Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast about how everyone can thrive in the new world of work. Hosted by Peakon’s Chief Evangelist, Patrick Cournoyer. This week: Meghan Gerhardt, Professor of Management and Leadership at Miami University, on what it means when different generations meet in the workplace and why mutual mentorship is essential.
How do you lead a multigenerational workforce with different needs, backgrounds, and ways of working?
That’s a question challenging many organisations. Many myths have surfaced about the five different generations in the workplace, and about what sets them apart — leading to lingering and often unhelpful stereotypes.
For example, Millennials are often referred to as young upstarts, but the oldest millennials are turning 40 and make up the largest and best educated generational demographic in the U.S. workforce. And while 65 is considered a traditional retirement age, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers over 65 are the fastest growing age demographic.
According to Megan Gerhardt, Professor of Management and Leadership at Miami University, understanding and embracing generational differences are the first steps in tailoring the workplace experience to the needs of employees, and supporting each generation to achieve their full potential.
Megan shares her views on what it means when different generations meet in the workplace and why mutual mentorship is essential.
Sensationalist headlines cultivate ongoing generational stereotypes
The conversation about generations needs to be approached in a way that is grounded in best practices and research, according to Megan. Sensationalist headlines and clickbait continue to support old stereotypes and biases that rarely have any truth to them.
A lot of the conflict and roadblocks that we see preventing us from leveraging generational differences and diversity are assumptions — such as, younger generations are entitled or that older generations are out of touch or don’t understand technology. It’s more important to appreciate the differences and the power that these differences hold than become paralysed by these assumptions.
We all want to do work that we believe is meaningful and importantMeghan Gerhardt
Mutual mentorship can create a “knowledge bridge”
Organizations need to embrace the changing landscape as, in the next ten years, the majority of baby boomers will be eligible for retirement. This creates a challenge for leadership since companies will lose all of that organizational knowledge that took decades to accumulate.
This is where mutual mentorship can add value. It’s important to keep people in the latter stages of their career fully engaged but it’s also equally important to bring young people into this equation to learn and carry on this institutional knowledge and experience from baby boomers. This knowledge is fundamental in the successful operation of the organization in many cases.
Embrace generational differences with openness and understanding
Megan is confident that all people want to feel respected and connected at work. Where it gets difficult is the way different generations express this. Various actions are perceived differently by each generation and often get misinterpreted. For example, a proactive approach can sometimes misleadingly be seen as entitled if someone takes a direct route that an older generation might not have dared to take.
What older generations often view as entitled, younger generations see as proactive. It all depends on where you are standing. But hearing the other side out will almost always result with more openness and them being more willing to hear your side out. People should expect mentoring in all directions.
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Megan Gerhardt: There’s different kinds of knowledge and we’re in an era where for the first time, our younger people have more of a specific kind of knowledge than our older people, and that’s the area of digital knowledge. It’s not that older people can’t learn technology. That’s also a horrible stereotype. We’ve been using technology longer than the Gen Z’s have been alive.
Patrick Cournoyer: Welcome to Be More, a Podcast by Peakon. This is where everyone at an organization can hear different and meaningful perspectives on how we can all thrive in this ever-changing and constantly evolving world of work. I’m your host, Patrick Cournoyer.
Patrick: There are five generations in the workplace today, and all of them have different expectations and needs. Deloitte estimates that approximately 75% of the workforce in 2025 will be millennials, and that’s only four short years away. Some people feel that the younger generations have higher expectations of their organizations, and some feel that these younger generations have growing unrealistic demands, but I challenge that assumption. Businesses are growing and adapting at a pace that has never been seen before, and employee expectations are moving at that same pace.
We need to keep up and a lot of organizations simply need to do better. Megan Gerhardt has spent over a decade studying generations at work. She is a Professor of Management and Leadership at Miami University, and is so passionate about this work that she has authored a soon to be released book titled, Gentelligence: The Revolutionary Approach to Leading an Intergenerational Workforce. Megan, thank you for joining the conversation today.
Megan: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Patrick: We’ve got a lot to talk about. A good place to start is to hear from you, what has inspired you to dedicate your work to understanding generations in the workforce for over a decade?
Megan: There’s a story that starts all of this off. It was over a decade ago now, as you said about 11 years ago, I was in my office here at Miami University, and I got a knock on my door from our dean’s office who had gotten a phone call from a company coming to campus to do their annual conference. They were really interested in finding someone that could speak to them about how to manage multiple generations in the workplace. Specifically, if you remember, at the time, it was all about the millennials.
Those millennials with the capital, making everyone pull their hair out in the workplace. I had been doing research on individual differences at the time, a lot of things around individual differences in leadership, but not specifically generations. I was also relatively young at the time for a faculty member. I think there was also a little bit of that playing in to them choosing my door to knock on, „She does this kind of work and she must know something about this“.
I’m a Gen Xer, which is not really young, comparatively speaking now, as you said to the fact that we have five generations, X is right in the middle. I did some reading up, I went over, and did the talk. I was just fascinated by the narrative that was going on in this conference room between– Really it was mostly baby boomer managers of varying ages, a really frustrated and a very negative conversation about, „What was wrong with kids these days?“ Which is an age-old question, I think. It is not a new question, but the millennials certainly amplified the question for many of us.
As somebody who worked every single day with millennials in the classroom, for the entire period of time they were at university, and then now our Generation Z, I realized that my perspective and experience on the potential and the perspectives of our younger generation seemed to be really different than what I was hearing from managers. I felt this was an opportunity to narrate this conversation differently. There’s a lot of sensationalistic headlines, I’m sure you’ve seen some clickbait out there, really falling into the generational stereotypes.
Rather than taking that road, I became really passionate about helping people understand how generations are a really important diversity in the workplace. By taking what we know about best practices in HR, around managing diversity, as well as cross-cultural management to this new demographic group, this new idea of generational differences being a form of diversity, I really felt we could do something that was a lot more smart and approach this conversation in a way that was grounded in best practices, in research, and really look at generational differences as an opportunity.
I realized that I was passionate about it because that is what I do. Maybe because I am a Gen Xer or a member of that sandwich generation between the boomers and the millennials, I always look both directions for guidance, for learning, from people who’ve been here a lot longer than I have, but also from those who are younger, who look at things differently, have different kinds of knowledge and experience. My career has really been benefited by the wisdom I’ve gotten from both sides. I realized that was fairly uncommon as a perspective, and I think that’s made me very passionate about developing gentelligence.
Patrick: Let’s talk a bit about that concept of gentelligence and the challenges that managers have today or people leaders have today. To your point earlier, there is, perhaps, this perception of younger generations in the workforce demands or expecting a lot. As I said, I don’t really buy into that, to be honest with you. I think that there are high expectations, but I think there’s high expectations of everything right now, of business in the world, just in life expectations have just increased in general.
What is it presenting a challenge right now for people leaders with managing younger generations, but also with managing five generations? Potentially on one team, you could have five generations that a people leader has to lead in an effective way. What are some of the biggest challenges that you see right now with people leaders?
Megan: I think our leadership is getting it from every direction now, in terms of the challenges. I would have said that a year ago and obviously, it’s just exponentially more complicated now, but I think we can look at demographic trends beyond just five generations in the workforce. Our baby boomers are set to retire in droves. We don’t know how the recession and COVID will impact that, but at least when we look specifically in the US where the official retirement age is 65, and that’s slipping away quickly as an accepted retirement age or an age anyone even wants to retire, but by the next, I think it’s 10 years, we’ll have all of our baby boomers eligible for retirement.
One challenge for leadership is all of that organizational knowledge is going to leave. All of that experience, those decades of accumulating a specific kind of knowledge, really, we may lose it if we’re not careful. I think on the ladder ends, people in the latter phases of their career, how do we keep those individuals fully engaged as long as they want to be? We need to look at whether or not we are maybe unconsciously ramping down the involvement or engagement of people in the latter phases of their career.
Especially now, a lot of people who maybe were contemplating retirement in the next five years might have decided they’re done and this is too challenging and stressful, and they’re just going to go ahead and retire now. What do we want to do about that? How do we make sure that that knowledge is passed down to the people that are going to take over when our boomers do decide to leave.
We have some interesting dynamics in the middle of our generational timeline where Gen Xers always wrapped with that reputation of being slackers, which obviously is not true for all of us, I got to stand up for the Gen Xers, but not viewing upward mobility, maybe with the same intensity as millennials or boomers. A lot of those perceptions have caused an interesting flip in the fact that we’re seeing millennials leapfrog over our Gen Xers.
That means that we’re having a good percentage. Our book found stats of close to 40% of people will be led by someone younger than them. That applecart upset situation is definitely creating an interesting dynamic on both ends. How do I deal with being led by someone younger than myself? What do I think about that? Is that okay with me? Do I resent it? Do I feel like I’m still appreciated for the value I bring to my team as an older team member?
Then, for those younger leaders, who now are millennials are, the oldest millennials are 40 this year. We have to stop using that word millennial to refer to our youngest people, because that’s not an accurate term anymore. They’re young relatively speaking, but many of them are in management and leadership positions, of course. When they are posed with leading people older than themselves, how do they get the respect that they need, or they deserve? How do they make sure they are leading effectively and taking advantage of all of the assets that they have on their team?
Then, of course, our Gen Z’s starting their careers in the midst of COVID. We’re seeing here at university level, a lot of young people who are losing internships and first job offers, they’re obviously sometimes the first to be cut, and those who are lucky enough to retain them, how do you onboard someone into a culture when you can’t ever step foot in the door. I think we’re going to get to that a little bit later today, but that’s creating a really interesting challenge around recruitment, training, and all of those different things. I think there’s a lot of trends going on right now that make gentelligent even more important to understand because there’s threat, but there’s opportunity and threat if you look for it.
Patrick: You mentioned earlier about how organizations need to gather the knowledge from the baby boomer generation before they retire and make sure that they capture all of that institutional experience, knowledge because it’s a fundamental part of their organization and the successful operation of their organization in many cases. How would you specifically suggest companies successfully do that? Have you seen programs or approaches that have been very productive, and successful to be able to gather that knowledge?
Megan: We did a lot of interviews when we did research for the book, on companies that we thought had fascinating, either just business ideas and models around generational diversity or programs that we really thought stood out for their ability to do this. I think it goes back to something you hinted out in the earlier question, which is a lot of conflict, and a lot of the roadblocks that we see that prevent us from leveraging generational differences and diversity are assumptions. Assumptions that our younger generations are entitled. By definition, expecting things they don’t deserve yet, or on the flip side, a stereotype or a bias that our older generations are out of touch, don’t understand technology, or insert your stereotype here.
I think one of the most powerful things we found in our work is that you really have to take it back to, first, a point of commonality. Anytime you’re talking about diversity, you have to absolutely appreciate the differences and the power in those differences. You also appreciate the ways in which people are similar in ways that matter. In terms of generational differences, there are certain behaviors, attitudes, values, things that research has found definitely different frequency across generations. But then, maybe, more importantly, there are also values that are similar across generations.
For example, Jean Twenge’s work on this has brought this into the forefront several years ago, but we all want to do work that we believe is meaningful and important. We all want to feel respected at work. We all want to feel connected at work. That’s just a sampling of some of the values that are found across generations. Where it gets tricky and difficult, is that the way in which different generations express those values is going to look different based on when they grew up, the norms growing up, parental practices, what it to be an employee, what it meant, in terms of a social contract with the people at work.
For a Gen Z or a millennial in the workplace, who wants to be respected or wants to do something that’s meaningful, that might result in them going into their bosses office or sending their boss an email with a proposal of this great idea on how we could totally rework this program, this system, or this practice. That might be perceived as entitled by someone 20 or 30 years older, who never would have emailed their boss. They wouldn’t have had the audacity to think their boss wanted to hear an idea from somebody who’s been there a year, but that is really falling into this almost ethnocentric. The way I look at it is the correct way lens that causes us problems with all kinds of diversities.
One of our practices in the book– We have four different practices is adjust the lens. Instead of looking at just the behavior, you need to dig deeper into what’s the value that’s probably behind that behavior. If I understand that one of my millennial or Gen Z employees is trying to do something they think is going to be meaningful, important, and helpful to the organization, I’m much more willing to be open to that. I might not agree with the way in which they do it. Maybe that becomes a coachable moment about organizational norms or why things are done in a particular way, but I’m much less likely to automatically assume it’s due to entitlement.
A lot of the work I’ve done, I find that what older generations view as entitled, younger generations often view as proactive. It just depends on where you’re standing, potato, potato. For your question about how do we make sure that organizations don’t lose all of this knowledge? I think it’s a two-way street. I have not found any of the younger generations I’ve worked with, to not want advice, knowledge, mentoring, or input. I found that they’re hungry for that. I think there’s a lot of evidence that our millennials specifically, wants one-on-one coaching. They want mentorship. They want wisdom and advice.
Actually, they don’t really want it from Gen X. They want it from the boomers because they’re at the top. That’s the shortest direction to success, is to go the shortest path from point A to point B. They would love that kind of guidance and mentoring, but the other piece of that is they’re not so likely to listen unless they feel there’s some mutual respect. If I’m willing to listen to them, understand where they’re coming from, and have a conversation about their ideas, I find that almost always, that’s reciprocated with a willingness and an interest to then hear my input or advice.
I can acknowledge and say, „I love that you brought this idea to me. I love that you’re so passionate about helping. I want to walk you through some concerns I have. Here’s why we do it this way.“ Helping them ground, their enthusiasm, their passion, their innovation in our organizational culture and history, „It’s not that we just randomly decided to do it this way. We do it this way for these reasons. Given that, what impact would that make on your suggestion?“ Or „If you have this wonderful desire to advance in the organization, that’s great. Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about some things that I need you to hear and understand that might become a challenge, and you’re doing that as quickly as you want“.
It becomes a conversation instead of a dismissal, and it allows me to pass my knowledge and wisdom on, in a way that’s actually heard. I think it really comes down to understanding that every generation has something to teach and something to learn rather than getting at this adversarial, „Us versus them. That’s not how we do it here.“ Younger people feeling like, „Well, they’re out of touch and they don’t understand the new way things need to happen. Okay, boomer.“ None of that is productive. I think cultures where age diversity is respected in both directions, come up with the best programs per your question, whether that’s mutual mentoring, which is a term I like better than reverse mentoring.
Reverse mentoring, I think by definition, our editor pointed this out to us– We have this great editor who worked with us on the book and she said, „Isn’t reverse mentoring non-Genteligent? It assumes that the way mentoring should happen is from older to younger and if it happens the other direction, that that’s backwards“, which is such a great call-out. We changed it in the book and we made the argument that we should expect mentoring in all directions because generations have different kinds of knowledge to share.
Patrick: We’ve been looking at our data set at Peakon from a generational perspective, and your point around mutual mentorship is quite an interesting one. This idea that people can learn in both directions, I think is quite a powerful one because you’re right, mentorship programs classically, have been focused on a downwards flow of learning, knowledge imparting, and value in a lot of ways where it’s, „Well, the, ‚older generation‘, is going to provide the value in the mentorship to the younger generation.“ It’s a super valid point that it absolutely does go both ways.
We published an employee expectations report at the beginning of the year, and have since been continuing to look at employee expectations in the current situation with the pandemic, and how it’s impacted employee expectations. All generations in the workforce have clear expectations, have their voice prominent in their organizations but we do find that the younger generations have increasing expectations around individual growth, individual development plans. To your point, how they proactively are impacting the organization, how their individual work effort is supporting the larger organizational goals and success of a company.
When you were doing your research for the book, did you find similar results that younger generations really wanted to understand their individual impact on business success, but at the same time, how they were going to be growing almost every month, like a constant need and ability to grow and to do something different. Not just once a year knowing what they’re doing to impact the business but literally, if they could understand every day what they’re doing to impact the business, that is a point of inspiration for them? Did you find that when you were doing your research?
Megan: We did. I don’t know if we were quite that explicit about the individualism component. I think one of the things that’s really fascinating about generational differences is, there’s a story behind every generation. Of course, we’re generalizing a bit, because we’re talking about people born within, 15 to 19 years of each other. We do see it coincide with things like, formative events, is what we call it. What was going on, socially, politically, culturally, economically, that might have changed the way people view, for example, work, their place in work, and why you work. I love the stories behind it.
I’m working on a piece right now about what we call the silent generation, so the generation that was 1925, to 1945. The idea is they just took what got thrown at them. It was the depression, and it was World War II. Here in the US, we saw, a number of just things pounding on that generation. Of course, there’s definitely cultural differences to acknowledge there and they just rolled with it. They were resilient, but very hardworking, conservative, and they didn’t really expect that work was there to give them meaning. It was there to feed their family and put a roof over their head. It was a survival tool. It wasn’t to give their life, some in-depth purpose.
That’s evolved a lot, as our options for employment have gone up, our educational levels have gone up. There’s a story behind why our younger generations have that mentality, and it’s not right or wrong. It just is. When I started doing this work with primarily baby boomer managers, they were tearing out their hair. What was really fascinating was their children were the same age as the employees that were frustrating them. I had to call the question and say, „How many times a day do you talk to your kids? How involved are you in their life? How much do you know about the decisions that they’re making and a lot?“
Just as they were raising millennials with this very strong sense of self-esteem, are baby boomers more generation that had, overall, a lot of career success and they invested a lot in their children. They invested in developing them, educating them, and giving them opportunities that maybe the boomers didn’t have, or their parents didn’t have.
Coming from a really, really good place, but when you grow up with that much investment, and attention, and what you need, and what you should have in order to thrive, that doesn’t go away when you go and get a job or when you come to the university. When you were highly scheduled, and so much attention was given, like, „Has Patrick had enough foreign language? Should he have an extra year on the little league championship team?“ All of these things that increase the pressure, and the competition, and the expectations for our millennials, they brought those with them, as you would expect.
Children became really the center of the family unit. That does create a sort of, „What is this going to mean for my development? How will I be benefiting from what’s happening here? Am I making the right choice?“ I think investment in them was very high, but expectations for them were very high. Employers have responded. This is where leadership rotational programs came from. Those came out of nowhere about a decade ago, where suddenly, people right out of school were getting leadership rotations where they were going through the different departments or areas on some schedule, just so we could tell our millennial work fruits, „Yes, in three years, you will be ready to be a manager because we have this program that will make sure it’s so“.
That did create an issue for older employees who maybe have been, biding their time or trying to put pay their dues with hopes they would get to a management position, and then this leapfrogging started to occur. I hear from a lot of people mid-career who say, „Well, somehow I got jumped over because there wasn’t a leadership rotational program when I started.“ I think it’s all about really understanding that saying, „Well, you’re going to do this because that’s how we do it here“ isn’t going to be sufficient for our younger generations. They really want to know why.
It’s not that they’re lazy. I’ve pushed back all along, I feel that is completely incorrect stereotype about millennials and about Gen Z. I find them to be very driven, as long as they understand the purpose of what they’re doing and feel like it has meaning. The other part of this that’s really important to acknowledge is we’re getting employees who actually are much further along in their experience in development than Gen Xers and boomers were when they started.
When you think about the fact that your average university student has had an internship, and at least where I teach that sometimes two or three summers of internship, it just keeps growing before they even step foot. As an employee, they have had a lot of client experience. They have had maybe job shadowing. They’ve gone through a lot of development and things and really have had a lot more development and experience than most of us had when we started.
They are a little bit ahead of the curve. Just because it wasn’t done that way for us, is not a valid reason to say, „Well, we don’t do it like that here.“ I think it has to be a balance. I’m not saying throw away the way everything is done in an organization, it becomes a willingness to step back and say, „Well, what is done here in a particular way because it’s important, and it’s part of our culture and we’ve thought about it, and it matters“, and what’s done a certain way just because we’ve always done it that way. What could be improved? Are we losing anything by allowing people to advance more quickly or have a more primary role early on?
There’s different kinds of knowledge, and we’re in an era where, for the first time, our younger people have more of a specific knowledge than our older people. That’s the area of digital knowledge. It’s not that older people can’t learn technology, that’s also a horrible stereotype. We’ve been using technology longer than the Gen Zs have been alive. But we don’t learn it as quickly. It’s not as second nature to us as it is to younger generations. Therefore, there are certain kinds of knowledge where actually our younger generations have the upper hand. Instead of viewing it as threatening, why not view that as an amazing thing that we could use as an advantage?
While older generations have a lot of different kinds of knowledge, we talked about this in the book. In terms of the things like knowing why we do things a certain way, or our history, or our contexts, or those kinds of experiences, I think just because millennials and Gen Zs maybe have more expectations, that doesn’t mean they’re wrong to have them. It doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong to see what we can do to align with some of those expectations and then coach around maybe others that aren’t realistic. I think there’s a middle ground.
Patrick: That’s very good advice. You mentioned, as you were doing your research, you’re quite interested in the silent generation. As we were doing the employee expectations report, there was one point that I think you would find interesting around the silent generation. We looked at the discussion around well-being. We know right now that employee well-being is top priority for organizations -as it should be- from mental health to physical well-being.
When we looked at the data understanding generations and the discussion around well-being, in the beginning of the year, we saw an increase of just over 20% in the conversation around well-being with millennials. With the silent generation, it was 19%. Both generations were talking more about well-being. That is a pretty amazing connection point to put somebody from the silent generation in the workforce, with a millennial, and have a discussion about well-being because it’s important to both generations.
The increase in conversation around well being was pretty much the same between both, and I think it would be very interesting for organizations to have those two generations sit down and talk about what well-being means, how it impacts them, and how important it is to them from two very different perspectives around well-being because, as you said, silent generation has been incredibly resilient through many different phases of the world, and society. Millennials, in comparison, really have not been through the same type of, „Life“ that somebody in the silent generation has gone through. I think it’d be an interesting opportunity for organizations to consider.
Megan: Count me in, I would love to be a fly on the wall in that conversation. When I think about how socially acceptable it has become for people to talk about well-being or struggles with their well-being, I don’t think we’re quite to the point where people feel– it’s always socially acceptable to talk about mental health, but certainly much more so than it used to be workplace or otherwise, thankfully. But I think for our silent generation, and to some extent our baby boomers, that wasn’t something you talked about, that wasn’t something that you share, that wasn’t something that even if you needed support or you weren’t doing very well, that wasn’t something we talked about at work, or we even talked about publicly. Now, millennials and Gen Zs are much more open about– I have students who are very open about how they’re doing, I checked in with them every couple of weeks just because things are so crazy right now and, thankfully, they’re a little bit more willing to let us know or reach out.
This latest piece I’m working on the silent generation, how has all this isolation that is necessary for physical health impacted mental health, and will our silent generation, our older baby boomers will they get the support that they need? Will they be willing to express what they need as opposed to sort of saying, „Well, this is what we’re supposed to do, so we’ll be–„, well, again, that’s where the silent generation nickname came from, was the fact that they didn’t complain and there’s a really fascinating Time Magazine article from 1951 that I’m pulling from for this piece I’m doing that basically says they were asked to do all of these really hard things, and they just put their nose down and did it, so we’re asking them again to isolate and do all these things.
What I found really extraordinary was even among that generation, their greatest concern for well being was for their kids and their grandkids, and that they wanted to help, they wanted to help support them, or help with childcare, remote schooling, or see them and try to be emotional support for them and they physically were being prohibited from doing that, because of lockdown and things that. I agree, I think that would be a really fascinating conversation on resiliency and just how that’s impacting every generation right now.
Patrick: You mentioned this world that we’re living in now, which is obviously a very detached world from organizations are struggling right now with a detached workforce. For the foreseeable future, we will have people working in non-office environments, and many organizations, probably the majority of organizations around the world, are going to need to incorporate some sort of new, flexible working perspective and remote working, and that has a definite impact on all the generations, but to talk specifically about Gen Z as an example, because Gen Z has been known or has been the result of a highly social life.
If we look at the past 20, 25 years, the availability to human connection has been increased probably 10 times than it was 50 years ago. Many of the Gen Z population within the work environment thrives interpersonal connection being together, gains energy from social interaction. That’s a bit of a generalization and I’m not saying that every Gen Z falls into that category, but many do. Now we are in this world of remote work, people not being able to go into offices and not have that social connection. What have you seen with specifically Gen Z struggling in this area? How can we help organizations connect Gen Z to their cultures, their values, the energy of their organization while they’re forced to be detached?
Megan: Yes, this is one where I think we really, really had it wrong, and it’s a great example of how we do have to be careful with some of the conclusions we draw. Last fall, The New York Times came out with this piece called Young People Will Save Us All From Office Life, and I loved it, I thought it was great. It talked about how young people view work as a thing, not a place, that was the best quote, I think, from that article. I thought, „That’s so true“ because with technology, with social media, none of us just work– well obviously not now, but even then don’t just work for set hours or in a specific place.
Alot of organizations were feeling a pushback from younger people who didn’t understand why so much of work was expected to be done at a desk and an office. I did coaching sessions with people in their mid-20s saying, „I don’t understand, my boss wants me to do it at my desk, and I don’t work very effectively at my desk, it’s too noisy“, or, „Too many people interrupt me.“ We were seeing some clash about what does it mean to get work done. Do you actually get more done in the office or not? What sort of artifacts or assumptions are we making about what it means to work at home?
So many trends and things pointed to the fact that our younger generations wanted more remote work opportunities, that they didn’t want to have that constraint of an office. You would think when the barrier sort of got bulldoze down for organizations who said, „Well, we can’t work that way“, or, „Our industry isn’t set up to allow for remote work“, we were able to call the bluff on all of that. Whether or not it is, you’re going to do it and you’re going to figure it out. I think just about every organization figured out a way for it to work because they had to.
That’s probably a subject of an entirely different podcast, but a fascinating social experiment about how we can innovate when we have to do that. Then, I think the assumption early was, „Well, our Gen Zs are going to roll with us. Our millennials will be fine. Technology’s no problem for them, they’re able and used to working from anywhere, but, Gen Xers, and boomers, and the traditional silent generation, we’re all going to suffer and really have a tough time.“ Research is showing, still early, obviously, that we actually had that pretty backwards, and this has been fascinating to me.
I’m trying to dig into it from all different directions, but what happened to simplify the story is there was a learning curve on technology for everybody, but obviously it probably took some of us a little bit longer. My students are so kind to me about Zoom. My Zoom links are wrong a 40% of the time, and they’re just so kind to me about it. They may be judging, but they’re not doing it vocally. I’m doing all right, but we figured it out.
It was a little bit more, I did some tutorials with some colleagues who are older like, „Okay, this is how you use Zoom“, and I answered any question they have because my students taught me. We did the whole intelligence on technology thing, but once all of that got hammered out and people understood the tools they were supposed to use, then it got really interesting, because older generations, in some ways, felt working from home, even though it was stressful, help them balance their work in their life, whether they had kids that they needed to help do school, or older parents, or whatever it was. We were seeing that they reported they were doing all right.
Obviously, there’s always roadblocks and things to get around but the lowest levels of satisfaction with remote work were coming from our younger generations, not our older ones. That was a mic drop, like, „What? What is this about?“ I just started digging, some of it was anecdotal and I realized that what we missed was that social piece, and not the, „I’m posting on Instagram social piece“.
The fact that particularly when you’re a Gen Z age or the younger of millennials, because our Millennials are spanning both the late 20s, which is still a independent social time and then 30s, which can be a different animal, but so for our Gen Z’s in particular we’ll say, work is where you meet your adult friends, your first couple years of work. You start making your contacts, your colleagues, your network, maybe your significant other. You go out with your work friends, there’s social things happening through work, there’s a lot of energy that comes from that. That connection of being around people and being in the office, „As at least an opportunity“.
I think for people and older generations, we don’t rely on work for the same social opportunities. We have our friends, we have our family for the most part, our friend group is established, so maybe it was a challenge for us, but not nearly in the way it was for our Gen Z who rely on that. What we never thought about was, „Well, maybe they prefer getting to work from anywhere“, but what happens when the office isn’t even an option anymore? What kind of impact is that going to have? I think dramatically on motivation works is not as fun because I don’t get to see people, work is not as interesting, there’s not as many opportunities, everything is just more complicated and takes longer.
Across the board, these are mostly consulting group things and surveys done, the academic research will take a little while to catch up to that, but we’re seeing that our Xers, our Boomers were, for the most part, doing all right and okay with remote work. Much more struggle was happening from Gen Z and millennials. I think to answer your last question about what organizations need to do, I know they’re trying. I see all the links in posts for my students who get the onboarding basket of the T-shirt and the swag and, „You’re doing a virtual internship“.
I think that’s a good start. I think you hit the low hanging fruit. I do think they need to think about what did we lose and how do we get it back in a safe responsible way, of course. You might have to use your intelligence and ask the Gen Zers. I think I would crowdsource that and say, „What do you miss and what are your ideas for getting back?“ Like a Zoom happy hours pretty limited, nobody finds that super exciting anymore, but maybe it’s a Netflix watch party where we’re doing something non-work related that’s still fun.
I’ve actually even heard some great stories on a more serious note from Gen Zers who were able to retain their job offers, and the leadership of the company included them in the conversations about what the company was struggling with, what they were going to do, strategy-wise moving forward. Talk to them about the important role they were going to play in the future of the company, empowering them to help with the transition and make suggestions.
I think those are two different ideas, but I think certainly the idea of one going to the younger generations and asking them, „What do you miss the most?“ I’ve heard a lot of new employees, so maybe the ones in 22 to 24, so that would be our oldest Gen Z’s saying, „I know I can’t go in the office, but I’d still like to move to Houston or move to Chicago so that I could at least maybe meet a colleague for a socially distant coffee“.
A lot of this was putting off even moving them to where the company was because of the expense and the safety. Some of them are saying, „I got to feel like I’m in it.“ What does that look like and how can we use both technology, but also maybe some more [unintelligible 00:42:01] and true things? Even if it’s small groups or mass meetings in the office just to get some of that normalcy back, I think they want it. I think it’s what we’re hearing.
Patrick: The social connectivity is such a key part of organizational culture. It is a struggle for businesses and organizations today to figure that out, but to your point, I do think organizations need to be okay with the fact that their culture may change and everything is changing right now. What our cultures were a year ago, two years ago, does not mean that it’s going to be our culture moving forward. You bring up a really good suggestion just asking, „What do you need from a social connection point?“
That could really open our eyes from an organizational level to think about what we could do in the future, because this challenge and struggle is not going to go away in the next two months, three months, we’re looking at what are we doing for the next 18 months, 24 months. Again, that’s two years and we’re looking at millennials and Gen Z being at least 75% of the workforce in three to four years. This timeline is now.
We have to start thinking about this now, and asking the question is a great suggestion for us to start that process and to be open to what the answer is, because the social connectivity is a very big part of where people gain their energy from, but also if they’re going to stay at your organization. Because there has to be some way that these younger generations feel that they’re socially connected. That is a challenge we are all going to need to figure out together.
Megan, you and I could talk for hours about this. I appreciate your passion around this and all of the perspective that you’ve gained and that you continue to share. I’m super excited to read the book when it comes out. It’s pre-order now on Amazon. Again, the title is Gentelligence, The Revolutionary Approach to Leading Intergenerational Workforce. Could not be more timely and more appropriate as we are figuring this all out together. Megan, thank you for your passion in this area. Thank you for sharing your perspective and for spending some time with me today.
Megan: Yes, thank you so much for having me. I think if we can leave with one question, I think for older or younger generations not being afraid to ask, well, how would you do it? I think there’s no better form of connection in either direction that makes people feel appreciated and values what they bring to the workplace, so I encourage everybody to ask that question. I’ve loved getting to talk with you today, so thank you so much for having me.
Patrick: Brilliant. Thanks, Megan.
Presenter: That was Be More, a podcast by Peakon. Be sure to search for Be More in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify. Or anywhere else that you get your podcasts from. Go ahead and subscribe so that you don’t miss out on any future conversations. On behalf of the team here at Peakon, thanks for listening.