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Lead Your Team Managing

Tackling 4 Key Challenges of the Multigenerational Workforce

Credit: Mooshny/Shutterstock

Working today often means joining a team with a range of ages. A millennial may manage you, but you may still work with Generation Xers and baby boomers.

As more boomers work past retirement age and as tech-savvy millennials continue to graduate and enter the workforce, the stark differences in the values, communication styles and work habits of each generation are becoming increasingly pronounced.

"Every person comes into the office with different life experiences, perspectives and views, which is valuable to the company," said Amy Casciotti, vice president human resources at TechSmith Corporation, a business and academic software product company. "[Having] varying perspectives of seeing the world helps you to see more of the landscape and your company's spot in it, and that's a great thing."

How do you create and manage a cohesive team? Here are the biggest challenges in the modern work environment and how to deal with them head-on. [See Related Story: Is There a Generational Divide in Your Office?]

People sometimes think company culture for younger generations means rooms with ping-pong tables and no set office rules. While these can be perks, they're not necessarily what defines company culture.

"The way in which your employees receive company culture is one of the toughest and most important aspects of running a business," said Allen Shayanfekr, CEO and co-founder of Sharestates. "When the workforce is happy and [workers] enjoy their environment, the atmosphere as a whole is more productive."

Shayanfekr said he has found that hosting company events and happy hours, and celebrating joyful occasions is a great way for everyone to grow together.

"Whether it's a summer pool party, celebrating birthdays in the office or hosting a secret Santa for the holidays — each of these events helps our team to grow closer and appreciate each other, regardless of age," he said.

The difference between older and younger generations in preferred communication styles has almost become a cliché: Generation Y sends text messages, tweets and instant messages to communicate, while baby boomers and older Gen Xers tend to prefer phone calls and emails. Throw in that younger workers tend to use abbreviations, informal language and colloquialisms, and you've got a recipe for serious communication breakdowns.

"Different generations tend to value different communication styles, team structures and job perks," Casciotti said. "Understanding what people value and what motivates them makes it much easier to communicate job expectations, offer the right type of support or even make adjustments that will better suit a team's performance."

Dana Brownlee, founder of training and management consulting firm Professionalism Matters, recommended that leaders and employees communicate with their colleagues in the ways each person prefers. Bringing staff members of different generations together for face-to-face team-building exercises and ice breakers can help break down some of the barriers that can occur with digital communications, she said.

"We should all seek out other perspectives [and] ways of thinking, and that includes others from different age groups," Casciotti said. "Diverse thinking is critical to all organizations."

Lazy. Entitled. Tech obsessed. Overeager. These are just a few of the terms that come to mind for many older workers when they think of millennials, and members of the younger generation are well aware of the stereotypical ideas they're up against. Rich Milgram, CEO of career network Beyond.com, pointed out that Gen Y isn't alone: Younger workers may perceive baby boomers as difficult to train and stubbornly set in their ways.

"Overcoming existing stereotypes is hard," Milgram told Business News Daily. "It takes a conscious effort to distinguish your own talents and not let preconceived notions do that for you. Workers need to match their vision of success with the work ethic that it will take to get there — meaning a willingness to go beyond what's expected."

Leaders can help the situation by actively looking for dysfunction in the workplace caused by misunderstandings and generational judgments, and intervening when there are problems, said Joyce Maroney, director of the Workforce Institute at workforce management solutions provider Kronos.

"People sometimes think that someone younger knows less, has experienced less, is less worthy of the position. I think we forget that age doesn't necessarily have anything to do with it," Casciotti said. "Some people experience a lot in a short amount of time, have learned skills that we didn't, have a wisdom that is beyond their years or have a perspective that no one else has."

As the typical workplace evolves to keep up with changing technologies and mobile work trends, a consequent shift in cultural expectations has also occurred. This can be an especially jarring transition for older workers, who are used to having performance measured by the number of hours spent at their desks.

"For many younger managers, time spent in the office is not as vital as the results you produce," said career expert Kerry Hannon in an article she wrote for AARP. "Your well-honed work ethic of being an early bird at your desk might not impress. Teleworking tends to be looked on more favorably, especially if you can get more work done by not cooling your heels in rush-hour commutes."

On the other end, members of Generation Y value and expect a healthy work-life balance.

"Younger workers are more likely to come from families where both parents were working, and therefore place a greater premium on work-life balance," Maroney said. "Their older co-workers may have expected to sacrifice a lot of their personal time to the job. Having seen parents lose their jobs despite their loyalty, [millennials] are looking for jobs where they can have a life outside of work."

For leaders, a good way to approach this issue is to allow individuals to work in the style that's best for them and acknowledge the efforts of each team member, regardless of their work styles.

"Everyone wants recognition for the work they do, access to the resources they need and feedback that is delivered in an appropriate way," said Paige Graham, a core faculty member at the University of the Rockies in Colorado. "Honor each person's contribution to the group and acknowledge each individual's need for affirmation."

In order for real progress to occur in the multigenerational workforce, every age group must offer flexibility and openness.

"Always respect your team, no matter their age. Speak to them. Make sure they're learning and happy in their work environment," Shayanfekr said. "If they're facing an obstacle, try to offer productive solutions and provide an opinion as to how to overcome the obstacle."

Additional reporting by Nicole Taylor. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Shannon Gausepohl

Shannon Gausepohl graduated from Rowan University in 2012 with a degree in journalism. She has worked at a newspaper and in the public relations field, and is currently a staff writer at Business News Daily. Shannon is a zealous bookworm, has her blue belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu, and loves her Blue Heeler mix, Tucker.