Managing across the generations: Leaders must adapt to the increasingly demographically diverse office

Staff of different ages have differing needs – but watch your unconscious biases
Multigenerational offices are a reality for most of us: a study by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills found that the average workplace now spans four generations. But have our working styles changed to accommodate this? Should managers treat all staff the same? Or should they tailor their styles according to age group?
Research by Penna has unveiled disparities between how employers think employees want to be treated, and what staff actually want. There’s no one-size-fits-all model, but here are some useful tactics for multigenerational management.

DON’T MAKE ASSUMPTIONS

More than a third (34 per cent) of 55-65 year-olds said they wanted their development to be recognised through informal praise and recognition, but managers are most likely to focus on 18-24 year olds as the age group most in need of regular formal feedback. Working with employees to find out what they actually want to achieve, and how they want to get there, can help address this gap. Organise regular check-ins with employees to ensure you’re up to speed with changing needs and requests.
By listening to this feedback, managers can tailor their communications and approach. Some employees may want a formal review every quarter, with official documentation to record their career development, while others may just want regular conversations about whether they are on track – over a quick coffee, for example. But it’s clear that making assumptions doesn’t work.

ADDRESS UNCONSCIOUS BIASES

We need to be careful not to hold on to stereotypes that no longer apply to today’s workforce, as this will cause frustration among employees who might feel that they’re being pigeonholed. For example, our research found that flexible working isn’t only desired by women aged 34-45 – it’s wanted by all age groups. Managers need to be careful of being ageist, and should challenge decisions they may have made based subconsciously on the age of employees.
Most of us will try to take age into consideration in a constructive way. But the challenge is when age profiling happens without you even realising. Anonymous “360-degree” feedback can be really useful, as it helps to uncover whether unconscious biases are at play in management decisions. Managers may be too close to the coal face to make an accurate judgement, so external third party support can be useful.

ADAPTING YOUR STYLE

Penna’s research found that, for managers who are not currently adapting their style for differently aged employees, almost half (46 per cent) say they don’t need to. They say they are confident in their management skills – regardless of age differences within their team. But this is not echoed by employees, with 39 per cent saying that managers should change their style to suit different age groups.
Managers need to be more mindful of how they use their leadership role in the workplace. It’s important that bosses talk with employees about how best to engage with them, and ensure that they are getting the best out of their time at work. And rather than rigidly having monthly meetings with all employees scheduled in, it may be worthwhile to shake up the normal routine – in order to work with individuals more effectively.
Having different age groups working together within your organisation should be seen as an opportunity, not a management headache. To reflect the changing needs of the multigenerational workplace, employers and employees need to work together to ensure that everyone understands what others require. Making these changes can be a gradual process, and shouldn’t be expected to take place overnight. But it will certainly benefit employers and employees in the long run.
Penny de Valk is managing director of Penna Talent Management.

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