• Michael Hughes

Optimizing the Engagement in our Multi-Generational Workplaces

The Pandemic has emphasized and exaggerated the challenges created by our different approaches to working effectively together. These challenges existed long before COVID and it behooves all of us to pause, listen, and examine our styles, so that we all maximize our collective potential.


The Millennial Study


A few years ago, as the youngest plant manager in a large multi-national company, I was asked to dive deeply into how we could better manage Millenials as they entered the workplace. A stigma had already been established about work styles, work ethic and general expectations of this new generation. While this stigma possibly comforted the Baby Boomers and Gen X'ers that made those generalizations, they were clearly not helping integrate the generations in a productive manner. As someone born three years earlier than the magical Millennial "start-date", and as a leader of an organization successful in recruiting and retaining top Millennial talent, I was glad to take on the study and share my findings broadly around the company.


"The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise."

- Socrates circa 430 BC

I took the opportunity to interview and meet with hundreds of new hires and young leaders throughout our company and survey them on what was working and what could be improved upon. I did these in-person sessions in Europe, China, Mexico and the U.S. The results were staggeringly consistent, no matter the continent.


The Takeaways for Boomers and Gen X'ers:


There were 6 key takeaways that I have since shared with Boomers and Gen X'ers who are seeking to improve Millennial and Gen Z engagement in their organizations:


1) Communicate and Live the Mission. The younger generations do not want to work for companies or leaders who are only interested in delivering ever growing profits. They understand the need to make money, but need to believe that their employer is environmentally and socially responsible. You cannot fake this. You need to walk-the-talk and ensure your new employees have an opportunity to actively and regularly participate in the non-financial elements of your mission.


2) Invest Early and Often. Millennials and Gen Z'ers have been coached to expect, not just desire, consistent investment in their personal growth and development. They will want more frequent feedback than you ever received in the early years of your assignments. They expect you to work with them on Career Mapping and to provide a robust Sponsorship and/or Mentorship program.


3) Provide Access to Senior Leaders. In the 'old days', new hires might be expected to work all questions or suggestions with their direct manager and hope that person would take it up the chain of command from there. No more. Young professionals expect to be able to get face time with any leader in the organization, epsecially if that helps them to get their job done efficiently. The politics of how issues were resolved in the past are not fashionable any longer. The Open Mike concept was born from this learning (see specific blog on Open Mike for more insights). You not only need to quickly get comfortable with this concept, to be the go-to leader, you need to facilitate it.


4) Improve Technology & Work Space. Newer generations do not have much patience for outdated technology, slow software or 1980's styled work spaces. To keep them truly engaged you will need to invest in the appropriate devices, apps and connectivity tools. You may need to re-design your space to optimize for both the extroverts and introverts in your organization. Luckily, your new hires should be able to help with all of this transformation.....engage them early!


5) Design in Flexibility. One of the hottest topics through the pandemic and something the crisis has forced many employers to address, is the flexibility question. Lately, that has become synonymous with WFH, but there are many other elements of flexibility, from sabbaticals to working hours, that need to be considered. There is simply no avoiding the elephant in the room and employers and managers really need to think through the level of flexibility that will be optimal for the business and the individual. We all need to engage in a candid, personalized discussion as the junior professional assesses the level of exposure, in-person coaching and responsiveness that will be required to meet their career designs. There is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all solution here, but with open communication there can certainly be win-win customized designs.


6) Unleash Their Skills. This opportunity certainly does not only apply to Millennials or Gen Z'ers, but this point was brought up in every location I conducted the survey. Taking the time, ideally around the 6 month mark, to ask your new employee: "What skills or talents do you have have that are not being tapped into by our company?" , can create a powerful moment. The impression you make as a leader during this interaction can only be positive, but beyond that, the often surprising responses can open up opportunities and accelerate solutions in ways you have never imagined. The younger generations have skills that are not front of mind for the Boomers or Gen X'ers, so I suggest going into this conversation with a very open mind.


It is a good exercise to regularly challenge yourself on how you and your company are performing across these six areas. Better still, survey your younger employees and ask for suggestions on how you can improve!


Learnings for Millennials & Gen Z'ers:


As you can see from the ancient quote above, older generations have had less than stellar opinions of the younger generations for centuries. I think our memories of how we behaved in our youth are short, inaccurate and seen through rose-tinted glasses. I'm sure this concept will continue for many generations to come. That said, for everyone to work effectively together, it is important to better understand each other.


I have had many coaching opportunities with young leaders I coach and sponsor in the years since I completed the above study. Below are some of the important points I share with new recruits that are based on my experience and observations on how any individual is successful in the corporate world we all live in, regardless of generation:

  • Deliver Outstanding Results

  • Put in your Best Effort and Work Hard

  • Help Everyone Around You to be Successful

These may seem obvious, but I have sat with many individuals that lose focus on one or more of these elements of success and instead focus on "what's in it for me?". We will dive deeper into how to ensure you are on track to deliver all three in the next blog post!