Bridging the Generational Divide
I WAS talking to a print manager recently who asked me how I handled employees who talk on cell phones and/or send text messages while working. I said well, if it isn't a safety issue, and they're getting their job done, I don't really worry about it. This led into a conversation about the younger generation of workers and prompted me to write this article.
It is estimated that 73,000 baby boomers will retire in the next 15 years. As these highly skilled workers retire, we will be challenged as managers to fill their positions with equally skilled employees. How will we recruit them, how will we manage them, and once we get them, how will we keep them? For the first time in forever, we have the possibility of three, and sometimes even four different generations in the workplace: traditionalists (born before 1943), boomers (born 1943-1965), Gen X (born 1966-1980) and Gen Y or Millennial (born 1980-2003). Understanding the different beliefs or value systems of the generations in the workplace will help managers manage better.
Loosely defined, a generation is a cohort of people who share common characteristics, values and notable events over the course of 20-25 years. A generation is shaped by historical and cultural life experiences, family, and the technological innovations of the time.
How will the new workers we hire be different from those who are retiring? Beloit College publishes an annual list of the "mind-set" of incoming students. For example, the computer is older than some of the new employees we may hire, as they were born at the same time as Macs and PCs. Instead of the lighters my generation held above their heads at rock concerts, the younger generations use the lights from their cell phones. Women have always had tattoos, and Toyotas and Hondas have always been made in the United States.
I think it is important to understand how to manage our new employees. In the higher education environment in which I work, it is also important to understand our new customers: the students who enter our institution every fall.
The table of generational characteristics on page 49 is compiled from several different sources. It is important to note that there are different views of the exact time-frame to which each generation refers. A difference of a few years does not necessarily put an individual into a specific group. There may even be subgroups within each generation. And then there are folks like me who never fit in anywhere.
Thanks to growing up as the children of super-achiever parents, both Gen X and Gen Y have been brought up to believe they can do anything they set their minds to doing. They have been immersed in information technologies like video games, computers, cell phones and the Internet for most of their lives.
If we are going to manage, retain and motivate this new group of workers, we will have to learn to adapt. First, we have to get over the notion of "dues paying." These employees know we are in charge and they don't care. Both groups are willing to change jobs when necessary, so staying with one company is not as important to them as it was to my generation.
Even though Gen X and Gen Y have similar workplace characteristics, there are some differences in the way they react to certain situations. For example, a Gen X employee may resent working late if he/she thinks it only benefits the boss, while a Gen Y employee may refuse to work late if it conflicts with a personal schedule. Both groups of employees need to know that their work matters.
These employees desire a lot of feedback and flexibility in our hierarchical structures. Don't be surprised if you find them pitching a new idea to a customer, or a new way of doing something to other employees. Both Gen X and Gen Y employees have worked on teams since kindergarten, love a challenge and want to be taken seriously. Basically, they want to be heard. They also want the truth, so give it to them.
Changing How Boomers Think
I think the challenge for those of us in leadership positions is to help our Boomer employees understand that the work habits and mind-set of these new groups of employees are O.K. Some of our Boomer employees may think the younger workers are lazy because they are unwilling to work overtime. Or maybe they don't understand why someone would prefer to come in at 10:00 a.m. and work until 6:00 p.m. Or how someone can take a personal phone call or text message and continue working. To retain this new generation of workers, we must provide them with flexible schedules when possible, so they can achieve the work-life balance that is so important to them. The Boomer's live-to-work culture is no more; it's a work-to-live culture now.
Of course, as managers, we can't let production suffer, especially in these economic times. We need to create accountability structures to prevent misunderstandings and provide parameters within which to work, such as time lines, expense budgets, etc. Gen X employees need the flexibility to use the problem-solving abilities they learned when they were "home alone." Gen Y employees need space to try new things and new ways of doing things.
The way we train employees will need to change as well. These new generations of employees have been absorbing information and learning from multiple sources their entire lives. They are used to multi-tasking, and most do better with relevant, short sound bites. (Actually, I even do better with relevant, short sound bites, so we could take a lesson from them here.) Provide step-by-step instructions for complex tasks, or buy an inexpensive video camera and make a short training tape. You would be surprised at the number of YouTube videos already available from printers and printing vendors.
Management Mistakes to Avoid
In their book "Managing Generation Y: global citizens born in the late seventies and early eighties," Bruce Tulgan and Carolyn Martin detail the seven traits of the worst managers as seen through the eyes of a Gen Y employee. In no particular order, the traits are:
• Overemphasis on outward appearance
• Disrespect for younger people
• Ineffective delegation
• Abusive attitude
• Lack of knowledge and organizational skills
• Inability to train or facilitate training
For both Gen X and Gen Y, we need to avoid micromanaging these employees, as they absolutely will not stand for it. Whether it is in a meeting, waiting for further instructions, or doing busy work they do not feel is important, they hate it when they feel like they are wasting their time. In fact, wasting their time is probably the number one way to lose respect with these employees. When we do this, they see us as being inefficient, disrespectful and poor planners. They thrive on feedback; so do not take credit for a project without giving them credit where credit is due. And finally, these new employees will not accept abusive treatment from a supervisor or a co-worker.
Gen X and Gen Y grew up with Star Search and American Idol. Make these employees feel like they are a "star." Reward them immediately, and publicly praise them. When possible, create an engaging and fun workplace. If you have not read the book "Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results," a story of how a fish market made an uncomfortable and hard job fun for its workers, I highly recommend it and the accompanying video (or DVD, for my Gen X and Gen Y readers). To retain these new employees and help them succeed, we need to model the behavior we want to see. In other words, we need to "walk the talk." IPG
Catherine Chambers directs the operations of Virginia Tech Printing Services, where she is responsible for digital and offset production, mail and the university's copier management program. Chambers is also co-founder of the Chambers Management Group, a management consulting firm for in-plant mailing and printing operations. She has more than 20 years of experience managing printing, copier and mailing functions in higher-ed and the private sector. Chambers has a B.A. in Organizational Management, a M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration and is in the proposal preparation stage of her doctoral studies in the same program at Penn State. Contact her at:chamber1@VT.edu