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Meeting the needs of diverse generations in the workplace

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AUTHOR—Chipaka

By Annie Chipaka:

Several generations with diverse backgrounds create a cohesive workplace. Managers must encourage employees to view generational difference as a diversity imperative, capable of adding value to the business.

A generation is defined as a group of individuals who were born around the same time; who share a common set of life events and trends.

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The diverse perspectives, motivation, attitudes and needs of the different generations have changed the dynamics of the workforce of today. A little insight into the differences among the generations can help organisations better understand the needs and expectations of their talent in an age-diverse workforce.

By learning the motivation, identifying the tremendous potentials and generational footprint of each segment, human resource managers (HRMs) can leverage the unique talents and capitalise on the diversity of the respective teams.

There are five generations living, working, learning and training together. Each generation had lived in a different period of time with a trans-normal event: Different culture, sports, education, medicine advances, technology advances. But in this write-up, I will focus on the two generations X and Y.

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Sandwiched between baby boomers and millennials, Generation X employees now account for a significant amount of organisations’ intellectual capital. They can be classified as persons born between 1980 and 1995.

Globally, this generation holds more than half of all leadership roles. With an average of 20 years’ workplace experience, they value more independence on the job than younger generations. And the closer these workers get to age 55, the more their knowledge becomes invaluable to the organisation and to customers.

Although not strictly digital natives, Generation X employees are digitally savvy and comfortable leveraging technology in the workplace. The work perspective of this generation is “work to live” – they believe that work should not define their lives. The question is how can managers support them? There are many ways how managers can support Gen X-ers but I will only discuss few of them.

First, management needs to prioritise their autonomy in the workplace. Growing up, Generation X was often referred to as ‘latch-key kids’, as many were accustomed to taking care of themselves at home due to the fact that both parents were in the workforce. This situation informs their characteristics of independence, self-reliance, self-sufficiency, resourcefulness, a hard-working work ethic and adaptability in their approach to their careers. Managers need to support their autonomy for maximum benefit to the organisation.

Second, offer rewards and benefits in the form of flexibility. At this point in their lives, Gen X-ers have worked hard throughout their careers to establish a settled state for themselves in the present, with families to provide for and homes to come. Thus, when it comes to rewards, they value benefits that prioritise the importance of flexibility to allow them to care for and spend quality time with their families and in their lives outside of the office.

To recruit, retain and motivate Gen X-ers, encourage their ability to manage their multiple priorities and appeal to their desire for balance and flexibility. Employers can start by developing family-friendly programmes that offer flexible schedules, telecommuting and job-sharing. Amid Covid, you can appreciate that this is very practical as most organisations now are on flex time.

Third, offer leadership and learning opportunities. Gen X-ers are brought up in an era of social and technological change. Gen X embraces and thrives on diversity, change, challenge, responsibility, honesty and creative input in the workplace.

Gen X-ers are primed to take the lead in teaching others while boosting their own learning. To foster their initiative and talents, put Gen X leaders in charge of training processes or of new projects. Not only will they be more satisfied with their jobs, but your company will also gain the benefit from new leadership that can help you grow your business. Give Gen X the responsibility to shape your organisation and you will see great results.

Also, be a coach or a mentor. Top-down authority is waning in today’s workplace. Gen X-ers expect to be listened to and encouraged to find solutions instead of dictated to. They want their boss, like their parents, to be a coach or mentor. Work on creating a dialogue, offering constructive guidance and building alliances with your Gen-X staff.

Furthermore, create a collaborative work environment. The emerging workplace is about collaboration and synthesis. Encourage employees to voice their opinions and talk through problem-solving instead of making unilateral decisions. Work on building consensus. Create a meritocratic environment, which is what most of clients foster in their technology-focused environment to generate great results.

Finally, managers need to encourage work-life integration. The delineation between work and life is disintegrating. The new workforce brings the personal to their jobs. They work to live. Long gone is the age of dad working and mom tending to domestic life. Gen X-ers expect fluidity and to be able to bring their life to work and vice versa.

Managers need to know that the technology of this era is the computer. Therefore, they need to invest more in systems. They constantly want to be provided with appropriate feedback and empowered to get the job done. This can always be done by vibrant performance management system.

Gen Xers have learned to take care of themselves at an early age. This generation tends to be self-reliant and unimpressed by authority. Therefore, they need to be given roles that require minimal supervision even lone assignments. They take work-life-balance seriously because they have a sense of loyalty to their family and friends.

Generation Y is the new generation after Generation X that can be classified as persons born between 1980 and 1990. This generation is also known as millennials who will fully enter the workforce and lead the organisation. This generation has different attitudes, work styles and expectations of the physical work environment than do other generations.

This generation holds clear values about their work experience and includes the following: meritocracy; only the talented survive and anyone with talent should be able to succeed; working with others, in teams or just collaboratively; group accomplishment is even sweeter than solo success; a sense of mentoring, or mentors, in the workplace; non-traditionalism; and doing things differently.

They also value integration of work and personal life in a number of ways: co-workers are “family”, work and social lives are blended together and personal and social activities are blended into the work day (or night). In addition, they have fierce independence; in choice of company to work for, when to leave, how you get your work done, how your work should be done are all individual decisions, (with input from social/professional networks) resulting in little loyalty to employers. Succession planning is very key in this case.

Gen Y workers describe themselves as, firstly, unique. They see themselves as a breed apart, talented, qualified and in demand. They strongly believe in the value of their work and expect “the rest of the world” to appreciate it as well.

Second, they are proud. They are confident in their skills and enjoy being sought in terms of advice and guidance and admired for their special talents. Third, they are confident. They show little fear of the future, believing that their skills will always be in demand and they have a strong support network in place through family and friends.

Taken together, these trends suggest several implications for businesses/organisations. First is financial compensation. Young knowledge workers may be realistic about variations in compensation because of economic fluctuations, but the underlying expectation of high compensation remains. Second is caring. The sense of being nurtured and indulged by the organisation is central.

Third, Gen Y workers expect that their organisation will offer learning and growth opportunities; the chance to do creative, challenging work and the prospect to grow. Furthermore, young workers seek a work culture that is organised around teamwork and collaboration. Finally, the business should espouse a social cause that goes beyond traditional profit and loss (for those in profit-making).

The physical workspace should be visually attractive. Quality furniture is desirable. Young workers judge companies by the “look” of their workspace and by the respect shown to employees via the physical elements and the equipment provided. Gen Y workers are sensitive to security issues at work, from the theft of equipment to personal harm; they actively value such security devices as video cameras at entrances and key cards.

Gen Y workers require sophisticated and stylish designs of workspace and furnishings. The ability to personalise their space by being able to display personal items (photographs, souvenirs, etc) and to adjust work tools (seating, monitor arm, keyboard support, etc).

It is important to have a vision, strategy and plan for harnessing the opportunities and potential that a multi-generational workplace presents. They can be engaged in the following ways: first, give them frequent constructive feedback.

Second, design and implement work-family friendly policies that will give them space to pursue other interests such as work-life balance. Third, create an environment that promotes and rewards creativity. Furthermore, recognition programmes should be designed to focus on results. Finally, provide strategic learning and development opportunities and be seen to be supportive of their professional growth.

There is a need to approach compensation, benefits and incentives to satisfy the needs of each generation’s unique perspectives, attitudes and values about work. Also, promote a two-way communication loop to allow open and honest feedback. Keep in mind that people from different generations like to communicate differently, so allow for a variety of tools within the office, everything from face-to-face meetings, email, telephone, or even social media or instant messaging.

Also, ensure the availability of wellness programmes activities and wellness initiatives that are accommodative to both generations. Resolve conflict in open communication and participatory approach.

Make mentoring a constant. As more established and experienced workers head towards retirement, develop strategies to ensure knowledge transfer and capture organisational memory.

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