technology and more willing to adopt new enhancements in technology. I think that is true because the younger they are, the longer they have lived with technology. Within Baker Tilly, we have employees who first used a computer as an adult, as well as employees who have had not just computers, but video games and touch screen technology since they were very young children. They are the true technology natives.

Adoption and comfort with technology leads to a large variation in communication preferences as well. Again, perhaps a gross generalization, but I have seen some themes when communicating with employees. Seasoned professionals are more likely to respond with a phone call, while some of our younger employees are more likely to text than to call or email. Our consumption of media and use of communication channels are in a constant state of flux – which always makes it interesting to know the best way to reach and engage employees with corporate updates or personal inquiries.

Having a multigenerational workforce is especially advantageous when you have a company that serves customers across multiple generations. By working with colleagues from multiple generations, employees learn to step out of their comfort zone and are better able to successfully interact with clients from other generations as well, being responsive to the communication preferences of each client.

The greatest way to leverage the advantages of each generation is through open dialogue, mentoring and building a culture based on a willingness to learn and share. Mentoring should be a two-way relationship. We each have much to share, to teach and to learn from one another. Mature employees can train younger employees in the ways of the company – passing down years of accumulated knowledge, providing continuity for the company. Equally, younger employees can pass up understanding and acceptance of new developments in technology and social communication channels. As I recently read in Forbes, “with so many unique dynamics in a multigenerational workforce, success requires each employee to demonstrate leadership in their role,” and a willingness to share with colleagues.

Working with multiple generations opens us to a wider range of ideas, knowledge and different perspectives. As they say, diversity drives innovation, which in turn spurs growth. And diversity is as much about sharing different perspectives as more traditional definitions of diversity in terms of gender, race or ethnicity.

The advantages and challenges of a multigenerational workforce are compounded by the continual evolution of the business environment. Each person has their own motivations for being in the business world. While there are some generalizations we can make about baby boomers versus millennials, I have experienced that those generalizations are not always true about every person. You have to look at and work with people as individuals.