Marketers and advertisers rely on generational labels—Boomer, Gen X, Millennial, and Gen Z—as a shorthand to describe the attitudes, motivations, and historical events “defining” a roughly 20-year cohort. Although generational differences can help explain individual mindsets, generational stereotypes can also lead to harmful misconceptions.
In a remote or hybrid work environment, it’s tempting to make detrimental assumptions about people and their behavior and lay the blame for team disconnects on these generational stereotypes. Relying on this shorthand limits your ability to build high performing, connected teams.
The five essential elements of a remote/hybrid workplace
Managing multiple generations in the workplace is challenging. Add in the remote/hybrid element, and management becomes even more complicated. This is especially true if managers make generational assumptions based on poorly researched articles or form opinions from frustrating experiences with a few individuals.
We help our clients understand the strengths, challenges, and differences in how employees approach work through the lens of the 5 Essential Elements of an Optimized Distributed Workforce: Manager Development, Communication, Employee Engagement, Operations, and Culture.
Managing, motivating, and supporting employees at different points in their careers is challenging. You must balance being hands-off enough for employees further along in their careers with giving the feedback and attention desired and needed by early-career employees.
With a distributed workforce, the simplest and most transformative mindset change we recommend for managers and employees is to always assume positive intent. Managers must model and remind their teams to adopt this mindset. By emphasizing common goals, managers can also encourage a shared team identity, regardless of generation.
Challenging and changing workplace expectations are leading many managers to burnout. Managers are the culture carriers and connective tissue for your organization and its employees. Invest in your managers by giving them the training they need to succeed and avoid burnout.
Communication affects everything and everyone. In the last few years, teams have had to change how they share information, manage meetings, use communication and collaboration platforms, and go about their daily work. Meanwhile, generational differences in communication styles have caused people to misconstrue their colleagues’ intent, professionalism, and abilities.
You have most likely seen differences in how people across generations:
- Translate the subtext behind email, Slack, and chat messages.
- Use language, punctuation, and emojis.
- Adopt formal or informal communication and presentation styles.
If people don’t assume positive intent, differing styles of communication can lead to misunderstandings and unfair judgments. Recalibrate and unify everyone’s expectations by discussing and agreeing upon norms for different modes of communication. For example, external emails should convey professionalism while internal team Slack chats can be more casual.
Employee engagement and wellbeing
Managers and employees must align on other factors affecting engagement and wellbeing, for example, differing generational expectations related to the flexibility of work hours and location, professional development needs, and work/life boundaries.
With their willingness to voice their opinion, Gen Z helped employees of all ages by bringing to the forefront the need to set healthy work/life boundaries. However, the entire team must agree to respect these boundaries and team values. A Boomer employee shouldn’t get upset when their Gen Z co-worker doesn’t respond to Slack messages after 5pm. Everyone must understand the need to unplug from work to sustain long-term productivity. Managers must model desired behavior by, for example, shutting off their own notifications after a certain hour, so everyone feels comfortable setting boundaries where needed.
Operational policies and procedures must reflect the culture you want to foster while also meeting the needs of all employees. 32% of Gen Z said remote work has felt like an imposition, perhaps because they share their space with parents or roommates who are also working from home. 34% said their employers hadn’t provided the tools they need to successfully work remotely.
Conduct an audit to find out who feels under-equipped with tools, technology, training, or their home office setup. Find out what they have, what they’re missing, and what would make going between their home and office workspaces easier.
If you have weaknesses in any of the four other elements, you’ll feel it in your culture. A lack of awareness of potential generational differences or disregarding staff as individuals will affect your organizational culture. These weaknesses often show up in how respected people feel and how they show respect for others. Respect is a critical factor in fostering a safe, secure, positive workplace.
Generations have different perceptions on how respect is shown and earned. Generally speaking, Boomers believe in earning respect by keeping your head down, doing what you’re told, and getting the work done. Millennials, however, are prone to put their hands up to volunteer for new projects. They tend to be more outspoken about their desire to take on opportunities, believing they will earn respect by taking the initiative to demonstrate their commitment and abilities.
Next steps for successfully managing multiple generations
Try out these short- and long-term fixes if you are experiencing multi-generational management challenges.
3 short-term solutions
- Assume positive intention as the norm. Tell your team not to rush to judgment. Instead, take the time to deconstruct behavior. Make it the norm for everyone to be curious and enjoy learning from each other and understanding different perspectives.
- Normalize generational challenges by bringing them out into the open. For example, talk about the grammar and language styles used in emails and messages. Discuss the differences in how they interact and work, such as how different generations feel they show and earn respect.
- Talk to managers about their challenges and where they’re feeling stressed. Discuss ways to find more guidance, support, and training.
3 long-term solutions
- Conduct a workplace assessment to learn where you need to provide training and to identify the behavioral trends of different groups and generations.
- Train (and retrain) your managers. In a changing workplace landscape, training is never one and done. It’s an investment that will continue to pay off.
- Understand and emphasize each individual’s strengths—a more significant factor than generational norms. We recommend using CliftonStrengths to help understand each other’s motivations, thought processes, and behavior. Although a knowledge of generational trends is useful, you don’t want to make assumptions based on stereotypes. CliftonStrengths can help employees bond across generations with others who have common strengths.
At first blush, it might seem like generational differences are one more potential point of friction in the workplace. However, if we assume positive intent, stay curious, and open the lines of communication, we can reap the benefits of the immense strength, experience, and diversity these multiple generations bring.