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Exploring Technology Use in Multigenerational Workforce

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Workers from multiple generations sharing ideas and experiences hasn’t been much of a problem over the years.

The recent magnitude of advances in communications technology, however, has widened some aspects of the generation gap, evidenced by workers familiar with telegrams sharing space with colleagues who have no idea what life was like before texting and Wikipedia.

To help local businesses bridge that gap, the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce (AAACCC) conducted a forum in April, titled “Allies or Adversaries? The Future of the Multigenerational Workplace Unveiled.”

“Technology is critical in today’s workforce, and yet we have four generations using it in many different ways,” said AAACCC CEO Bob Burdon. “It’s important to know how to incorporate the various forms of media … to create a productive, collaborative work environment.”

On hand to discuss the topic at the Anne Arundel Community College’s Cade Center for the Fine Arts were David Andrews, dean of the School of Education at The Johns Hopkins University (JHU); Nancy Rosenshine, an organization development consultant, coach and mentor with 40 years of experience as a manager in the nonprofit and corporate sectors; and Carl Hicks, president and CEO of The Growth Group, in Chevy Chase, which provides executive coaching and management consulting.

Different Expectations

Traditionals, Boomers and Gen Xers all have adapted to new technology as it evolved. But, according to Jan Snider, chair of the AAACCC’s Educational Committee, members of the Millennial Generation have a unique academic culture compared with other generations.

“[T]heir technology-driven learning style impacts their work ethic and expectations as they enter the workforce,” she observed. And nowhere is that more evident than in their approach to communicating.

Even though 60% of JHU’s students are fully online and located all over the world, faculty members at the university find they now have more personal interaction with individual students than they did when instruction was delivered exclusively in lecture rooms, Andrews said.

“Technology … is grossly transforming the learning environment and will eventually have the same impact on the work environment,” he said. “[Millennials] have grown up as digital natives. Their expectation of immediacy is prevalent, and I don’t see it going away.”

Millennials also expect content to be free and are wont to eschew paid content in favor of information that is “not quite as good, but close enough,” he said. “It affects the [output] quality slightly over time; if you aggregate it, it probably affects it a good bit.”

That’s not to say Millennials are shirkers or slackers, but they exhibit another primary difference in their outlook on the quality of work they produce, Andrews noted.

“They’re just as interested in feedback from peers and other users as they are from experts or [supervisors].”

Different Values

Workplace values are currently in flux, Rosenshine said. “Working long hours doesn’t make sense,” she said. “Working smarter, not harder, makes sense to [Millennials].”

That’s a friction point for older managers and business owners, affirmed Raymond Crosby, president and CEO of Crosby Marketing in Annapolis.

“The dynamic of this is getting really hard … when you’re trying to run an organization and a team,” he said. “In that case, four other people aren’t happy because their destiny has been preordained by somebody else.”

One positive common theme Rosenshine sees in multigenerational workplace surveys is young workers’ desire to learn from older generations. “I hear over and over, ‘Don’t be afraid to share mistakes with us … so we can either avoid them or not be scared when we make those same mistakes,’” she said.

But perhaps the strangest phenomenon she’s seen is that of parents inserting themselves in the work lives of adult children who, by their age, should be autonomous.

“It’s happening all over, hundreds of corporations are now doing parent orientations,” Rosenshine said. “Even at the State Department, recruiters are telling me that they field calls from parents every single day. Seriously, if you’re a parent, don’t call.”

The Platinum Rule

Statistically speaking, Millennials will compose 50% of the American workforce and 75% of the global workforce by 2025, Hicks said, and are expected to spend more than $2 trillion this year.

Understanding what motivates and incents them will be critical for managers and business leadership, he said, with statistics showing 147% greater earnings per share in organizations with nine of 10 actively engaged employees compared with similar organizations with only two out of 10 actively engaged employees.

“One of the key things that may work with Millennials, particularly, is not so much the Golden Rule — how you want to be treated — but the Platinum Rule [which is] treating others as they want to be treated,” Hicks said. “You have to understand their needs and expectations.”

Seen through Millennial eyes, money is more of a satisfier, not a motivator, Rosenshine said. “It’s the intrinsic motivators — autonomy, mastery and purpose — that make a difference, and you can find out which of these most motivates someone with a few simple questions.

“Something as simple as [clothing styles] can make the difference as to whether someone’s comfortable or not in their work environment,” she said, recommending that businesses be willing to reconsider the necessity of branding themselves excessively conservative through their dress codes.

More Changes Ahead

Managers should be careful with assumptions about the Millennial Generation, said Steve Hall, a sales coach and founder of Sandler Training in Annapolis. “We put a big premium on shutting off cell phones while we’re instructing … only to learn that Millennials are actually using them to take notes.”

It’s accepted that minor tweaks will be necessary for employers to accommodate and get the best out of Millennial employees, but CTO Doug McClelland of Triton Engineering Services, in Crownsville, advised that Millennials legitimately fall short in some areas, particularly in their English skills.

“They’re so used to shorthanding that they’ve lost their ability to write a universal document that can be read by everybody,” McClelland said.

Likewise, many have in-depth knowledge but sometimes lack the most basic skills.

“I work with students hacking around with STEM in Maker Places,” he said. “Community colleges dropped courses and materials and basics … because the river focused them so much on Microsoft certifications. Now Makers are doing education that used to be in community colleges. It’s a problem.”

Andrews summed up the extent of integration that still lies ahead.

“We’re two years from what’s defined as the end of the Millennial Generation entering the workforce, not the beginning,” he said.

Meanwhile, the student profile continues to change dramatically in terms of communication and relationship building, with a heavy reliance on social media.

“We haven’t begun to describe what the next generation of adults is going to look like,” Andrews said. “We’re not preparing for a future that’s going to stay the same. Technology has incredible implications for the types of young people we’re going to be integrating into multigenerational approaches as we move forward.”