Four separate generations co-mingling in the workplace, what is the fall out?

The ‘return to work’ discussions continue to rage on in offices and around boardroom tables across the world. Employers on the one hand trying to ascertain what the new ways of work are and in some cases could, rather than should be and employees on the other hand appreciating a new sense of meaning in the terms ‘work/life balance’ and ‘career’.

The Hospitality industry remains very much at the forefront of these discussions and one of the first to be directly impacted by the resultant decision making taking place. It is an unique time and the first time in modern history where there are four separate generations co-mingling in the workplace (baby boomers, Gen X, millennials and Gen Z), with each generation having their own previailing and experience driven mindsets on what work and the office means to them. It is fair that these differences have always existed, but the freedom and autonomy that the pandemic provided has left the post-pandemic mindset of various generations even more opposed than ever before.

In an interesting online article posted by The American Lawyer, generational differences are explored within the workplace especially around how lawyers of different ages view basics such as how, when and where work should get done, often creating the potential for conflict and in the worst case, loss of talent.

Marcie Borgal Shunk, founder and president of The Tilt Institute said, “As a result of the pandemic, people experienced a very different and independent work environment and they reflected on their lives, she said, and for many, they realized that “their work life did not define them.”

The conflict is often exacerbated by baby boomers and especially in traditional office environments or industries. According to Lisa Smith, a principal at Fairfax Associates, “I do think law firms tend to be very traditional, and look more at the way it was done, particularly for partners when they came up, and assume that was the right way. So, I think for creatures of habit, it’s harder to change views,”

But Haley Revel, MD of HR at Calibrate said that for many baby boomers, the “you should be thankful to have a job” mindset is still pervasive. A boomer is going to say, ‘OK, I’ll come and do what you say because this is my career,’” she said. “But a millennial, for example, might hear that same direction and head for the door.”

The pandemic has exaggerated situations to the point where one generation may not really be able to fully “understand” another. According to Revel, “Someone in Gen X or Gen Z might really want to bring their dog to work, for example, after being able to spend time with it the last two years,” she said. “While a boomer coming back to the office would say, ‘What are you talking about? You want to bring your animal to the office?’”

It is fair that there are always some generally shared expectations, especially about things like the importance of training and mentorship but for many younger generations, their expectation exceeds this with the need to know where their careers are going within the organisation, on a step by step basis.

Why is the situation more strained than ever? While law firms, traditional businesses and industries do know they need to be more flexible, many are still run by eather baby boomers or Gen X leaders with unchanged views on what constitutes an acceptable office arrangement.

What is the answer?

Flexibility, flexibility and more flexibility with a side of transparency and honest conversations. According to the article, “One of the starkest differences in viewpoints is tied to how much input lawyers have and at what stage in their careers. Baby boomers, and some Gen Xers, came up in an environment where workers had to prove themselves and “earn” the right to have a say on big issues. But that’s simply not the view of younger lawyers, Shunk said. “Millennials want to be more involved in the process, have more input into decisions,” she said. “They want to remove some of the hierarchy.” That’s a shift in perspective from the “earn your way,” mentality, Shunk said. Globalization and internet meritocracy have led to younger lawyers pushing to remove professional “gatekeepers.

According to the article, the risk of not seeking the correct solutions for all involved would be an obvious loss of talent and diversity, particularly among women.