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Is your firm ready for the always-on generation?


​By Ian Lavis on behalf of Praxity

Brace yourselves. Just when we we’re coming to terms with the apparent seismic differences between Baby Boomers and Millennials up pops Generation Z to shake things up.

Are you a Baby Boomer or part of Generation X, Y or Z? Do you think your firm should do more to attract younger employees? Is there a risk of generational conflict?

How you answer these questions may well depend on your age. 

If we conform to stereotype, once we’ve been lumped into a trendy-sounding category based on our birthdate, we will have certain characteristics that will impact on how we like to work and how we relate to others in the workplace. Many of us do indeed have some or all of these assigned traits but what impact does that have in the workplace?

Psychologists don’t agree on how much weight we should place on generational differences but there is an increasing amount of research suggesting firms should pay attention to the specific values of different generations to attract and retain talent and stay competitive.

According to behavioural and occupational assessment company Birkman, employers are struggling to balance the needs and working styles of different age groups in the workforce. Failure to provide guidance and support risks causing “generational conflict” which plays out “every day at team level in ways that hinder productivity and lead to frustration, conflict, and poor morale”. 

Generational differences

So how do we avoid generational conflict? Firstly, we need to understand what makes each generation tick. In simple terms, the generational categories in the workplace are:

The Silent Generation (born between 1928 and 1945) who value hard work

Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) who value loyalty

Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980) who value work-life balance

Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996, and also known as generation Y) who value innovation and change

Generation Z (born after 1996), who master digital technology but value face-to-face communication. 

In a less flattering light, Silents can be seen as fossilized, Boomers are narcissistic, Generation Xers are slackers, and Millennials are even more narcissistic than the Boomers. At least that’s what the American Management Association cites as the negative stereotypes in an article on generational differences. Strangely, they missed out Generation Zers. Maybe it’s too early to tell.

Why are we different?

These generational differences are a result of different age groups experiencing different world events and technological, economic and social shifts, researchers claim.

Michael Dimock, President of Pew Research Centre, a nonpartisan ‘fact tank’ on global issues, attitudes and trends, says differences are particularly marked in terms of how we use technology.

Commenting on the Pew Research Centre blog, he says: “Baby Boomers grew up as television expanded dramatically, changing their lifestyles and connection to the world in fundamental ways. Generation X grew up as the computer revolution was taking hold, and Millennials came of age during the internet explosion. In this progression, what is unique for post-Millennials is that all of the above have been part of their lives from the start.”

He adds: “The implications of growing up in an ‘always on’ technological environment are only now coming into focus. Recent research has shown dramatic shifts in youth behaviors, attitudes and lifestyles – both positive and concerning – for those who came of age in this era.”

What does it mean for your firm?

Most accounting firms are multigenerational and comprise of Boomers and X, Y and Zers, each with different approaches to work. 

Research conducted for Get Ready for Generation Z by recruitment firm Robert Half and Enactus highlights key differences in skills and working styles between these groups. Baby Boomers tend to be more reserved, while Gen Xers favour a control-and-command style, the research indicates. Conversely, Gen Yers prefer a more collaborative approach to communication, and gen Zers prize in-person interactions. When it comes to training, Baby Boomers and Gen Xers most value traditional instructor-led courses or self-learning tools; millennials and post-millennials prefer collaborative and technology-centric options.

According to Birkman in their report How Generational Differences Impact Organisations and Teams, the key is to unlock the secrets that keep employees of different generations motivated and engaged.

They urge firms to train managers and teams to deal effectively with generational differences through teambuilding activities and mentoring programs. Effective teams can facilitate optimal solutions by harnessing multiple levels of experience, skill and expertise.

One train of thought is that by adapting to the particular skills, needs and aspirations of each new generation that hits working age, firms can create an attractive working environment for the employees that may one day run the company. Taking positive action in this way could reduce the risk of generational conflict and aid recruitment and retention, one of the key challenges in the accounting profession today.

Don’t we all want the same thing?

Not everyone agrees on taking action based on generational stereotypes. Jennifer J. Deal, a research scientist with the Center for Creative Leadership, is among those who dispute claims that each generation values different things. In her book Retiring the Generation Gap: How Employees Young & Old Can Find Common Ground, she argues younger generations in the workforce want pretty much the same thing as their older colleagues.

“Our research shows that when you hold the stereotypes up to the light, they don’t cast much of a shadow,” says Deal on the American Management Association website. “Everyone wants to be able to trust their supervisors, no one really likes change, we all like feedback, and the number of hours you put in at work depends more on your level in the organization than on your age.”

Despite this, there is also the school of thought that making the working environment more attractive to younger generations will benefit every employee through the creation of more flexible, technologically advanced places to work.

Greg Besner, CEO, of CultureIQ, the culture management platform, urges firms to focus on the needs of tech-savvy Millennials to address the challenge of attracting and retaining talent. He says: “By updating practices, branding and company culture to meet Millennials’ priorities, firms cannot only build a fresh new talent pool, but inspire and motivate the talent that is already there.” While he doesn’t mention Gen Zers, it could be argued that doing more to cater for this newest age group entering the workforce is just as important.

Writing for CPA Practice Advisor, the CultureIQ CEO says firms should develop more attractive places to work for younger generations by focusing on:

1. Social consciousness 

This means providing greater flexibility and social benefits including volunteer events, employee recognition programs, remote work and dedicated creative time.

2. Technology

To attract and retain talent, firms need to be seen as tech savvy with paperless document management systems, e-signature tools, communication messaging systems and workflow tools

3. Culture

By nurturing, tracking and measuring company culture over time, firms can make their workplaces more appealing. This may involve people analytics to examine priorities and behaviours, surveys and anonymous feedback.

4. Recognition and feedback

Today’s workers want to be recognized for their contributions, Greg Besner says. One way to do this is to provide ongoing feedback instead of monthly or quarterly reviews.

While these steps would seem a common-sense approach, firms will need to tread carefully to make sure all age groups are on board. This is where the training and mentoring proposed by Birkman may play a part in avoiding generational conflict. 

In the digital age, firms that recognise and adapt to generational differences, may well stand a better chance of remaining competitive but care will be needed to manage these changes effectively to create truly harmonious multigenerational workplaces fit for the future. 

Praxity Executive Director Græme Gordon explores some popular generalisations about the generations.​

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