Robey’s Blog: ‘What we have here is a failure to communicate’

Robey Jenkins, HR Manager for Age UK Gloucestershire, shares his weekly blog.  This week he discusses how HR can overcome the challenges of communicating with a multi-generational workforce:

I found myself, once more, spending a good portion of a day off in a local school conducting mock interviews with Year 10 children (ages 14-15).  In the course of the day I interviewed them for jobs as diverse as sports coach, accountant, healthcare professional, dancer, soldier and digital media producer.  Some of them had their life mapped out.  Some of them were struggling to think beyond tomorrow’s breakfast.  Most of them were somewhere in between: they’d started to think about the future, but only in a fairly vague and limited way.  The future seemed a long way away.  A career seemed like a nebulous and unformed thing.  GCSE exams loomed far larger and more urgently upon their horizons and what was beyond them was pretty irrelevant.

Meanwhile, waiting to meet them was a group of very adult adults: not only people who had jobs but in many cases who had ascended to the peak of their career and retired already.  From their perspective GCSEs (O Levels in most cases) had receded so far into the past that even “irrelevant” was too big a word to bestow upon them.

One of my fellow interviewers read the instructions from the organizers and retorted:

‘I’m not sure if it’s really appropriate to write my first name on the card.  It’s an interview, after all.  Surely you’d address your interviewer as Mister or Mrs?’

I gently pointed out that the world of employment was less formal, these days, and that most people in the work environment were on first-name terms.  It really wasn’t any different with interviewees, whatever their age.  But it threw into stark relief for me the challenge that HR professionals are going to face with the changing demographic of the workforce.

Previously, my main focus has been upon skills and how organizations can be blinded by assumptions about digital and computing skills to think that younger workers are more savvy; and upon the expectations of workers who, in younger generations, will expect increasing amounts of flexibility around their place and hours of work compared to those more accustomed to the nine-to-five.  But I’m suddenly struck by the potential unanticipated cultural clashes that lurk on our horizon.

 

How we address each other

At its simplest level this might be about the use of titles.  Whilst in an office environment, ebing expected to call your line manager “Mrs Brown” instead of “Sue” might seem stuffy even to older employees, where the hierarchy gap is larger – dealing with a senior executive or Board member, for example – the expectation of a show of respect is strong amongst the over-45s (who, don’t forget, are likely to have at least another twenty years in the workforce, if not another thirty-plus).  This is even more pronounced when dealing with people with an earned title – Doctor, Professor, Dame, Lord, Colonel…  Generation Xers are more relaxed about this sort of thing, and Millennials are positively disdainful of titles.  Insisting on their use is seen as weak or pretentious or both.

Something Lord Sugar might like to bear in mind, the next time he “fires” an apprentice.

But at a more day-to-day level, what we say with our body language can be as explicit and – to the wrong person – as offensive as anything we say with our mouths.  Those who work internationally will often swap stories about what puts backs up in different cultures, so to some extent we’re aware of the importance of deference in Japan, say, or of respecting social norms in the Middle East.  But are we ready for the idea that our employees will happily wander into a senior manager’s office and perch on the corner of her desk to explain an issue?  When you tell a Millennial that your “door is always open” they will assume you mean it.

 

How we think

I don’t mean “how our brains work” but the processes we use to work stuff out.  Sure, digital natives of any age will resort to the Web first when it comes to researching an issue or looking for information.  But the new generation of workers have grown up with the idea of “crowdsourcing” as a cultural phenomenon.  As the husband of a professional translator, I see the dichotomy starkly within that industry, where the most-established and highly-paid industry leaders operate as standing columns of wisdom with carefully-horded corpora of terms and vocabulary acquired over decades and protected at all costs.  But newcomers are pooling resources, networking and freely sharing discoveries and experience.  Their conviction is that knowledge alone isn’t valuable any more.  What carries value is the skill to put the knowledge to the most intelligent use.

Whether you believe knowledge still has value in the Google Age or not, it’s essential to remember that longer-term workers still think that their hard-earned knowledge has value – sometimes out of proportion to how well they put it to use!  Newer workers, with less knowledge, no longer confer the same respect that they once did for older workers’ knowledge.  Knowledge is free.  It’s on YouTube.  It’s on Wikipedia.  It’s on WikiHow.  Their respect will be founded on who makes use of it with the most skill and intelligence.

 

What we value

The things that motivate the Millennial generation and their as-yet-unnamed generational successors are still something of a mystery, but it seems pretty clear by all measures that they’re not the same things that established workers value (or are assumed to value).  My own experience – totally un-tested and without any academic foundation that I know of – is that the difference lies in complexity.  The established workforce has thrived on a simple formula: work your hours, take your salary, get your pension.  Attempts to introduce complexity, such as performance-related pay, employee benefits, unlimited annual leave, salary-sacrifice schemes etc have been sporadically successful but fundamentally have been treated with suspicion by a workforce that liked the relationship between employer and employee to run along straightforward, clear lines.  In union negotiations it was demonstrable that reps valued clarity more than fairness.  No surprise then that, as the battlelines between employer and employee become blurred with complexity, investment in the TU movement declines.

The new generation of employees are comfortable with complexity not because they are smarter, but because they trust the ability of technology to manage it on their behalf.  They don’t mind flexible hours or benefits or homeworking or sliding-scale pension schemes because, basically, there’s an app for that.

 

Resolving the failure to communicate

The established workforce is going to lose this battle.  The arrow of time flows in one direction only and the best solution to mixed expectations is to follow the path of least resistance.  But while we adapt to a three-generation workforce and prepare for the arrival of the four-generation workforce, we have to be ready for the conflicts, anticipate them and intervene.  There’s no one-size-fits-all solution that I can think of (please, tell me I’m wrong!).  We have to meet each conflict as it arises and use them to shape and adapt to a new world of work.

Author: Editorial Team

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