Uniting the multigenerational workforce

Transgenerational differences always have, and will continue to, exist among us. These differences, however, have become more apparent than ever as the pandemic has completely changed the way we work.

The workplace has, for a long time, existed within the confines of a hierarchical old-world structure. Roots run deep and “that’s just the way it’s done” is a tried-and-true maxim.

Ben Marlow’s recent opinion piece in The Telegraph in the UK (run here by The Australian Financial Review) shines a bright spotlight on the massive generational gap between those as the top and the rest of the workforce. Those at the top – in most cases – are from older generations, my own generation included.

The careers of the older generation have evolved in a traditional working environment, including a ladder which is conquered through promotion-based climbing. As Marlow wrote: “Your career was your life. You kept your head down, worked hard for 50 years, and at the end of it received a carriage clock, a decent pension and the promise of the next 20 years on the golf course.”

Marlow’s article goes on to further expose just how much the gap has widened with the account of ex-KPMG boss Bill Michael telling his employees to “stop moaning” about working conditions via Zoom call, and during a global crisis at that.

Does the older generation still know what’s best, or is the power finally shifting to those on the front line?

As much as I’d like to answer this question, my bias will probably get in the way. A better question, one that I have faced myself with is “Am I a part of the problem?”. The answer, of course, is “I am”.

The workplace buzzword for 2020, which has somewhat bled over into 2021, is flexibility. Countless opinion pieces have been released on the matter and nearly every company I can think of has revamped their, or set up, flexibility policies.
However, the way in which generations view flexibility is blaringly different. This is an ongoing tension point which looks likely to be solved by the impact of COVID-19 on the way we work.

Millennials and even Gen Z have vied for more flexibility in the workplace for years now, and they have directly opposed traditional company structures and policies.

In late 2019, The New York Times published an article called Young People Are Going To Save Us All From Office Life, arguing that while millennials and Gen Z have been called lazy and entitled they could be among the first to understand the proper role of work in life.

The article said “it’s not about jumping up titles, but moving into better work environments… they’re like silent fighters, rewriting policy under the nose of the boomers”. The evidence has all been there, it’s just that by being “silent fighters”: it often takes too long to bring about change.

Cue the pandemic.

The fact of the matter is that there is a global crisis underway that (unfortunately) is not over and has forced us (yes, myself included) in the older generation to better understand the needs of our staff. And is this not the perfect time to do it?
With over a third of the Australian workforce doing their jobs from home last year (according to Roy Morgan) managers and bosses across the country have had to provide a certain level of trust to their employees.

But I’m not here to just sing the new generation’s praises and completely forget about where I came from. The media and advertising industry is, at its core, a creative business. Flexibility can work – we’ve seen that already – but it’s not always the case. Training, face-to-face meetings, brainstorms and retaining a solid chunk of your culture is something that you need your staff in the same building for – plus it’s bloody hard to manage large numbers of people remotely.

Ultimately, the workplace has and still is evolving, but it won’t happen without the understanding of our older generation bosses. The way in which traditional companies are structured means changes comes from the top. All signs point to the need for a retraining and re-education of managers and bosses in order to better understand the new world way of things.

We are forever changed by the pandemic and employers will need to be more cognisant than ever of the needs of their staff. Churn rates are still high and it’s likely that if you don’t listen, you will lose people. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t ask for a bit of old-school, pull up your sleeves, elbow grease in the office and mean it.

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Saffron Carter