The Blended Workplace

April 9, 2012

Take a look around your workplace. What do you see?

If it’s anything like mine, you probably see a mix of seasoned veterans and 20-something faces. Sometimes they see eye-to-eye and sometimes they don’t.

The technical term is the “multi-generational workplace,” and with Baby Boomers delaying retirement and the youngest generation entering the workforce in the millions, it’s something companies will have to contend with to be successful. As the president of a company that has been growing and adding new staff, I’ve dealt with this reality quite a bit in recent years. So, I’d like to share my thoughts on what it takes to make things work when these two groups go swimming in the same pool.

First, I want to say that I think the multi-generational office is a good thing. Each generation brings skills and habits that are essential to running a successful company. However, as in any workplace, there will be conflicts — over communication styles, values and the basic expectations of how to perform within the workplace.

To manage these conflicts, it helps to understand where each generation is coming from. I’m going to focus only on two generations: the Boomers and the Millennials. As a Boomer myself, I have a perspective of my generation to share, and it’s the Millennials who will one day be asked to lead our industry. So, here they are in a nutshell.

The Boomers

Born between 1946 and 1965, the Boomers are the most successful generation in history. We hold many leadership positions and are proud of our success. We have worked hard and tend to define ourselves by our professional accomplishments. Yet, while 80 million of us intend to retire in the next decade, many will continue working long past retirement age.

The Millennials

Also known as Gen Next or Gen Y, the Millennials were born between 1980 and 1990. Highly educated and weaned on technology, they are confident, self-expressive, upbeat and open to change. Bright and hardworking, they embrace the digital age and all forms of electronic communications. They seek workplaces that match their values and give a sense of purpose.

Clearly, with one generation working longer and another just starting, the blended workplace is something we’ll see for a long time. So, you have to be ready to deal with it.

Boomers vs. Millennials

Let’s take a look at the areas where people’s outlook at work differs the most:
• Technology
• Communication style
• Independence
• Career goals

Technology

This is the most obvious difference. Millennials were raised on technology. It’s an inextricable part of their lives. From the moment they get up to the time they go to bed, they are wired in, connected and on the ‘net.

Generally speaking, Boomers use technology, but it’s not an integral part of their lives. After all, how many of you had heard of Facebook or Twitter five years ago? Are you Living Social? Do you know what it means to be “Mayor” of your Starbucks? Are you LinkedIn?

Communication

Not surprisingly, junior staff is most comfortable conducting business electronically. This can be particularly frustrating for managers who prefer to use the phone, or to meet face-to-face. Trained in relationship selling, we find dealing with someone through email to be cold, impersonal and even disorienting. We’d rather have the assurance of someone’s face, voice and word that we are going to be heard and our needs met.

My personal view is that our business is a “relationship business.” Therefore, I insist that everyone in our organization, regardless of their position in the company, actually talk with our customers and suppliers whenever possible.

Oh, and by the way, I truly dislike voicemail. I find voicemail even more impersonal than email. I always insist our phones be answered by a real person, not a machine. Voicemail is a tool that is often misused.

So, you’d probably be surprised to hear that I am a proponent of social media in the workplace. Few things have changed our world as much in the last five years, and yet many companies are truly terrified when it comes to social media.

In our office, we allow staff to use LinkedIn, the social media site for business professionals. I find that others can be a source of distraction. I rely on my younger co-workers to train others on how to use LinkedIn, so that we all can get the most out of it. It’s a great way to give both a sense of accomplishment.

Independence

The rap on Millennials is that they are difficult to manage, challenge every rule and need an excessive amount of time-demanding feedback. In a sense this is true — they want the rules to suit their values. Work, in short, should be flexible to their needs, not the other way around.

Having come from lives where growing up there was a lot of structure, Millennials know when work ends and free time begins. We have continuously adjusted our vacation and personal time off (PTO) policies to try to find the right formula to keep all our employees happy while providing coverage to the company’s day-to-day activities.

As part of the Boomer generation, I tend to take “hours” off on my vacation “days.” Working on the weekend is a given. Going forward perhaps we (I) can learn from the Millennials that everything truly does have a place and that a little time off is not really a bad thing.

Career Goals

Millennials see work as a place to learn and, unfortunately, a place to train for the next job. To keep them engaged and developing so that they will want to stay, you have to keep focused on their career development as much as on getting the job done.

At Sea-Land we do the following:
• We try to provide new opportunities for all employees. Since we have been growing, this has been a little easier for   us.
• We change responsibilities and job duties from time to time to offer everyone a chance to see a “different face.”      Several years ago we started a process where we rotate customers within our Customer Service group. Not only  did the customer service representatives talk to “new” customers, when one representative is out, our customer  gets to talk to someone else who actually knows them.

• We provide a benefits sheet at the end of the year to all our employees. As a 100 percent employee owned company, we want to share all the benefits with them so that if they do choose to leave us, they are talking apples to apples. I’m happy to say we have very little turnover.

Conclusion

While Boomers and Millennials view the work place differently, they are the same in many ways. After all, the Boomers are the parents of the Millennial generation. They share traits of hard work, drive and a desire for success. Paying attention to these common traits, as well as their differences, can make for a better work experience and a more productive workplace.