How to Successfully Navigate a Multigenerational Workplace

Illustration of spotlight on a man among a group of people

Multigenerational workplaces can be a huge benefit—as long as you know how to thrive in those environments.

Imagine that you’re peeking into the window of an office. What do you see?

Sure, maybe if you’re spying on a trendy startup you’ll see colleagues who are all in their twenties and thirties playing ping-pong and working from bean bag chairs.

But in many offices, the following scenario is more likely: You’ll see people of all different ages working together. Some might be in their early twenties, while others are in their sixties, seventies, or sometimes even eighties.

That’s right—today, some workplaces pack as many as five different generations under one roof and it’s presenting both some challenges and benefits as we all figure out how to communicate and collaborate successfully.

What Generations Are in the Workforce Today?

Five different generations sounds like a lot—that’s because it is a lot. Here’s a quick breakdown of the five different generations that can be present in a modern workplace, according to Pew Research Center:

  • Traditionalists (also referred to as The Silent Generation): Born before 1945, <2% of the workforce
  • Baby Boomers: Born between 1946 and 1964, 25% of the workforce
  • Generation X: Born between 1965 and 1980, 33% of the workforce
  • Millennial Generation (also referred to as Generation Y): Born between 1981 and 1996, 35% of the workforce
  • Generation Z (also referred to as post-millennials): Born after 1997, 5% of the workforce

“This is totally unprecedented,” explains Lindsey Pollak, multigenerational workplace expert and author of the forthcoming book THE REMIX: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace.

Pollak shares that when she started in the workforce in the late 1990s, there were only three generations and a very clear hierarchy as a result. “This has been totally upended because traditionalists and baby boomers are working much longer and later in their careers.”

Studies show that there are a record number of people over the age of 85 currently in the workforce. “So we have this expansion on the older end of the workplace and then the rise of the millennials and now Generation Z coming in,” she adds. “We’ve gone from three generations to five generations in the past 20 years.”

The Challenges 

As you might expect, having these many people from varying generations, backgrounds, and experiences under one office roof doesn’t come without its hurdles.

“As long as there is more than just one generation in the workforce, there will always be some level of generational conflict impeding communication, productivity, and happiness among employees,” explains Austyn Rask, Director of Content and Research at BridgeWorks, a consulting, speaking, and research firm that generates and delivers applied generational insights to solve their clients’ workplace issues.

“Since each generation grew up in a different time period and developed different traits and expectations of the world around them, they often have distinct working styles that can conflict with one another,” she continues.

1. We have different views of the role work plays in our lives.

Much of the tension that can fester in these types of workplaces comes back to the fact that different generations approach their work with drastically different perspectives.

“Someone who’s 60 or 70 would say, ‘Work is called work for a reason!’ and someone who’s 20 would say, ‘Work is the place where I express myself. This is where I get to contribute to the world. I get to make a difference and I want to be passionate about my work.’” explains Anna Liotta, founder of The Generational Institute and author of Unlocking Generational Codes.

“Side by side, those two things seem to conflict,” she continues. Liotta goes on to explain that we all operate with a generational code that informs our expectations about everything that we do. It’s not something we make explicit—it just runs implicitly in the background of our minds.

Those implicit expectations are where we find a lot of the gaps between the generations. “And in the gap lies suffering and upset and conflict,” Liotta adds. “That’s where the frustrations oftentimes lie, because the promise that they expect from the company is really different.”

2. We don’t always agree on how productivity and value are measured.

“Organizations are still antiquated in how they measure what they reward,” explains Liotta. That’s something that has to continue to shift as new generations enter the workforce.

For example, baby boomers often measure time—without even consciously thinking about it. In contrast, millennials don’t watch the clock and focus on the value that they’re producing regardless of how much time it took them.

This can also breed some resentment. Older generations might view younger generations as not pulling their weight and contributing, while the younger workers feel restricted or inadequately valued—just because they don’t feel the need to stick to a strict nine-to-five schedule.

3. We communicate differently.

You’ve heard the old trope about how members of the younger generations are constantly connected and only want to communicate through a screen. Obviously, that’s a stereotype that doesn’t apply across the board (in fact, no generational stereotypes do—there are always outliers).

However, clichés aside, communication is still an undeniable challenge when you have different generations working together.

“I think the area where the intergenerational tension comes up the most is how we communicate,” says Pollak. “In the past, for previous generations, there were rules. This is how you make a professional business call or write a letter or format a memo. It was very prescribed.”

But today, we have more communication options than ever before—ranging from emails and instant messages to video calls and texts. “The rules have really been upended about what is the right way or the appropriate way or the best way to communicate. The answer is there are no rules anymore,” Pollak adds.

The Benefits 

Of course, there’s a flipside to this coin. Having numerous generations within one workplace isn’t all about the potential pitfalls—there are plenty of upsides too.

Here are just a few of the many major benefits that can come out of a successful and respectful multigenerational team.

1. We all reap the rewards.

As we’ve already touched on, as different generations become contributing members of the workforce, they bring with them varying expectations.

Those expectations could be a source of tension, or they could be a huge benefit—because we all get to experience the rewards of those positive changes that happen when younger generations like the millennials and Gen Z (who Liotta refers to as “globals” when delivering keynotes to different audiences) make those interests known.  

“There are things that baby boomers dreamed of having and Gen Xers desired,” says Liotta. “And as the millennials demand it and the globals expect it, it really works for everyone.”

2. We become more creative.

“I think in any situation, the more diversity means the more creative and innovative you’re going to be,” says Pollak. “People born and raised in different eras see the world differently.”

Organizations are always eager to think outside the box and avoid the trap of groupthink.

Having a team full of varying backgrounds and experiences means that a company is able to leverage those different perspectives to come up with solutions that might not have been suggested or discovered had the team been completely homogeneous.

3. We better serve our organization and its customers.

There aren’t just a lot of generations in the workplace—there are a lot of different generations out there in the world.

“There’s a five-generation marketplace too,” says Pollak. “If you are marketing any product or service today, you’re probably trying to reach different generations. Being surrounded by people who represent the greater market is really important.”

“A generationally-diverse organization that looks like our customers is our best chance of serving our customer,” adds Liotta.

4. We can all learn something from each other.

Beyond the bottom line for a company, there’s another major benefit to generationally-diverse teams: They give us all an opportunity to understand new perspectives and learn from each other.

This learning extends in many different ways. Younger generations can learn a lot from people who have been in their industries for a long time, and older generations also have plenty to learn from the newer members of the workforce—particularly related to technology.

“The thing is, while people from different generations may disagree on their fair share of things, a multigenerational team that can understand and respect generational differences and work around them will be so powerful,” shares Rask.

“Because then you have a team leveraging each other’s complementary strengths and overcoming hurdles other multigenerational teams are still clashing over. You end up with a team that balances each other’s weaknesses and amplifies their strengths.”

How to Thrive in a Multigenerational Workplace: 5 Tips to Know

There’s no shortage of benefits that can be reaped from a multigenerational workforce.

However, this is important to note: Those benefits really only bubble to the surface when members of these different generations know how to work together in a way that’s effective and respectful.

How exactly does that happen? Here are five tips to help people thrive on multigenerational work teams.

1. Have the important conversations.

This first tip applies mostly to the leaders who are heading up these diverse teams. You need to be prepared to have an ongoing dialogue with members of your team—something Liotta refers to as “10-10-10 conversations.”

These are generally thirty-minute conversations that are broken down into the following punctuated moments:

  • 10 minutes spent asking the person you’re leading about what’s going on with them—such as what gets them excited and what challenges they’re facing.
  • 10 minutes spent giving your observations as a leader, including offering advice on what they’re doing well and what they could focus on improving.
  • 10 minutes spent laying out next steps they should take and offering any resources they might need.

“We have to develop our skill set and our capacity to have an ongoing dialogue about what’s happening, and not just when we get to a crisis,” explains Liotta. “It’s far better to start the relationship having deep conversations about what we want to do as a company and continue the conversation so problems, ideas, or challenges can arise earlier.”

2. Challenge your assumptions.

We all enter into relationships and conversations with certain preconceived notions about people. Pollak explains that if you’re going to be successful in a multigenerational workplace, then you need to recognize those assumptions and challenge them.

“When I started out, you could almost always assume that the oldest person in the room was the most experienced, most tenured, most powerful, and most knowledgeable,” says Pollak. “That’s not true anymore.”

For example, a 2014 Harris Interactive survey conducted on behalf of CareerBuilder found that 38% of American workers actually report to a boss who’s younger than they are.

“You have to challenge your own assumptions about the correlation between age and knowledge or experience. You just don’t know anymore,” Pollak adds.

Beyond tenure, it’s also important to challenge your assumptions about any perceived strengths, weaknesses, or preferences related to someone’s generation. Stereotypes don’t always hold true—there are plenty of millennials who prefer to meet face-to-face, just like there are plenty Gen Xers who’d rather send a text or an email.

3. Be explicit about how you prefer to communicate.

Because communication can often be such a barrier in these multigenerational workplaces, it’s more important than ever that we’re explicit about how we prefer to communicate.

Imagine that your boss requested that you “get in touch with Jason about an upcoming project.” What exactly does “get in touch” mean to you? Should you email? Call? Stop by his desk? And, perhaps more importantly, does “get in touch” mean the same thing to your boss—or are you at risk of choosing the wrong route?

“We have to be much more explicit and clear about how to communicate,” explains Pollak.

She even recommends having brief sit-downs with people you regularly work with to share your communication preferences. Would you rather receive important feedback privately—as opposed to in front of a group? Do you like to receive information in writing so you can refer back to it—rather than during an in-person meeting?

Those are things that are important for your managers, direct reports, or colleagues to know—and it’s up to you to share them.

4. Replace “and” with “or.”

“Particularly if you’re a manager, I like to say that ‘one size fits one,’” explains Pollak.

When you’re tasked with spearheading a team filled with different desires, demands, and perspectives, it can be tempting to feel like you’re constantly choosing sides. Instead of that oftentimes polarizing approach, Pollak recommends replacing “or” with “and.”

You’re not picking one or the other—you’re going to find a way to compromise and do a little bit of both.

“In any decision, when you’re deciding between two sides, ask how can you combine ideas, possibilities, strategies, benefit offerings, activities, meeting times, and so on,” Pollak adds.

5. Explain the “why” behind your actions.

You’ll notice that many of these tips all tie back to effective communication—that’s how important it is in the workplace.

This final tip is to provide the context behind your actions, decisions, or instructions. Yes, even the small ones.

“I think we often skip that step,” says Pollak. She explains that even if something has the appearance of being grunt or menial work, it’s important to connect it to a larger purpose or outcome that benefits the team or the organization as a whole.

Doing so helps everybody find some sense of meaning in their work—and let go of any potential resentment at the same time.

Multigenerational Workplaces Don’t Have to Be a Hassle

“This is an incredibly productive time for organizations that understand how to create generational inclusion,” shares Liotta. “It is an asset, not a detriment.”

Without a doubt, there are some challenges that multigenerational teams need to work past. But they aren’t insurmountable and overcoming them can lead to great things.

All of the above tips can help you thrive in a workplace that houses numerous generations. However, Pollak concludes that the best advice is to simply make an effort to get to know the people you work with—regardless of their age or experience.

“The tip that I always give is to have coffee today with someone who’s as different from you as possible. Think about your own professional network and—besides the people that you’re forced to work with because you have to—how often are you building your network of people who are much older or much younger?”

February 18, 2019