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When spiky hair meets grey hair in the workplace

We are all familiar with the cliché of the straight laced and suited executive complaining about lazy grads or entry level employees. But how relevant is this thinking about generational hierarchies in today’s businesses?

For many businesses there are up to five generations working under one roof and managing all the complexities comes with this may not be easy. That’s because it involves five sets of career expectations, behavioural norms and assumptions.

Fortunately, many business owners and executives will come to see this wider view of work and life in their workforce as opportunity for their organisations. After all, more generations bring more knowledge, more ideas, and more, well, everything, right?

While there are undoubtedly great benefits of cross-generational collaboration, the reality may not be so rosy. In fact, throughout the process of watching workplaces turning into cross-generational beehives of activity, with ideas and personalities clashing, you may have borne witness to some uncomfortable moments between older and younger cohorts. For many younger people, now is a good time to be enter the workforce.

Younger generations are being accepted as natural candidates for positions involving online tools and collaboration. The ‘social media whizz’ may find themselves in management positions long before it was feasible for older generations.

Flexible hours, lack of concern for hierarchy and a gung-ho attitude are all potential hallmarks of a young star in the organisation rising to the top. Fast forward (or rewind) to your older workers, who might be used to ideas of climbing the corporate ladder, working long hours and displaying outward signs of organisational commitment.

It’s no surprise then that a younger generation demanding flexible conditions that are now part of the management team may induce the workplace equivalent of wishing these damn kids would stop skateboarding on the sidewalk. But this is actually positive.

Even with all that tech-savvy younger generations are valued for; no amount of tweeting will ever make up for a lifetime of learning how to navigate relationships within an organisation. And yes, young’uns have a lot to learn about the so called real world, but they also have a lot to offer.

So how do we encourage harmony and productivity between the generations? Firstly, hire for fit. If your team will benefit from an older sage and a steady hand, ensure that you make one available. Life experience goes a long way in being able to galvanise team and deliver results, and while that young hot shot may look good on paper, she may not be the project leader you need right now. And of course, the opposite applies as well.

Further, ensure your project teams have a wide age range. This doesn’t mean creating redundant roles on a team for the sake of including people, but can be as innocuous as including different generations as advisers in important project meetings. We need to have productive conversations.

We need to demonstrate that we’re not locked in a competition between fossils and fledglings, but that we’re actually not so strange when we sit down and talk about our thoughts on business, projects, and vision for the organisation. Tried and tested, mentoring is a great tool to help people identify gaps in their knowledge and understanding.

Traditional mentoring aside, reverse mentoring can be valuable if, and only if; the person being reversed mentored is genuinely interested. If you are an older executive, make yourself available and approachable, and tell your younger cohorts that you are. And if you are younger, don’t be afraid to knock on some doors and ask for advice. Show a willingness to learn and give some power away to your older co-workers. You will almost certainly learn something.

And a final nugget of advice – involve everyone. Share your social media plans as readily as your manufacturing forecasts. Not everyone will be clamouring to read these, but as certain business functions will inevitably be tied up with certain generations, educate your workers and what different groups are doing and how it fits in with the bigger picture.

Having a range of workers is beneficial. We don’t work in a vacuum, and this includes a generational one.

Jane Kennelly is a recruitment professional with over 25 years’ industry knowledge. She is director of Frog Recruitment

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