The modern workforce contains four generations, from Baby Boomers through to Gen Z. While the differences between them are easy to overstate or oversimplify, it’s hard to deny that people who entered the workplace in 2019 may not have the same expectations and attitudes as those who started in 1969.
Many businesses struggle to attract the next generation of talent; others try too hard, inadvertently alienating older workers (if you conduct board meetings on bean bags and come to work in ripped jeans, this is probably you). It’s a hard balance to get right.
Phil Jones is UK managing director of global technology business, Brother, which has a workforce aged 16 to 66. Here, he shares his experiences adapting policies and culture to accommodate everyone.
1. Update your social media and IT security policy playbook
My initial pride and delight at seeing a group selfie from one of our team workshops on Twitter soon gave way to alarm when I spotted a departmental strategy document posted on the wall, in shot. Something that I considered commercially sensitive was being shared with the world and our competitors - it was quickly deleted.
There’s a risk, when entering the world of work, that with comfort comes complacency, particularly for young people who may be inexperienced as to the sensitivities of information security or through the enthusiasm of a member of staff who is used to extensive social sharing.
We encourage our people to connect and engage with each other on social media to show why we have a great place to work. But you need to be clear from the outset about your policies on issues like photos taken in the workplace and using social media platforms on work devices, to prevent you sleepwalking into an HR, GDPR or security issue.
2. Keep your dress code fluid
We’ve adapted our dress code to keep pace with changes in business culture as much as for the younger generations who have a more liberal approach to dress and fashion.
Some of our senior colleagues feared that standards were slipping in terms of office formality. Responding to them meant explaining that our policy needed to stay relevant but also making it clear that they could continue to dress more formally if that’s what made them feel comfortable. It also meant making sure people dressed appropriately when meeting clients with different dress codes to ours.
Our policy framework enabled us to liberalise because we were open about why we were doing it and protected everyone’s right to feel comfortable at work. One person’s casual may be another person’s smart. You may still have the odd comment as to what is deemed appropriate and what not so it’s important to keep your ear to the ground.
3. Moving from power to influence
For a 50-year-old business like ours, a cultural transformation was necessary to make us an employer of choice for all four working generations.
We took aim at the hierarchical structure common to many established businesses in which the pyramid shape was propped up by a culture based on power and career experience, rather than influence more matched to the dynamic market we operate in.
We developed a matrix, which sees people at all levels of our business and from different teams come together to interact on specific projects. The HIPPO (highest paid person’s opinion) is of little interest in this configuration. Here every voice is equal, and quality is valued, regardless of age or length of service.
We value learning and development highly as an employer and found a way to recognise those that were really improving their skills. This allows everyone to effectively contribute to the running of the business.
But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Looking at the culture from the bottom up, benefits were one area we needed to address. For older generations, accruing benefits over time is almost a rite of passage. Things like a dedicated parking space or office can often be internal symbols of hierarchy which may not be helpful when you’re looking to transform and indicate a change of culture.
We’ve removed some of these physical benefits, which met initial resistance, but we’ve also preserved some of the formal benefits senior managers expect in order to remain competitive and relevant in the market.
While it might seem totally alien to my 21-year-old son to want to own a car when he can just Uber from A to B, for my salespeople and many senior execs the company car is still an object of desire and a decent company car policy can make the difference to landing your next senior recruit.
Our younger generations appreciate benefits they can use to spend on experiences and so that’s what we give them through rewards schemes and vouchers plus other informal mechanisms like community engagement activity, which contributes to sustainable or environmental outcomes.
Striking the right balance between generations is key - a menu of different benefits which appeals to each audience takes a bit of thinking about but is well worth the effort to get right.
4. The career velocity window
We’ve found one of the biggest pinch points with younger generations comes with managing their expectations around progression. Their career velocity window – the timeframe for each promotion, role change or job change – is expected to be a fraction of that experienced by the Baby Boomers, Gen Xs and even some Millennials.
This can cause friction with longer ‘time served’ colleagues who have may have put a big shift in before gaining their big career promotion, so managing expectations is something you must invest time in.
Creating career plans is one way to do that, so that someone has clarity about their next step, how to get there, what they need to do and by when. It shifts the emphasis back firmly in their court to deliver on those things. Harnessing the ambition and enthusiasm of someone who is highly career oriented, regardless of age, takes energy and thought. The more clarity you can generate, the better.
5. Give young people room to fail safely
Letting a 16-year old apprentice send an email to a key or longstanding client can be a scary thing to do. They may be more fluent in emojis than in formal business language and etiquette, which is admittedly becoming less important in the workplace, but at different rates in different places, creating the opportunity for misunderstandings.
We fight hard to resist the temptation to call out every mistake that a young person may make when joining us but try to guide them to learn from their environment and observe how more senior colleagues and clients communicate verbally, in meetings or in written form.
You’ll be amazed at how soon the penny drops without you needing to leap in, particularly if some of your more senior colleagues adopt a coaching style or agree to mentor someone who is less experienced. We tend to throw young people in at the deep end quite quickly. Give them the benefit of the doubt, remember what it was like to be inexperienced and forgive them their youthful enthusiasm.
6. Talent is across all generations
There is an alchemy in blending the vigour of younger generations with the statesmen-like experience of your more senior team members. Your success will come in ensuring that you are investing across your entire workforce, not just in one demographic. There is a real focus on the word ‘talent’ right now, and it’s an easy mistake to categorise only young people into that category.
Talent is all around you and ready to step forward when opportunity presents, so widen the parameters and consider every demographic when thinking ahead. You need to work at it to make it work.
Scenario plan, stay close and make quick adjustments when needed.
Image credit: Brother UK