Bridging the generational gap at work

7 min read | Yvonne Smyth | Article | Corporate social responsibility | DE&I

bridging the generational gap at work

Generational disconnect – or the failure to understand and appreciate what makes age groups different – stems from a discrepancy in perspective that can be hard to overcome. This issue is certainly not new, but for the first time in history, we have a global workforce that’s populated by five different generations, often resulting in an ‘us vs them’ mentality that has the potential to be monumentally detrimental to business success.

In order to harness the diversity of ideas and experiences that exist in a multi-generational workforce, organisations must not only improve their understanding of the differences between age groups, but find a way of fostering a common identity and understanding.

At a glance: how to bridge generational differences at work

  • Understand your intergenerational workforce
  • Create a shared sense of purpose
  • Support lifelong learning
  • Cultivate psychological safety
  • Be flexible with ways of working

To trust and gravitate towards what we’re familiar with is a part of human nature, and it is the responsibility of organisational leaders to invest time into improving their employees’ understanding of one another’s point of view. The common knowledge this investment creates forms the cornerstone of successful collaboration; it provides everyone with a frame of reference that helps them interpret situations effectively, leading to better decision making.

Resources like our Salary & Recruiting Trends 2024 guide, which distils insights from a survey of almost 15,000 professionals into topics affecting the world of work, provide recommendations for employers on their talent management strategies. These include how to make the most of intergenerational working:

1. Understand your intergenerational workforce

Age diversity is a wonderful thing, but to make the most of it, you need to first understand the differences and similarities that exist. For example, according to our research, different age groups prioritise different things when considering a new role. Under 30s look for opportunities for career development, 30-39 year olds and over 50s seek a positive work-life balance and 40-49 year olds value a comprehensive benefits package.

Engaging in open conversations with staff regarding what they value in their job can help you to understand their expectations from you as an employer – specifically, what makes an inclusive and healthy working environment. Different generations are likely to have different ideas around what this constitutes, so it’s important to acknowledge these. You could also consider conducting focus group discussions where employees can provide feedback about their experiences.

2. Create a shared sense of purpose

Whilst younger cohorts are typically thought to be more passionate about social justice and the idea of ‘doing good’ in a role, according to our research, purpose has come to be an important consideration across all age groups when it comes to assessing a new opportunity. 

Helping different generations to understand where they align, as well as where they differ, will help organisations to foster a more dynamic, cohesive culture amongst their teams. Consider putting people in mixed-generation groups for a broader discussion about purpose, and what it means to them both personally and professionally. The likelihood is that there will be a high degree of commonality, helping employees to not only understand each other better, but giving them a platform to collaboratively find innovative ways of garnering more meaning from their work.

3. Support lifelong learning

Continuous learning and upskilling are critical to an individual’s success at work, wherever they are in their career. When taking a closer look at how different age groups want to be supported in their upskilling, we found that those aged 30-39 are more likely to want their employer to invest in training (54%) compared to other age groups, whilst under 30s have a higher proportion of professionals who want time off to attend relevant conferences, seminars or talks (35%).

Providing a range of upskilling opportunities, from more traditional training courses to online bitesize modules will ensure you’re pre-empting people’s invariably different learning styles. Offering mentoring programmes that cater to different generations – including reverse mentoring – will help communicate to your workforce how highly you value continuous, lifelong learning.

4. Cultivate psychological safety

A sense of psychological safety is key to maintaining team performance and reducing turnover at any organisation, but when bringing people from different generations together it becomes especially critical. The assurance of effective mediation and respectful debate is needed if generational differences are to be used as opportunities for collective learning.

If employee contributions are dismissed as being either archaic or inexpert, trust is more likely to ebb. By creating team environments that are psychologically safe, leaders can facilitate space for both broader perspectives and nonconformist positions, igniting innovation and reducing the potential for homogeneity of ideas.  

5. Be flexible with ways of working

Having five generations in the workplace is a historic first – so it’s likely that organisations may still be implementing blanket ways of working regardless of employee preference. However, our research suggests that what younger cohorts want from an employer can differ greatly to their peers in management or the over 50s. For example, under 30s and over 50s believe they work most productively in the office/workplace (48% and 44% respectively), whereas those aged 30-39 or 40-49 consider their productivity levels higher when working from home (45% and 43% respectively).

It's worth observing how each generation works best and considering what your organisation can offer them to ensure the highest levels of productivity. Remember that equity and inclusion is paramount and whilst there might not be a perfect answer – there are solutions.

To find out more about the talent management trends impacting your industry, access our latest Salary & Recruiting Trends guide today.

About this author

Yvonne Smyth, Group Head of Equity, Diversity And Inclusion, Hays

Yvonne is the Group Head of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion for Hays plc, with over 23 years professional recruitment experience.

Yvonne spearheads Hays’ commitment to being recruiting experts by ensuring that our major recruitment linked activities and insights are designed to positively promote and create more diverse workforces and inclusive workplace cultures. Working directly with customers, in partnership with subject matter experts, community groups, and through colleagues, Yvonne has been responsible for creating and curating a suite of resources designed to inform, support and enable our customers to progress their D&I linked commitments and navigate their careers.

Yvonne is the national specialism director for Hays Human Resources, the largest HR specialist recruiter in the UK. She is responsible for the HR national strategy within this high growth and pivotal specialism consisting of over 70 consultants across 45 locations. Yvonne is also the national specialism director for Hays Legal and Hays Company Secretarial, a team of over 35 experts across 7 locations.

Recently Yvonne was featured in the SIA 2019 Global Power 150 Women in Staffing list, which recognises the female leaders and influencers in the global market space. Prior to joining Hays, Yvonne initially trained and qualified as a litigation.

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