5 Ways to Redesign Work for All Generations

What employers must do for their boomers, Gen X'ers and Millennials

By Phyllis Weiss Haserot
Originally Posted On May 23, 2014

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Phyllis Weiss Haserot is the President of Practice Development Counsel, a business development and organizational effectiveness consulting and coaching firm. Her primary focus is improving relations among the generations in the professional services workplace. She has a book in progress, entitled Cross-Generational Conversation.

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A glance at a typical multi-generational work scene of differing styles, devices, noise levels, and paces indicates that work and work processes have not changed adequately with the times.
 
Technology innovation, changed preferences in management styles and the role work plays in individual’s lives has evolved enormously in recent years. Most employers’ expectations and workplace policies have not.
 
It’s time to redesign work to suit all generations: boomers, Gen X’ers and Millennials.

Work arrangements offering flexible schedules and telecommuting are only a piece of what’s necessary. From surveys I’ve seen, personal observations and discussions I’ve had with professional colleagues, I have identified 10 key problems that frustrate and disengage all generations at work. (I’ve also created a video explaining them.)
 
5 To-Do's For Employers

This article focuses on five of those problems and proposes solutions to keep boomers, as well as younger generations, engaged and motivated at work and ensure that they continue providing value to their employers:  
 
1. Employers must offer employees meaningful work. In survey after survey, “meaningful work” ranks in the top two or three “wants” of all generations, higher than money for many people.
 
While Millennials grow impatient quickly with routine or “same old” work, boomers these days often find themselves searching for the non-financial meaning of their work. That’s especially true if there’s no room for upward mobility.
 
Employers must emphasize how each individual is contributing value to the organization’s mission — particularly among multi-generational teams, to minimize traditional hierarchy.

2. Employers must offer employees of all ages opportunities to learn and grow. Boomers typically are continual learners — witness their growing attendance as non-traditional students and at Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
 
They can demonstrate their desire to keep learning at the workplace by participating in mutual or reciprocal mentoring with younger generations. That demonstrates a spirit of respect for what each can teach the other. Boomers can, for instance, offer guidance on developing critical thinking skills while Millennials and Gen X can help them learn the latest technology. (If Millennials don’t see growth opportunities on their path, they’re gone.)
 
New experiences, even if they’re sometimes lateral moves, must be on the career map of older and younger workers.
 
3. Employers must encourage staff input on how the work gets done. All generations want their ideas heard about the best ways to accomplish what they’re asked to do. But traditional hierarchy, titles, workflow processes, tools and longevity-based roles may hinder innovation and sustained engagement.
 
Command and control has no appeal, and limited usefulness, today. Management needs to solicit input and collaboration on redesigning work. Doing so motivates and engages employees, no matter their age, and produces results.
 
4. Employers must accommodate all generations in the physical design of workspaces. Coping with three or four generations sharing space is a challenge.
 
Gen Yers tend to prefer open access to co-workers and management, the latest technology and personal control over where and how they work. Boomers and older Gen X’ers are more accustomed to enclosed offices or more private spaces, even though individual workspaces limit opportunities for spontaneous information exchange, collaboration, mentoring and feedback.
 
Boomers’ desire for privacy, minimal distraction and comfort should be balanced with collaboration opportunities in physical design. Noise distractions in communal spaces can be minimized by providing sound-masking with white noise (The New York Times building does this) and by multi-generational culture training to help employees respect each others’ needs.
 
5. Employers must provide regular feedback and recognition to each generation. Everyone wants to know how they’re doing at work and what they can do better. The longer the delay in getting the feedback, the less effective it is.
 
Many boomers have been uncomfortable with giving regular feedback to the young people they supervise. Employees in their 50s and 60s have also typically assumed that when it came to receiving feedback from their bosses, “no word, no problems.”
 
In reality, that assumption is not true. If you don’t get feedback regularly, you lose out on its greatest benefit: the opportunity to learn and grow skills for the future.
 
Too many bosses, however, defer to the dreaded annual reviews as the time they deliver feedback. Supervisors of all generations need more training in giving and receiving honest feedback and recognition, so they’ll grow comfortable with it.
 
Change Is Hard
 
Millennials are moving toward becoming the prevalent generation at work, followed by an even more tech-connected, diverse and physically isolated generation. Simultaneously, the workplace is challenged with accommodating aging and still productive boomers as well as Gen X’ers. Inevitably, the more dramatic work transformation that’s needed and demanded is coming.
 
But change is hard and requires a substantial infusion of cross-generational conversation. To achieve this change successfully, economically, and peacefully, employers and workers of all generations need to accept and support new approaches to how work is accomplished.
 
© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2014.