Workplace Culture

The Kids Want to Work: 6 Steps for Embracing Generational Differences

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Like it or not, generational differences are causing a seismic change in what employees value in the workplace. Even before pandemic-fueled worker movements like The Great Resignation, employers were grappling with the shift in values often encountered during the process of attracting and retaining younger employees.

 

How are generational differences changing workplace values?

The idea that work should be a place of personal fulfillment rather than just a source of income is a significant shift. Other noteworthy changes include a continued and growing concern with work-life balance, the prioritization of mental health, clear boundaries around work, better working conditions, and higher pay.

The idea that work should be a place of personal fulfillment rather than just a source of income is a significant shift.

A 2021 study by consulting firm McKinsey & Company examined the causes of record-high rates of quitting worldwide. They found a significant difference between managers’ perceptions and employees’ reasons for quitting. While the managers tended to point toward obviously significant issues such as low pay and lack of work-life balance, more than half the employees said it was because they didn’t feel a sense of community at work. A 2022 Gallup poll found that employees who feel personally connected to their workplace are nearly four times more engaged, almost 70% less likely to report burnout, and 55% less likely to be looking for work elsewhere.

 

Are generational differences among employees really that big a deal?

While it may be easy to dismiss these sorts of ideas with a narrative deriding an emerging generation of workers as “slackers” or “snowflakes,” too soft or too ready to fold up shop when facing hardship, the measurable evidence suggests otherwise. Statistics Canada uses a metric called “job tenure” to quantify the amount of time Canadian workers stay in their jobs. Between 2020 and 2022, that metric declined from an average of 106 months to 101, a small drop of 4%. However, for workers under 25, the decline was steeper – from 19.5 months to 17 – a drop of 12%.

In the USA, Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover in October 2022 came with the declaration that the company’s remote work policies were at an end. All employees, even those living in different cities and states, were required to come in to the office for a minimum of 40 hours a week and commit to what Musk called an “extremely hardcore” work culture. When hundreds of employees quit rather than participate, Musk softened his stance to a declaration that employees should have in-person meetings with their managers regularly.

If workplaces and leaders don’t adapt, it could mean that the workers that hold those values will simply go looking for work elsewhere.

Short version: Even if shifting values and perspectives about work and the changes needed to respond positively to them make some leaders uncomfortable because they come with real costs, ignoring them is not the answer. If workplaces and leaders don’t adapt, it could mean that the workers that hold those values will simply go looking for work elsewhere – that is also a real cost.

As leaders, how can we respond proactively to generational differences and create workplace cultures that will attract and retain employees?

Step 01 | Get curious

The first step begins in our organizations, with an examination of our own openness to change. And the key that unlocks the door of change is curiosity. If there is a whole generation of workers that are willing to walk away from work that doesn’t fit with their values, what is it that matters so much to them that they would be willing to live with the precarity of such a stance?

Consider the possibility that to emerging generations of workers, the future doesn’t look anything like it did for past generations. Markers like home ownership, financial stability, comfortable retirement, even a predictable climate may all seem completely unrealistic. What employees want from work is directly tied to what they want for their lives. Get curious about what the person you are interviewing wants for their life, and you’ll be tapping into what they want from their work.

Step 02 | Control less, listen more

Building on step one, creating bonds with the next generation of workers will require moving away from the notion of top-down, prescriptive, policy-driven leadership and toward the deliberate application of skilled interpersonal practices.

For some managers trained in the school of “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” this will require them to move well outside their comfort zone. They will need to learn skills like asking connection-building questions, offering feedback in ways that are positive and supportive, and exercising the (sometimes considerable) self-discipline required to put away their phones when in a one-on-one conversation.

As leaders, how can we respond proactively to generational differences and create workplace cultures that will attract and retain employees?

Step 03 | Care

Genuinely care. If that sounds too easy, give it a try. Choosing to see the person you are considering hiring as a whole person, someone with legitimate needs and values that might be different from your own, takes real effort and substantial imagination. This might not be the skill set that led to previous promotions, but they might be the skills needed to fill the position with someone that ends up being an engaged, productive employee.

Step 04 | Turbocharge your DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) initiatives

Leveling up in these areas will take you in the direction of deliberately building a workplace culture that emphasizes values like belonging and togetherness. This matters. In the US alone, over $8 billion a year is spend on DEI initiatives. Large, culture-leading institutions like Harvard University, Nordstrom, and DoorDash now have executives with titles like “Vice President of Global Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging.”

That said, this is about a lot more than checking the right “inclusion” boxes and instead asking what those expensive programs are actually accomplishing. It’s about finding out how the people in your organization actually feel about getting up and going to work in the morning.

Step 05 | Think bigger about safety

If you haven’t already done so, assess how safe your workplace is for the whole person. PPE and diligent safety officers are certainly steps in the right direction, but unless workplaces are safe for both bodies and minds, they aren’t safe enough.

Find out how to make your workplace psychologically safe, and invite the people that work there to be full participants in helping it happen. If you ask in ways that demonstrate an honest commitment to listening and acting on what you hear, you’ll find that people know what they need to feel safe at work.

Step 06 | Be open to big ideas

When it comes to changing values in the workplace, it can be extra challenging to even think about radical shifts. This is because change often produces uncertainty, and uncertainty often prompts fear. Big ideas can equal big fear, frequently expressed as strong resistance or anger. This isn’t easy.

Consider the four-day work week. This idea has been kicking around the fringes of workplace development since the 1930’s. Resistance tends to take the same form as recently encountered when people began to work remotely, along the lines of “productivity will take a nose-dive.” But the data on the work-from-home experiment is in, and productivity didn’t suffer. In fact, in many instances, it went up. Similarly, consider the latest results from not-for-profit organization 4 Day Week Global, which helps companies considering the shift. Their experience shows that revenues from organizations participating in a six-month pilot program rose an average of 38%, and that 97% of their employees wanted to continue the shorter weeks. Work quality went up, staff were reenergized by the change, and deadlines were still being met. In many instances, younger employees were especially enthusiastic in their support.

  Cultivating workplace cultures that know how to welcome and care for the next generations of employees translates to a productive present and a hopeful future.

There is a world of people that want to work. They are motivated, skilled, and energized. They want to work in places where they can tell that their time and ideas matter – where they matter. Cultivating workplace cultures that know how to welcome and care for the next generations of employees translates to a productive present and a hopeful future. Practice these six steps to foster a workplace culture where people like to work.


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Author

Tim Plett

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

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