How to Manage Multigenerational Offices

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CHICAGO (MainStreet) -- Retirement ain't what it used to be. With 401(K) balances shrinking and the buying power of Social Security payments headed downward, more and more older employees are putting off their goodbye parties and staying on at work.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers age 55-64 are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. workforce. By the year 2014, nearly one-third of workers will be 50 or older. These experienced employees can help a small business run more efficiently, but eventually new blood and new ideas are critical to future success.

So what happens when people who have been with your company for decades have to start working with hires who could be their grandchildren? Especially when those newcomers have very different expectations for their careers? Different communication styles can rapidly turn a minor disagreement into a major conflict.

To avoid such clashes, anyone running a small business should have a basic grasp of key generational differences when it comes to work. The baby boomers (born 1945-64) often feel their job is central to their identity and self-esteem. They prefer to work for managers who take a team approach and like working in groups to define a mission.

Workers who are part of Generation X (born 1965-80) tend to be self-reliant and focus on results rather than process. They came of age in the days of open-plan offices and casual dress, and they expect flexibility in their schedule.

Generation Y, or Millennials (born after 1980), want to feel they are making a difference in the world and their workplace. They have very high expectations and are easily frustrated by managers who aren't open to their contributions.

Bobbie Little, director of worldwide coaching for the talent-management and consulting company PDI Ninth House, uses a few quick taglines to sum up the attitude of each generation. "The motto of the baby boomers is 'I did it my way,'" she says. "Many of them have defined themselves through their work, but now they're under a lot of financial pressure, with their retirement savings shrinking and their kids returning to live at home."

For Generation X, the theme is "You're in my way." "They saw how hard their parents worked, and they want more balance," Little says. They want to be able to leave early to watch their kids' sports games, or work remotely from home. As long as the work gets done, they reason, how it gets done should be up to them.

For Millennials, the motto is "Get out of my way." "A lot of the stories we hear tend to gravitate around Millennials because they're seen as so different," Little says. "They expect to have access to the top decision-makers in a company and have their contributions recognized." At the same time, many of these seemingly independent young workers are protected by the cocoon of their families. Little has heard of managers fielding angry phone calls from parents after giving younger employees a negative review.

Millennials are sometimes seen as threatening because they aren't afraid to make waves when they are unhappy. Little tells the story of a financial institution that was having trouble with a group of four Millennial employees. "The three women were very hard workers, but the one man was very savvy and good at managing upward," she says. "The women were angry that they weren't being recognized and their boss was unsympathetic. All three of them ended up creating their own collective bargaining unit, and when human resources did nothing, they left en masse."

Social media has only increased the power of these informal worker alliances, as complaints are disseminated via text message or Facebook. Understanding and adapting to different communication styles is a key factor in increasing employee satisfaction. Older workers might prefer to hear about the latest sales numbers through in-person meetings, while younger workers can be informed via text message.

It's also important to avoid stereotypes. Yes, some Millennials may act entitled, but many consider volunteerism and community service one of their highest priorities. Conventional wisdom may say that older baby boomers can't handle new technology, but in their lifetimes they have learned to adapt from typewriters to personal computers and from rotary dials to cellphones.

Work with Me: A New Lens on Leading the Multigenerational Workforce, published by PDI Ninth House, and the report Leading a Multigenerational Workforce, published by the AARP, have many other guidelines for managers working with different age groups. In general, the AARP report concludes, a company that encourages generations to work together has access to a broader range of ideas, a broader range of customers and a broader range of expertise.

The days of top-down, hierarchical leaders is over, Little says, and that's a good thing. "You've got to be open to getting reverse mentoring from people much lower down in the company," she says. "Businesses that facilitate those interactions and use those resources will have a competitive advantage."

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