Bridging the Gap: How Gen Z can help your company tap into the power of a 4-generation workforce

Most workplace teams of any significant size now comprise four generations. Baby Boomers may be approaching retirement age, but many of them plan to work past 65 (partly because of their lifelong commitment to work, but also, in some cases, due to the damage done to retirement savings in the economic crash of 2008–09). Gen X and Millennials (also known as Gen Y) have worked alongside Boomers for years. Now, the first of the Gen Z cohort have in some cases begun to take on internships in California, and in some cases their early-career positions.

Some companies look at this as a challenge: how best to manage the difficulties of a multi-generational workforce? For companies that choose to see it another way, however, especially those recruiting early talent, this generational diversity presents a tremendous opportunity.

There’s some debate over the validity of generational differences in the workforce. Some would contest that people are individuals, and therefore that any similarity in members of any given generation is mostly coincidence. There is a kernel of truth to that argument: just as all the people born in the month of September (for example) share some similarities and some differences, one cannot view all members of any generation as all being the same way, or all wanting the same things.

That said, each generation has grown up with formative experiences that they all shared. Baby Boomers, for example, were raised by parents who lived through the Great Depression, and grew up in the shadow of the last World War. Gen X was the first generation where many grew up as ‘latchkey kids’ with two parents working outside the home. Millennials are the generation who grew up alongside rampant technology expansion, and (along with Gen Z) watched their parents struggle through a major economic crash. Gen Z, of course, are the first true digital natives, never having known a world not constantly connected by the internet generally, and social media specifically. These formative experiences were all essentially universal: shared in some fashion by every single member of the generation. That universality of experience can’t help but influence general tendencies and preferences.

In short, then: first, recognize that generational differences are present in your employees. Second, understand that within each generation, everyone truly is an individual and should be treated as such. And third, see the powerful opportunity in doing so.

To ‘bridge the gap’, and to fully capitalize on the opportunities of a four-generation workforce, there are three primary aspects of corporate culture that are ripe for a rethink.

Rethink the status quo.

Yes, it’s true that Gen Z wants flexibility in their working conditions. They want jobs where they can work at a time (which may not be 9–5) and a place (which may not be an office chair) that allows them to do their best work. But questioning the status quo about the workplace isn’t about catering or pandering to one generation over all the others. People have always had different working styles, and perhaps wanted different things. Baby Boomers wanted the consistency of an office and a cohesive team around them. Gen X wanted to work independently. Millennials expected to be able to play with technology to make their jobs what they wanted them to be. Rethinking the status quo now isn’t about Gen Z alone; it’s about the fact that this is the first time in history when technology allows for more customization of the employee experience at scale. There’s just as much potential to increase the performance and engagement of Baby Boomer employees as there is for Gen Z. There’s a simple way to learn what your employees want in a workplace: ask them. Where there is some room for flexibility, think critically about the status quo. Are you hanging on to some ways of working just because that’s the way it’s always been? Gen Z isn’t the reason to change everything up, but they can be the reason you begin to realize that you can.

Rethink communication.

Communication has been a challenge for companies as long as there have been companies. Arguably, part of that challenge is a resistance to repetitive messages — even as we realize that repetition is the only way to really get a message to ‘stick’. Years (even decades) ago, a large company’s ‘town hall’ meeting provided an opportunity for senior leaders to engage and motivate their employees. A good opportunity, but an isolated one; a company can’t host a town hall every week. Over the years, emails have taken the place of these group meetings. It’s fast and efficient, to be sure, but — if you’re being honest — just how closely are internal emails read? Sending numerous emails on the same subject has the opposite effect from the one you may want: the message fades into the background as ‘noise’. Herein lies the multi-generational opportunity. It’s widely accepted that Baby Boomers prefer in-person communication. Gen X has always gravitated to email’s asynchronous (and therefore more independent) communication style. Millennials and Gen Z are partial to texting, and even social media as a means of communication from their employers. These numerous preferences for multiple streams of communication present an opportunity to repeat messages for a good and valid reason, and this repetition can help you land the messages you really want to get across. Smart companies also recognize that the opportunity to customize these messages for each platform presents an inherent secondary opportunity to see things a different way. Thinking through each communication strategy allows a company to highlight — and therefore better understand — different aspects of the same message. Naturally, the same holds true for external messages, whether they be designed for public relations, marketing and sales, or recruitment and talent acquisition.

Rethink mentorship.

One could argue that companies would be far better off today had mentorship been an ongoing part of their corporate culture all along. One could also argue that mentorship has been largely disregarded as a priority by most companies. The imminent retirement of a large wave of Baby Boomers presents the pressing need for more mentorship in every organization. Gen Z presents the opportunity: this generation, more than any before it, craves ongoing learning and development. More so than Millennials — and infinitely more than the independent Gen Xers before them — Gen Z wants the kind of feedback from more experienced professionals that those professionals are uniquely equipped to give. They value lifelong learning, and they know that more experienced employees are the best positioned to help them learn and grow. How this kind of mentorship is best enabled depends largely on the kind of culture that exists in your company today, but there are plenty of examples in every industry to be found. For some companies, a robust and structured program that formally links members of various generations as mentor and mentee in a relationship explicitly designed for learning and knowledge transfer is the right answer. For other companies, the right solution is as simple as intentionally and purposefully selecting people from a variety of generations to work together on specific projects, allowing them to collaborate in a way in which they each can demonstrate their skills and strengths. Alternatively, some companies find that it’s better to create a regular and ongoing space for entirely organic informal dialogue between employees of all age groups.

No matter the structure of a mentorship program (or lack thereof), smart companies can supercharge these learning relationships by acknowledging and promoting the fact that mentorship can be a two-way street. A Gen Z young professional respects the wealth and value of the experience that their Baby Boomer colleague can share with them, but they also want recognition for the things they know … things that they can share with and teach that more seasoned professional.

Rethinking these three aspects of the way our workplaces work can be transformative. Stop thinking about ‘overcoming the challenge’ of a four-generation workforce. Instead, look to Gen Z as your opportunity to harness the power of that multigenerational team.

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The Jobamax Team




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