Factoring in the ‘Y’

Factoring in the ‘Y’

How A Multi-Generational Workplace Inspires Professional Growth

It was back in the late ’90s, when young dot-commers and tech geeks were launching everything from innovation to vaporware, that the issue of a cross-generational workforce was arguably the hottest in decades. Now, as the members of Generation X grow more established in their careers, the door is open for the millennials, those who fall under the category of Generation Y. For boomer bosses—some of whom are starting to think about retirement, others, largely due to the economic crisis, are not—this means that the dynamic in their companies is undergoing a significant change, one that should be capitalized on and managed.

“A great healthy generational mix will bolster your company,” said Eric Chester, founder and president of Generation Why in Lakewood, CO. “Granted, it’s probably more work.” If a company employed nothing but 20-somethings, it could manage them all similarly; the same applies if an organization only had baby boomers on staff. “It would be easier, but you would miss the richness of having that generational mix.”

That “generational mix” not only makes for a more dynamic workplace; it also facilitates relationships with clients of all ages. “If you can get good at understanding the generations in your own company, it’s going to make you a lot better at serving clients,” said Lynne Lancaster, baby boomer, founder and partner of Bridgeworks in Minneapolis, MN and co-author (with David Stillman) of When Generations Collide: Who They Are. Why They Clash. How To Solve The Generational Puzzle At Work. “The better you get at understanding values, expectations, and work styles, you are going to be a lot more adaptable for the people that you are serving. We can use our internal workforce to get more comfortable with this.”

The working environment at System Solutions Northwest in Kennewick, WA, boasts a mix of baby boomers, Gen X-ers, and millennials, recounts Brad Nelson, the company’s president. He notes that one of the most significant factors in hiring members of the two younger generations is that an employer’s definition of “retention” has got to change, since the average period those belonging to Generation X and Y remains with a firm is two to three years. “You can’t go into it with the expectation that they are going to spend the majority of their career with you,” he said.

This presents new challenges with respect to training: if young professionals tend to gravitate toward organizations that offer them the continuing education that enables them to expand upon their skills, how do companies provide this opportunity while still reaping a return on their investment in human talent? To do this, companies must calculate how long before an employee becomes profitable, and structure attractive job contracts that correspond with this.

Lancaster calls this a shifting of the time horizon. “If you think that you can keep them for three to five years, feel good about that,” she said. The next step is to determine how to get the most out of the employee while they are with you, and to check in periodically to see how they are doing. “It’s important to talk to your millennials and say, ‘We like having you here. What’s it going to take to keep you? What gets you excited about being here?’” Perhaps it’s because of your training program, or the fact that they are regularly sent out to perform tasks they have never done before. “What made a boomer stay, such as a pension plan, may be different from why that millennial stays.”

Debra Fiterman, millennial generation associate at Bridgeworks, a key researcher on Lancaster and Stillman’s The M-Factor: How The Millennial Generation Is Rocking The Workplace, and a millennial herself, noted that while members of the younger generations want to feel like they are moving, it doesn’t necessarily mean upwards. “You can move in any direction,” she said. “Companies that can see movement in more than just one direction are the ones that will be able to keep the millennials around a bit longer.”

Nelson believes that it’s crucial to provide employees with ongoing training, not only as a means of attracting the best of the best, but also to encourage them to remain as long as possible. “Part of the retention of this age group is that they see value in their work, that they can feel proud of it, and that they see opportunities for learning and advancement,” he said. “If they don’t see those opportunities for learning, they will definitely not hang around any longer than that two- to three-year timeframe.”

Chester labels this approach “transformational management.” “The smarter companies are transformational: here are our expectations. We want to make sure that we are tapping into your skills and getting the best from you, and that we are making the job work for you as well,” he illustrated. “We are going to create a contract that’s for you, but we’re not going to create our entire culture for you.”

Another defining factor of the younger generations is that the emphasis they place on work/life balance is arguably stronger than it is among boomers. “They very much value their personal time, so if they are in a position where they can protect that personal time, that helps them put more stock into staying with that company rather than moving to one where the expectation is that they are at their beck and call, and that’s just part of the job,” Nelson observed. That said, they expect to be well compensated for their work. “You can’t bring these people on at just above minimum wage. If you do that, you must have opportunities for them to rapidly increase their value to the company and provide them with a commensurate wage increase so that they see that their efforts in developing skills are recognized in a number of ways.”

While the economic crisis has resulted in most people holding onto their jobs, Fiterman noted that it’s important for companies to continue making an effort to retain their staff, especially those professionals who may have more of a free agent mentality. “Even though they may not be leaving today, companies should be ensuring that they are making jobs meaningful for millennials, and that they are still really working on retention efforts with more of a long-term view,” she said. “The companies that, during this year, didn’t cut all of their training budget, but actually continued to focus on their people even when it didn’t feel like an immediate need, will be the companies who really come away on top.”

Carolyn Heinze has covered everything from AV/IT and business to cowboys and cowgirls ... and the horses they love. She was the Paris contributing editor for the pan-European site Running in Heels, providing news and views on fashion, culture, and the arts for her column, “France in Your Pants.” She has also contributed critiques of foreign cinema and French politics for the politico-literary site, The New Vulgate.