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A Guide to Leading an Effective Multi-Generational Workforce

An overhead shot of a group of employees from multiple generations  having pleasant discussions about their work.

Modern CHROs today lead a workforce made up of workers from five generations: the Silent Generation (2.0% of workers), Baby Boomers (18.6%), Generation X (34.8%), Millennials (38.6%), and Generation Z (6.1%).

Each generation is entering a transformational moment in its careers. Today, Gen X (born 1965-1980) is taking over leadership roles, Millennials (born 1981-1995) have become the largest workforce demographic, and Gen Z (born 1996-2012) is beginning its professional journey—while Baby Boomers (born 1945-1964) and the Silent Generation (born between the mid-1920s and 1944) move into retirement, if they’re not already there. “The greatest challenge is that every generation is on a different journey in their life,” says Jon Orozco, SHRM-SCP, chief people strategist at Verk Vibe. “Some are pushing forward in their careers and family life changes, while others are pulling back and consolidating for the next phase of their life and post-employment.”

However, not all members of a generation fit neatly into the same box. Effectively leading a multi-generational workforce requires executives to understand each generation’s journey—while challenging stereotypes about generational preferences. Serving one group and ignoring others could cause conflict and lead to disconnected cultures. It could also heighten attrition, as “workers are more likely to leave if they realize they’re working for an employer whose values don’t align,” notes Mika Cross, workplace transformation strategist and leader of strategic initiatives with FlexJobs.

Leaders must be flexible, set precise expectations, and broker compromises to best serve each generation. “Finding the middle ground won’t always be feasible, but making reasonable-faith effort goes a long way,” Orozco says. “Consider bridging the generation gap without widening it. Like anything else, that will require a thoughtful conversation conducted in good faith and some good negotiation. It is a give-and-take for both sides.” 

Let’s explore where intergenerational conflict can arise—and what’s at stake if leaders don’t find an inclusive path forward.

How Multi-Generational Workforces Vary (and What to Do About It)

1.   Values

Values can vary across generations, but they may not be as different as many people think. Generations may value the same things but express those values in various ways. Preferred terms can change, standards can evolve, and new challenges can arise, but one group rarely holds a unique value.

For example, while Gen Z is known for valuing sustainability, the modern environmental movement was born in the 1970s, so this isn’t a new concern. And while some members of older generations may claim they didn’t grow up with IE&D (inclusion, equity, and diversity) programs, Orozco points to desegregation in public schools, women’s voting rights, and women’s access to credit—all efforts to improve diversity and inclusion in American society.

“I don’t think any generation has wildly different values, but they see and speak them differently,” he says. Employers don’t need to leave one generation behind to address another’s concerns. Instead, they must consider how different workers communicate their values and ensure the organization’s culture makes everyone feel welcome and supported.

Challenges to Expect  

Be aware of the ways different values and priorities manifest in the workplace. For instance, some employees may value their employers’ stance on issues important to them, such as LGBTQ+ rights and sustainability, while others simply value being able to support their families. It’s critical to understand the generational nuances and where employees overlap.

Be mindful of launching value-based benefits without integrating them into your culture. For example, Cross says the widespread practice of creating employee resource groups (ERGs) isn’t enough. While it establishes critical spaces to connect over values, these conversations should not be compartmentalized. Instead, they should be included in how the company functions and makes decisions. For an ERG, this could involve taking the group’s feedback into leadership meetings, considering how else the organization shows up for this group via benefits and policies, and how leadership participates.

How to Bridge the Generation Gaps

Cross offers four strategies for leaders to better understand generations’ varying values and involve the whole organization.

  • Create a culture of respect and civility that integrates different values and beliefs.
  • Foster cross-generational mentorship and reverse mentoring programs to facilitate knowledge sharing and understanding.
  • Encourage team-building activities that promote collaboration and appreciation of diverse perspectives.
  • Implement diversity and inclusion training programs that address generational differences and the fundamentals of age inclusivity across teams.

Ground your efforts in employees’ experiences by gathering data and individualized insights on what they value, either through pulse surveys or focus groups.

2.   Communication Styles

Everyone has different communication preferences and styles. Data suggests Gen X often prefers making phone calls, while 83% of Gen Z emoji users prefer expressing their emotions through emojis instead. And while some older generations are accustomed to formal business writing, Gen Z is making language at work more casual. These varied approaches can create confusion without a standard understanding of how an organization shares information.

No approach is better, but each is fundamentally different. “Each generation grew up in comfort” with their own communication preferences, explains Orozco. “It’s important to understand everyone has varying comfort levels and set expectations as a team.” An organization’s approach won’t always put everyone in their comfort zone, but leaders who take stock of communication preferences can make reasonable concessions and set better boundaries.

“Doing so can create stronger connections among teams and result in more discretionary effort, meaning people are more willing to put in extra effort and what it takes to get the work done,” adds Cross.

Challenges to Expect

Varying communication styles don’t just create miscommunication. They can also result in isolation. “Different generations have higher levels of isolation and loneliness,” explains Cross, and you don’t want to leave any one generation feeling unheard. Consider, for instance, that many Gen Zers (who report having the highest rates of isolation) started their careers remotely, without the in-person contact that other generations had before them.

Isolation endangers employee mental health, adds tension to team dynamics, and lessens organizational trust. “We miss the mark if we don’t open the doors to understand each other better and invest in inclusive, multi-generational communication skills,” says Cross. “And that affects the bottom line.”

How to Bridge the Generation Gaps

Cross shares five tactics for executives to allow for communication preferences while setting expectations that support business goals:

  • Establish clear guidelines and expectations for communication channels and response times.
  • Provide training on effective communication across generations, especially for people leaders.
  • Encourage cross-generational collaboration and communication through projects or group-focused tasks that help foster intergenerational skills.
  • Provide cheat sheets at onboarding with team communication preferences. Include personal facts (pets, hobbies, etc.) to speed up forming interpersonal connections.
  • Train people on scheduling emails for later to align with communication preferences, and don’t make employees feel obligated to respond outside of regular business hours if their colleagues are working at those times.

3.   Work/Life Balance

Some research finds Baby Boomers are less likely to prioritize work/life balance, as they grew up accustomed to working long hours to support their families. In contrast, Gen Zers and Millennials (many of whom are now starting or raising families) largely say they are unwilling to sacrifice their well-being for work and are looking for ways to maintain work/life balance.

But that doesn’t mean older generations don’t appreciate flexibility. Baby Boomers are 15% more likely to apply to remote-work positions than other generations. They may be looking to integrate work into the rest of their lives, rather than trying to balance two things they once saw as fundamentally separate.

Challenges to Expect

Different generations have varying expectations around work hours, flexibility, and time off, but avoiding burnout is essential for members of any generation. Data suggests that work/life imbalance significantly increases burnout, contributing to higher turnover and lower career satisfaction.

“A true leader knows how their team members work most efficiently, and you work with them to calibrate and set expectations,” says Orozco. “Not all of us are good at eight hours in a row.” That could mean some of your employees work in different chunks. While that could be a challenge to set up initially, once people have a schedule, they often stick to it and remain consistent, says Orozco.

How to Bridge the Generation Gaps

Cross shares four methods to increase work/life balance across generations, keeping productivity and morale high.

  • Offer flexible work arrangements, such as hybrid, remote, or flexible schedules.
  • Encourage employees to prioritize self-care and well-being through wellness initiatives.
  • Develop policies and guidelines that promote work/life balance and set clear expectations for all employees.
  • Provide resources and support for managing stress and maintaining a healthy work/life integration.

4.   Rates of Technology Adoption

Adoption rates of new technology and processes vary by generation, but they’re not as different as you might think. While Millennials are typically touted as being highly comfortable with technology, Google found that older generations spend much more time online and across devices than they’re given credit for. And sometimes, it’s as simple as how a technology is labeled. For example, Orozco points out that Gen X started telecommuting in the 1980s, which is very similar to what we call “remote work” today.

It’s important to recognize that workplace technology is constantly evolving, and even digital natives will find themselves out of their comfort zone at times. With the introduction of AI, every generation is learning something new, which can create a shared experience across generations. These moments can also be a source of common ground and shared purpose.

Appealing to varying adoption rates across generations comes down to creating a culture driven by learning and innovation. This also creates opportunities for cross-leveling skills across the company, says Cross. “It’s a chance for employers to leverage learning from early adopters who understand how to use technology more than others,” she explains.

Challenges to Expect

Varying technology adoption rates can hamper team collaboration and engagement. “The risk for employers who don't pause and invest in opportunities to strengthen how teams work across platforms risks well-being, team camaraderie, and productivity,” says Cross.

“You may have some early adopters who quickly grasp new tools and increase work efficiency, but other generations might require more ramp-up,” she adds. “They may rely more on face-to-face meetings or back-to-back Zoom meetings, putting an increased wear on your ability to safeguard boundaries.”

Also, if a work environment isn’t psychologically safe, some employees may be uncomfortable asking for help, which could cause further conflict and decrease productivity.

How to Bridge the Generation Gaps

According to Cross, training, communication, and psychological safety are critical to bridging the gap between varying adoption rates. She recommends the following steps:

  • Provide training programs to enhance digital skills for members of every generation, including opportunities for cross-skilling.
  • Foster a psychologically safe culture where someone in any generation can raise their hand and say something like, “I’m having a tough time understanding the new process here, and I know I’ve asked five times, but can someone help me?”
  • Create a technology adoption road map with ongoing support while setting training expectations.
  • Involve employees in the decision-making process, and address their concerns regarding technology changes.

5.   Benefit Participation

Baby Boomers are preparing to retire. Millennials are taking care of aging parents. Gen Z is facing the heaviest burden from student loan debt. Each generation needs different benefits to improve its financial situation, though it’s important not to make assumptions based on someone’s birth year. Instead, ask employees what they need, and then provide them with options.

In fact, 70% of Gen Z employees said they value choosing their benefits. “Having a broad spectrum of choices and a variety of benefits will set employers apart and allow them to resonate with and attract talent from every generation,” says Cross.

Challenges to Expect

“Cost is naturally the most significant benefit challenge because it gets more expensive whenever you offer a new one,” says Orozco. “You can offer all the benefits that support all the generations, but if nobody uses them, you spend all this money for minimal return on investment.”

Offering incomplete benefits or not communicating them in plain language can also cost you in attracting new talent. “When you look at engagement levels with job postings that include explicit language on various benefits, including workplace wellness programs and workplace flexibility, those job postings get much higher engagement rates from job seekers than if they’re not cited,” notes Cross.

How to Bridge the Generation Gaps

With five generations to support, employers could benefit from using a multipronged approach, says Orozco.

Cross offers the following suggestions to enhance benefit participation:

  • Continuously evaluate and update benefit offerings based on changing demographics and employee feedback.
  • Communicate the value and purpose of each benefit to ensure transparency and understanding.
  • Consider cafeteria-style benefits plans where different employees can pick the benefits that resonate with them most.
  • Ask the right questions on employee surveys to avoid overpaying for benefits you might not need, adds Orozco. For example, some employees may want the benefit of fully remote work, but if you ask the right questions, you’ll see they are comfortable coming in two days a week.

You could even have your employees vote on and rank their benefits, suggests Orozco. Say your workforce requests 50 different kinds of benefits. You can have them vote on the top 10, choose what’s possible for your budget, and then share your methodology and results—making employees part of the decision-making process.

Evolving with Your Workforce

Work cultures are living things and will need to evolve alongside your workforce. The suggestions in this guide are not one-and-done solutions, but rather ways of collaborating with your employees to discover timely solutions for the workforce you have. As you evolve, “be transparent about what you do, what you try, and what makes sense for the business to thrive and continue forward,” says Orozco.

To keep your understanding of your workforce current, design feedback channels throughout the employee experience. Consider conducting stay interviews to understand why someone left and why someone stays, suggests Cross, rather than waiting until someone leaves and provides an exit interview. “When you frame it like that, you’ll often get insights that can affect your workplace strategy, changes in policies and benefits, and your plan for attracting and retaining talent,” she says.


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