Generations in the Workplace: How to Give your Diverse Staff What They Actually Want
When Bob Dylan declared “The times, they are a changin’,” we’re almost sure he wasn’t singing about office life. But you can’t argue with his wisdom.
In just the past decade, generational diversity in the workplace has changed dramatically. With early-years Gen Z members entering the workforce, and Boomers and Traditionalists extending their careers, your office may house four or even five generations in the workplace.
If handling those generational differences in the workplace sounds like a big challenge in terms of office design and culture - you’re right. With this broad spectrum to consider, keeping the whole “family” happy requires a thoughtful approach to both your office space and your office policies.
As for how to manage different generations at work? Let’s start by considering each: their norms, backgrounds, and motivations that may inform their working lives.
(Note: For consistency, we used data from the Pew Research Center to define the generations below. Other data sources may vary the start and end dates by some margin.)
Though only 3% of this generation remains in the workforce, those loyal few are a vital part of their organizations. Studies have characterized Gen T as having a strong work ethic, deep loyalty, and high respect for management. As employees who believe in the privilege and status of work, they don’t seek verbal affirmation (“No news is good news” in terms of management), but often seek traditional forms of encouragement: merit promotions, raises, and “corner office” perks.
Traditionalists have almost exclusively conducted business face-to-face, and may be big on “putting in the hours.” Want to connect with your Traditionalist colleague? You’ll almost always find them at their desk during the workday.
Naturally, this desire for private space can prove tricky in offices that have moved away from traditional office space. However, space planners who have Traditionalists in the mix might consider reserving some dedicated space as an incentive for their office-life veterans.
If banks of dedicated offices aren’t feasible, making it easy to find and collaborate with your traditionalists will honor their desire for personal interaction, and give colleagues access to their deep institutional knowledge and grounded perspectives. Creating a neighborhood, or a dedicated space within the office designed for folks who value and require both privacy and collaboration might be the right balance this generation needs.
The baby boomers
Boomers, the large, post-war generation who succeeded the Traditionalists from 1946 to 1964, are your senior leadership and executive team members. They offer the same dauntless work ethic and loyalty as their predecessors. The difference: Big groups make for stiff competition, so the sheer size of their cohort made the Boomers one of the most ambitious generations in the workplace.
Like their parents, Boomers equate earning with excelling, so monetary incentives play well with them. However, since Boomers grew up around both prosperity and autonomy, they also find great value in the Three P’s - Position, Perks, and Prestige.
While Boomers similarly gravitate to office-based work and the optics of a great private office, they also crave collaboration and team-based activities - a throwback to the grassroots and organizing movements of their youth. While they can and have adopted new technology like communication platforms like Slack (versus email) and video conferencing apps to embrace the increase of remote work, they may disdain the flex-work movement, preferring in-person team collaboration both for its ROI and for the gratification they get from leadership.
For these valuable, high-level employees, dedicated office space should still be considered, but be sure to create productive collaboration spaces to leverage Boomers’ desire to share knowledge and lead, and younger generations’ desire for positive mentorship.
With their “in it to win it” mindset and work ethic, the Baby Boomers inadvertently birthed the modern-day founder. Gen X, born between 1965 and 1980, had a hands-off upbringing while their dads and moms pursued careers. This independent journey from “latchkey” kids into world-changing adulthood inclined them toward entrepreneurship; Members of the Gen X club now make up over 50% of startup founders, according to Inc.
Gen X’s childhood experience is also strongly tied to the advent of work-life balance initiatives. As the first generation to benefit from the tech revolution, they embraced its power to create flexible work and telecommuting opportunities to combat the burn-out they witnessed in their hard-working parents.
While Gen X may spend more time in the office than Y or Z, quality-of-life while they’re on-site is a big deal. Striking the right balance between comfortable office space, freedoms like ample paid leave and flex-time, and enrichment from non-monetary perks will make a big difference in their job satisfaction.
Millennials (Generation Y)
Before we talk about the most-discussed of the five generations in the workplace, let’s adjust mindset. First, members of the generation born between 1981 to 1996 aren’t exactly kids anymore. Elder Millennials are fast approaching 40 and are no longer the office minority. In fact, 2025 Gen Y will comprise the majority in the workforce, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Gen Y and Z together will comprise over 70% of all workers within the next few years.
Gen Y espouses a “work to live” mentality, and values companies that embrace this concept. They get tech’s power to untether them from the desk and seek out this freedom in their work. Paradoxically, they may view work as part of their social self. Those that choose in-office work environments enjoy finding social opportunities and social areas within their workspaces.
For this crowd, focus on remote policies that encourage freedom. Then, plan your space for adequate flex-desks and workspaces. If your workforce is fast-growing or sizable, reliable scheduling tools can make a huge difference for you and your teams. They enable freedom while making sure there’s a seat for your visiting nomads and remotes.
Meet the digital natives: Generation Z. Those born after 1997 are just beginning their journey into work, armed with an unmatched level of technological fluency. As with each succeeding generation, much has been made of Gen Z’s differences - namely their preference for online communication and fierce individuality. Leaving aside the generalities that often follow a new group into employment, Gen Z’s preference for tech and strong desire can be an asset to employers who are willing to embrace it effectively.
For the Gen Z employee, tech-enabled communication and mobile technology are prevalent. While some will malign their need for instant gratification, underneath that expectation lay a strong desire for efficiency. Making good tech choices that allow Gen Z to make fast, informed decisions in the workplace is a great way to get the most from these master multi-taskers. This could include tools like Slack or Zoom for remote communication, Trello or Monday.com for project management, and scheduling software for easy in-person connections while in the office.
It’s important to understand that while Gen Z trends toward digital communication, they strongly value human connection and inclusivity. Their ultra-communicative youth means they value high levels of feedback. And while they’re more competitive than Gen X, they similarly hold strong beliefs regarding the value of life and work. Incorporating good inclusivity practices into your office spaces and corporate policies signals to Gen Z that their deeply-held social values are echoed by their employer.
One big, happy family
While many factors shape the needs and desires of your individual employees - and our beliefs about generations are not a replacement for solid data on your actual staff - designing our workspaces and corporate culture to meet the needs of a diverse workforce means your space and culture will stand the test of time.
For more ideas on how to strike a balance and create a workplace experience everyone appreciates, start with this checklist.