The world of work is an evolving place. A couple of decades ago, there were no such things as social media content managers or mobile app developers. Technology has brought about so much change to the shape of every industry. It has automated or simplified a great deal of tasks in many jobs. The use of technology in society as a whole has pushed us towards a service based economy less reliant on the manufacturing of goods.
50% of the workforce are millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996), while Generation X (1964-1980) represents a third and baby boomers (1946-1964) a quarter. Each generation brings its own experience to the plate, and with that their own outlook on work, and a unique relationship with the technology that typifies their generation. Often these differing views and life experiences may be at odds with each other, causing tensions.
Everything comes down to communication. Exchanging ideas and sharing plans used to be a time-consuming thing for businesses of the past. It might be hard to imagine a time when business communications might be reliant on the postal service. If you needed to share a document with somebody who was not nearby, it might take several days until they received it.
Speeding up communication has made companies a great deal more efficient and ultimately more profitable.
The Technology Generation Gap
It's been a few years now since the fax machine was the central hub of the office. Information had to be physically fed through a machine, page by page. In retrospect it was time-consuming, but revolutionary when compared with having to use the mail. When you received a fax it took up paper, creating either the need for more filing while creating waste and using up natural resources. All of this was groundbreaking for the baby boomer generation when Xerox released the first commercial fax machines in the mid-sixties.
Believe it or not, lots of business still use fax as a way of securely sending information. But how do you deal with companies that choose to work in this way? We are in the paperless age, and you might not want a cumbersome piece of outdated tech that you only use once in a blue moon cluttering up your office. Your paperless office no doubt revolves heavily around email, and sadly you can’t just send email to fax machines. Using bespoke services, you can bridge the gap between old and new tech. If you work in a business that sends or receives information with fax users, then you will need this tool.
But even email is getting replaced. A popular work tool with generation X, it is arguably less immediate than a lot of instant messaging services. These days, businesses very often opt for Google Hangouts, Slack, or even use mobile apps like WhatsApp to very quickly move information.
It may have been the fact that email offers evidence of something, whereas chat based workflow might feel very transitional. How many older colleagues have you worked with that like to print an email? Being able to demonstrate a physical output as a representation of your work seems to differ from generation to generation.
The speed of communication leads to a change in style, with a less formal approach being adopted. There is less need for the politeness or long-form nature of letters or emails when it comes to messaging apps. Communication is often more concise. There are not long-winded replies. You can usually tell when a message has been read. If you need to share screens for presentations, then you can do it easily.
Many workers of older generations are often critical of millennials in the workplace, claiming a lack of work ethic or taking issue with the amount of time they spend using smartphones. But the use of mobile tech allows users to delve immediately into tasks and solve problems in real time. Smartphones make for efficiency, as tasks can be completed in much less time.
Technology is building new boardrooms. Meetings can be a long drawn out affair, stuffed with formality. Dragging people in from different ends of a company that works out of multiple locations or territories is costly, and may yield little productivity for the outlay. Much smarter to use video conferencing. Mobile devices mean that the boardroom can be anywhere with a reasonable 4g signal can be found.
For many in the older generations, work will have always been seen as a physical place that you go. For many, the act of going to a job was significant, the time that you started and the time that you ended represented the work day. It offered a distinct cut-off. For many, work was a fixed concept. The set times were rigid, and there was no option for doing anything else during that time.
As the last few generations have evolved, there have been shifts in attitudes towards a variety of things, none more so than the role of women in the workplace and how motherhood and career can be balanced. This has come to require some flexibility to the rigidity of what it means to work.
As people live longer, they are likely to have older relatives that need caring for; while for others their motivations for working may not be as financially driven as in previous generations.
Technology allows the freedom to work around your commitments. The nine-to-five is dead. Societal shifts around technology mean that business is open 24-7. For many companies, their clients or customers are online at all hours of the day and can be engaged or interacted with seamlessly.
It does, however, create a type of employee who is always on. From waking until sleeping; there is constant connection. While that might mean checking and firing out a few emails or work-related messages first thing in the morning or checking some stats at the end of the day; it could be argued that the flexibility to take work with you wherever you are makes a lot of people work harder.
But there are a lot of millennials that demand a good work-life balance and seek that above all else in their careers. The flexibility to check in and do work wherever and whenever; but also, the ability to take time out and tend to the important things in life.
So How Do We Make It Work?
Taking into account all of the differing expectations on how work should be; how do we proceed in making it work. Baby boomers and Generation X offer a wealth of experience and knowledge to a workforce that can be hugely beneficial, while millennials have an intuitive relationship with the technology at their disposal, which makes for efficiency. While millennials are very often breaking with conventionality in their management styles; there are still things that they can learn from their elders.
Instead of focusing on the differences between generations, attempt to seek a commonality between them. Look for core values that are present in all of your team that can unite them. A shared goal will have people working off the same page.
Value the input of each generation. Ensure that this is evident to all. Letting members of your team from different age-groups know what you find to be their individual strengths while highlighting them to the rest of the team will serve to foster a level of appreciation across the generation split.
Encouraging mentorship is one way of bridging the divide. But this mentoring can work both ways; an exchange of skills and experiences should work both ways in order to foster an understanding of each others motivation and abilities.
Keeping open and honest communication in the workplace is vital. Where big changes are being made, many may be weary or cynical. Transitions can feel threatening to some, while many younger employees might be keen to embrace it. Always communicating your goals and the logic behind a new idea will help to get everyone on board quicker.
What Unites Us
Across all of the generations, there are some common grounds that unite us all. There has always been a quest for efficiency. We have always wanted to create a better workplace where ideas get communicated quickly, and we have always adapted to new technology to make that happen. We have strived to embrace equality and social change in a way that requires us to rethink our work lives, and the values of those that pushed for this change in previous generations are evident in those millennials that push the envelope and challenge what work and career mean.
We should view the differences between the major generations in our workplaces as being an evolution or a continuation of a philosophy. There will no doubt be significant shifts brought to the table by Generation Z over the next few years; bringing the experience of fully digital lives having been born after the web became commonplace, they will take us to new levels and we should embrace the changes with open minds.