Managing a Multigenerational Workforce

Jan. 1, 2009

Understanding generational differences will resolve conflict and increase productivity for your team

By Jenna M. Aker 

If you're like the average facility manager, you're 51 years old and have more than 28 years of experience under your belt. You know your building, your industry, and how to manage your employees (until recently, when young, inexperienced workers joined your staff). With four diverse generations now in the workplace, obstacles involving respect, communication, and work styles are cropping up faster than some managers can handle them. If you're prepared, you can foster a respectful, collaborative work environment among these employees.

Problematic Mix
While each generation has its merits and strengths, their weaknesses and stereotypes can cause contention and disrespect. Younger workers may not appreciate or understand the intense work lives of Baby Boomers; Gen Xers might chafe under the hierarchical direction of their elder generations. Each generation also has a different view of (and approach to) communication. While you may not subscribe to the text-messaging habits of Millennials, it's important to appreciate every generation's modes of communication to better manage an age-diverse staff. "A surprisingly high percentage of workplace conflicts arise from differences in generational values," says Chuck Underwood, founder and president of Miamisburg, OH-based The Generational Imperative Inc. "When management and employees understand that, it's much easier to have the combative parties sit down and discuss their differences, because the conflict is no longer ‘you against me,' it's ‘my generation's values against your generation's values.' "

Accommodating different work styles is also important as differences between working generations are revealed. While Traditionalists and Boomers will likely prefer traditional office space, Gen Xers and Millennials aren't limited by walls; telecommuting and open-plan workspaces are increasingly popular. With Bluetooth and handhelds, workers can work anywhere. While it might not make sense for a facilities management team member to telecommute, some aspects of the job might be just as easily done at home or at a different site.



Baby Boomers

Generation X


Work Style

By the book - "how" is as important as "what" gets done

Get it done - whatever it takes - nights and weekends

Find the fastest route to results; protocol secondary

Work to deadlines - not necessarily to schedules


Command/control; rarely question authority

Respect for power and accomplishment

Rules are flexible; collaboration is important

Value autonomy; less inclined to pursue formal leadership positions


Formal and through proper channels

Somewhat formal and through structured network

Casual and direct; sometimes skeptical

Casual and direct; eager to please


Personal acknowledgement and compensation for work well done

Public acknowledgement and career advancement

A balance of fair compensation and ample time off as reward

Individual and public praise (exposure); opportunity for broadening skills


Work and family should be kept separate

Work comes first

Value work/life balance

Value blending personal life into work


To the organization

To the importance and meaning of work

To individual career goals

To the people involved with the project


"If it ain't broke, don't fix it"

Necessary for progress

Practical tools for getting things done

What else is there?


Beyond Bias
"We live in a society that has a lot of age bias," says Diane Piktialis, research working group leader, The Conference Board, New York City. "There are issues you come across in managing a younger generation; first of all, you must examine your biases and assumptions, which most managers aren't going to admit they have," she says. "But, if you really push them, they do, because we all have them." Getting to the heart of the differences can help identify why one worker reacts to another in a certain way, and moving beyond accepted stereotypes is the first step in eliminating harmful biases.

"Training in generational workforce diversity is no longer an option," says Underwood. "It's now imperative ... and it's essential that management understands each generation's unique core values so they can manage and lead those generations." Whether a large, full-day training session is best, or if several podcasts or downloaded sessions can be viewed individually as part of orientation, fitting generational diversity training into your work schedule can be done. "The ideal prescription [for training] is having something in the onboarding process, which could be new-employee orientation, and then, every year, there should be some other kind of training: an update, a lunch-and-learn, or a company meeting," suggests Laura Bernstein, president and CEO at Des Moines, IA-based VisionPoint®.

Beyond formal training, age biases can be overcome by making an effort toward mutual respect. "One of the issues that's very critical in managing multiple generations is creating an environment where the basis of work relationships is respect," says Piktialis. "Whether you're older and experienced or young and just coming in, you bring knowledge and experiences that are valuable to the equation." She recommends publicly acknowledging the contribution and success of younger employees "so they don't feel like they're at the bottom of the heap," but also giving them a clear understanding of company career/advancement tracks. Bernstein encourages not leaning heavily on one generation for success. "I think, from a manager's perspective, the best thing you can do is not think that one generation is better than another," she says. "It's perfectly acceptable, and an obligation of management, to realize that, when people retire, you're losing that experience and knowledge, and certain types of loyalty. But, just because people are retiring does not mean younger people are incapable." She suggests giving direction and feedback, and offering opportunities for younger employees to be involved in important projects to affirm their abilities and importance.

Communication is Still Key
Respecting employees for who they are includes respecting communication methods. Piktialis recommends keeping communication with younger employees short and sweet. "They just want to know what they need to know, and don't necessarily want the history of something, which Boomers love to tell. Skip the context and keep it to the facts," she says. The normalizing of immediate information sharing is evidenced by the communication among young workers: Text messaging, Twitter, instant messaging, and other types of instant communication are growing in popularity, and it could be time for you to jump on board. "It's nuggets; it's just-in-time information," explains Piktialis, who also points to social-networking websites as great ways to interact with coworkers while breaking down generational barriers. "Using online and social media has the potential to erase age bias and stereotypes," she says.

The way you communicate work-related information to younger employees should also be examined. Millennials and Gen Xers won't dive into formal lecturing or thick handbooks. Piktialis relates research findings indicating that a Baby Boomer might, on Day One, read a procedures manual from cover to cover. A worker from a younger generation, however, would more likely keep the manual on a shelf, untouched, until he/she needs it. Piktialis states that reactions to this research are clear: "Older people who run knowledge-management programs in their companies sit there with looks on their faces that say, ‘This is how we've been doing it, and it isn't going to work anymore.' " Thus, information should be relayed differently to younger employees. Podcasts, online teaching sessions, and instant messaging are just a few ways to present information to Millennials in ways they'll accept and appreciate.

Knowledge Transfer
As older employees phase out, knowledge and information loss are looming concerns. If the knowledge is to be passed on to the next generation, it has to be packaged in a way that makes sense for them. Fostering a work environment that promotes collaboration between old and young is the best place to start. "It's a very new workplace," says Piktialis, "and everything happens in teams and through collaboration." She stresses the importance of multigenerational employees thinking and working together. "If you unleash the collective creativity and collaboration, that's going to bring innovation and productivity," she explains.

Mentoring young employees is a tested way to transfer knowledge, and there are mutual benefits. "There's a lot to be said for reverse mentoring," says Piktialis. "Younger workers can learn about the organization and social networking from older employees, but experienced workers can also gain so much in terms of new technology and proficiency." Use your younger employees for sharing and training on the latest software and hardware; they will feel valued for their skills, and your older employees will benefit by staying current.

For knowledge transfer that doesn't occur through one-on-one mentoring, make sure the information is compatible with a tech-savvy lifestyle. "Passive repositories where young workers must physically go in and search for information aren't going to be used," says Piktialis, who encourages facility managers to incorporate a Google search function for online repositories and training materials. Making the information immediately accessible will ensure use by younger employees.

When employees come to the point of understanding and effectively communicating, regardless of age or other factors, there is great potential to increase worker productivity, collaboration, and morale. "Don't underestimate the power of the multigenerational workforce," says Bernstein. "Use it to your advantage."

Jenna M. Aker ([email protected]) is new products editor at Buildings magazine.

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