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How to manage workplace generation gaps

03 Dec 2015

It’s important to recognize that each employee is a unique individual, but it’s also true that people are shaped by the era in which they come of age. That’s why marketers, politicians and others who seek to appeal to the masses and influence group behavior study generational cohorts carefully to discover the traits that define them. This information can also be incredibly valuable for managers who are attempting to align staff activities in age-diverse workplaces.

Driving major organizational change is a huge challenge. Change can take many forms, including the implementation of new software. When a company makes an investment in new software, it’s critically important to motivate employees to use it to its full potential. But people tend to be resistant to change, so managers have to find a way to drive adoption.

Those who understand generational traits can use this knowledge to their advantage. The boundaries of each generational group are perpetually in dispute since defining them largely falls to the media. But these are the three major generational groups that currently dominate the workforce: Baby Boomers (1946-1960), Generation X (1961-1981) and Millennials (1982-2000).

A closer look at generational reactions to workplace change can be revelatory. Analysis of the deployment of one million-plus seats of Office 365 at thousands of companies worldwide reveals trends that can suggest new strategies for driving change. In that scenario, employees across all groups started from a baseline of using email and calendar functions on the old platform.

But what were the rates of adoption of new software features by generation? And what does that suggest about the different groups? More importantly, how can managers use these lessons to influence behavior and secure optimal adoption of change, such as new software?

The answer to the first question quickly becomes clear when evaluating Office 365 implementations: Unlike their Millennial counterparts, Boomer employees tended to not fully use the new software features, at least at first. General resistance to change partially explains it, but there appear to be generational components at work too.

For example, Millennials’ and Boomers’ data transmission preferences illustrate a sharp difference in each group’s approach: Boomers largely prefer attaching files to emails (even though this presents significant security risks) rather than sharing links to cloud-based repositories such as OneDrive or Dropbox. It makes sense if you consider the generational elements involved; sharing links and using cloud assets comes more naturally to Millennials.

Millennials have been sharing vines, tweets and videos socially all along, and they understand that it’s possible to control who sees a link and whether or not it can be forwarded when sharing it. Boomers prefer the more “tangible” file attachment, which provides an illusion of control.

Other generational elements that come into play during deployments include comfort with the social aspects of collaboration and readiness to share recognition through gamification. Again, these concepts seem to come more naturally to Millennials, who are social media and video game natives. Boomers came of age in an era when knowledge was as asset to be hoarded rather than shared. For Millennials, information is power when it is shared.

Generally speaking, Millennials and Boomers have radically different concepts of work and its place in life overall. Where Boomers tend to think of work as occurring within the confines of a specific place and seek work-life balance, the boundaries are more fluid for Millennials, who are always plugged in and look for work-life integration instead.

What about Generation X? While the divide between Boomers and Millennials tends to be starker, Generation X is caught in the middle. Generation X is a smaller group than Boomers or Millennials, and its members tend to display a mix of Boomer and Millennial sensibilities. Managers who want to drive organizational change across a generationally diverse workforce will need to use their knowledge of these traits to appeal to all three groups.

So what’s the best way to effect lasting change, given the generational dynamics in play? To borrow a concept from Gandhi, managers have to be the change they wish to see. Right now, the C-suite and senior manager ranks are mostly populated by Boomers and Generation X. The best way to move an entire workforce toward new tools and concepts that will make the organization more competitive is for leaders to demonstrate the value of doing so.

In the final analysis, it is up to leaders to resolve generational conflicts and get everyone in the workforce pulling in the same direction. Leaders who embrace change — those who value greater levels of collaboration, a more social approach to sharing and recognition as well as a new way of looking at how work life and home life intersect — will be in the best position to align employee practices with organizational goals. Those who succeed will be rewarded with a distinct competitive edge.  

By Chris Pyle, CEO of MessageOps

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