The multigenerational workforce — you’ve heard about it. There are about six generations that live in America today; three to five of which are in the workplace, with another set to enter within ten years. You’ve probably heard most about Generation X (30-50 years of age) and Generation Y (millennials, 11-29), with the occasional reference to baby boomers (51-68), the group arguably hit hardest by the recent Great Recession.
Please note that these age brackets vary from resource to resource but this gives you the general gist. Thanks to a global economy that stubbornly refuses to improve in any meaningful way for many anxious holders of 401ks, we’re unlikely to see baby boomers retiring at rates previously expected.
The short story is this: At least three generations can be found in most workplaces, which not only is a potential source of workplace friction, but also a real puzzle for leaders, HR, brand marketers, and talent management pros looking to humanize brands.
It’s really not something we can afford to ignore.
This shift in the meaning of brand is seismic, as they say. Where my parents bought a car for the brand’s reputation, and I wouldn’t buy a car for any one reason, my niece might buy a car if its infotainment system is seamlessly synchronized with her Bluetooth and iPhone (or Android).
For millennials, brands must have social capability and social identity, or allow the individual to use the brand’s product in a social context. For Gen X, the brand must be multinational. And for boomers, well, snob appeal still works – one measure of brand reputation. Note: I’m a Gen-Xer and I sometimes want each of these offerings above so it can be misleading to go on statistics alone. Honestly, I often think stereotyping generations can be very limiting in this way, but it’s useful to gain a macro-perspective on just how much the world of work is transforming now.
In workplace brands, as with multigenerational teams, a lot of adaptation and flexibility is called for if success is the goal. As I wrote last week, brand humanization is of increasing importance. This holds for workplace brands as a well. If you’re a CEO, HR person, or a hiring manager for new and retained talent, you’re probably wondering how to keep the wheels on the bus with three, potentially five, age groups on staff.
Here are five suggestions to keep your workplace and leadership brand aligned with the needs of three or four very different groups of workers:
- Relevance: For all groups of workers, work must be relevant. This matters for someone who’s 60 as much as it does for a 23-year-old, although the meaning of “relevant” might be different for each. Leaders always need to communicate a task’s relevance. If a task is relevant, it will make the brand relevant too.
- Accountability: Some people are accountable by nature. They’re performers. Lots of other people have to be made accountable. A lot has been written about the lack of accountability in Millennials, but I think it’s more a question of communications again: leaders must be very clear about what it means to be accountable in the workplace. A 45-year-old may see his or her work as contributing to the bottom line, a 25-year-old may see it as a task and miss the big picture, and a 60-year-old may see a task as a dead end. Leaders have to show everyone why everything they do in the workplace counts and helps build a good brand. Mind, employees have a responsibility to look beyond themselves too, but that’s a topic for another day.
- Motivation: First cousin of accountability and relevance, motivation can be a mystery for a leader. A conventional boss may see a paycheck as sufficient motivation, while a strategic leader will see motivation as the key to a productive workplace. Taking the time to understand what motivates workers is a huge investment, but it’s absolutely necessary. Unmotivated workers won’t care about the brand, and that’s the first step down the path to brand destruction.
- Trust: As the work world becomes increasingly driven by social media and social technologies, trust becomes more important. Old-school companies and leaders may think trust is embodied in a paycheck, but it’s not. Trust is earned, like respect. Workers who trust management will also trust the brand.
- Emotional connection: I’m a big proponent of the workplace value of Emotional Intelligence. The leader with emotional intelligence understands the need for an emotional connection with everyone in the workplace. No, you don’t have to be best friends, but you do have to be sensitive and aware to the emotional tenor of the workplace. Ignore emotional connection and no one will care about your brand, or your workplace.
Can we all just be happy in the multigenerational workplace? Not all the time, certainly, but it will be much more achievable if you’ve taken the time to humanize your brand. Your workforce will be a community, just like in real life, where the players are all at different stages but are working to stay more or less in sync with one another. The alternative? Look around you at the dead or dying brands, the legions of un- or underemployed and the dispossessed.
Attracting and retaining talent takes a lot of work and persistent effort to be better. So please get to it and start thinking about being a human leader.
Want more strategies to effectively manage a multigenerational workplace? See Managing A Multigenerational Business.
A version of this post was first published on Forbes on 3/23/2014
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