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When Rutgers Business School in New Jersey suspended all in-person tuition in March to curb the spread of coronavirus, many professors faced a challenge in teaching virtually for the first time.

To help them put all classes online in under two weeks, tech-savvy, mostly younger staff hosted videoconferencing tutorials online. Sharon Lydon, associate professor of professional practice, learnt how to split an online cohort into smaller teams for projects. “Our younger professors are taking a lead on this. They are very comfortable using technology. They grew up with the internet,” she says.

Lydon, who is 46, discovered the different traits of several generations in her workforce on a programme for 35 administrators at the business school last year. The course, Leading and Managing a Multi-Generational Workforce, is now available to executives at other organisations. It is one of several programmes aiming to help participants lead the current “5G workforce”, shorthand for having five generations working cheek by jowl for the first time. The phenomenon is caused in part by advances in healthcare. People are living longer, delaying retirement or coming back for a “second act” career, often because they do not have an adequate pension.

Meanwhile, a dearth of digital skills means many employers are recruiting younger employees. “When I started my first job I did not have any skills my bosses did not have. Now you get a company where the intern knows more about social media than the CEO,” says Lindsey Pollak, author of The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace.

A variety of ages can be good for the bottom line: Boston Consulting Group found in 2018 that organisations with more diverse leadership teams (in terms of age, gender and other factors) have bigger profit margins. “A broad range of perspectives can improve decision-making, creativity and unleash innovation,” says Pollak. It also helps in attracting top performers and communicating with customers from all walks of life, she adds.

Last year, however, a survey by recruitment company Robert Walters found 59 per cent of workers, with divergent attitudes, expectations and priorities, had experienced intergenerational conflict in their jobs. Like many of her age group (Generation X), Lydon believes millennials “have a sense of entitlement: they feel they should be higher in the organisation than they are, and want to progress fast”.

Crisis mangement: Sharon Lydon put her knowledge from Rutgers into practice by restructuring online tuition

Yet millennials can feel blocked by older colleagues who are reluctant to retire, and often move on. Eric Jackson is vice-president of creative at farm, home and garden retailer Tractor Supply Co in Tennessee, overseeing marketing promotion. He says restless millennials were leaving his company for more money and progression elsewhere, resulting in substantial costs to hire and train replacements.

Partly to improve retention, Jackson enrolled on the two-day, $2,410, Leading in the Multigenerational Workforce programme at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management in Nashville this year. He learnt that “if millennials are engaged at work and understand the impact of their role, establish social bonds and see a career path, they are more likely to stay”.

Jackson, 39, recently added a new tier of management that employees can aspire to reach, and communicated what skills they needed to progress, though it is too soon to tell if this has worked.

Communication is where generational differences are most apparent. Interacting with colleagues of different age groups is difficult for 38 per cent of workers, according to a 2018 global survey by Randstad, a US recruitment agency.

The problem, according to Pollak, is that people often wrongly presume preferences based on age. “Gen Z may live on social media, but I know plenty who want to meet up for a coffee,” she says. A solution is to give employees a range of options by which to communicate, whether via email, video, webchat or phone.

Ramon Henson, an instructor of professional practice who runs the Rutgers course, teaches participants that multigenerational leadership means navigating misconceptions. Data should be a starting point for understanding, he says, for example by gathering information on personality types from psychometric tests. Stereotypes should not be assumed to be accurate. “It is better to understand each person as an individual,” he adds.

Henson does, however, recommend exposure to the views of different generations in your workforce. Reverse mentoring, where an executive learns from a junior employee, can be effective, he adds. Lydon valued the candid discussion on her course. The younger faculty expressed frustration that they were often pigeonholed as tech gurus. “They have much more to offer and want to be heard and recognised for their ideas,” she says.

Empathy is also crucial to multigenerational leadership. Pollak says managers often frown at Generation Z’s failure to perform seemingly straightforward office tasks, such as correctly addressing a letter or using a landline. But managers should not rush to judge, she adds. “It is not because they are not intelligent — they have never seen this stuff before.”

The ‘5G’ US workforce

Traditionalists: born up to 1945

Definitions of generations vary around the world, but men of this era may have grown up in the second world war and be comfortable with hierarchical leadership, writes Lindsey Pollak. Fewer women worked, so the generation may be less familiar with diversity. Most have a pension and have worked for one company.

Baby boomers: born between 1946 and 1964

Many of this generation want to, or have to, stay in the workforce longer, so often reject retirement for another career.

Generation X: born between 1965 and 1980

“X-ers” are the most entrepreneurial (they founded Google and Tesla), perhaps because they were never a large enough generation to dominate the workplace. They can be more independent and introverted.

Millennials: born between 1981 and 1996

Best known for being digital natives, they feel connected to people around the globe, so expect their careers to be international. They are also passionate about environmental matters.

Generation Z: born from around 1995

There is little data on this generation, but they are very comfortable with technology. Because of the financial crisis and coronavirus, they may be more economically cautious.

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