Managing Multigenerational Workforces: A Q&A with Mary George Opperman, Vice President for HR and Safety Services of Cornell University

Mary George Opperman, Vice President for HR and Safety Services of Cornell University

What do you feel are some of the greatest challenges that Human Resources faces with a multigenerational workforce?

MGO: We face challenges today for a number of reasons and the many generations in the workplace is but one. I do think that many of the youngest generation of workers, Digital Natives, have a different approach to work than some workers in other generations. I worry about applying broad generalizations to a whole generation of workers. In any generation, there are those who fit a stereotyped model of that generation’s workers and those who do not. But I do think, in general, that the fact that technology has always been a part of the 18-34 year old working population’s lives impacts how they approach work and how they balance it with other priorities in their lives. I think some leaders who did not grow up with technology, Digital Immigrants, approach work differently – and their approach sometimes falls more in line with traditional thinking that values face time and "time in rank". If we are not respectful of the fact that there is room in our workplaces for a number of approaches to work, it is possible that frustration will increase. But, I believe that can be avoided.

Do you find that some performance motivators work across generational lines better than others?
MGO: This may seem obvious, but a clearly stated goal or outcome is very helpful to teams that are composed of workers from multiple generations. I do think that using an agreed upon project management approach levels the playing field for everyone and allows the team to assign work based on skills and clearly defined deliverables. The day-to-day work that is part of every organization and part of most jobs can be done in a variety of ways- and this is where I sometimes see challenges. Is it acceptable for two people to sit side by side and approach the same work differently?
It is important for leaders to really think through how much it matters whether work is fully technology enabled [automated], requires set hours, must be done from the office, etc. It is also important to recognize that for some workers the position is a stepping stone, while for others, the position is a destination. Approaching work in these ways helps to minimize the focus on age differences and tune into worker preferences, strengths and most importantly, organizational outcomes.
We also hear a desire for flexibility from workers in every generation. The desire to have time to do other things in their lives is a common – and healthy –trend. Organizations that recognize this and figure out how to balance work with the need to create a healthy workplace environment, will benefit from the expertise of all of their workers. However, this is a very challenging balance.
Based on generational differences of the current and emerging workforces, what do you think future leadership roles will look like?
MGO: I find that when leaders focus on outcomes and recognize that work assignments may need to shift and/or change to accommodate the personal, professional and career interests of all top talent, including younger workers, that there is less stress in the workplace and more of a focus on shared goals. I also think that leaders should worry less about age-based generalizations and get to know their workers. It is just too easy to point to age and lump people together. I don’t buy into the notion that the newest generation of workers is particularly needy. They want and need feedback. When I was starting out, so did I. Is it that they may be more inclined to seek it, or that we have forgotten how important feedback is to everyone?
Do you feel that implemented tactics to engage Millennial workers will alienate workers of other generations (inclusive of Generation Z)?
MGO: No, I really do not. I think this generation brings great promise and skills that we need. The generations will only feel alienated from one another if we pit them against one another- and we just do not need to do that. Work continues to change and needs of organizations change. In that reality, we all have something important to contribute. Some of us bring experience and expertise borne of our years in the workplace. Others bring new ideas and approaches borne of their familiarly with technology and the wants and needs of their own cohort. This seems healthy and wonderful to me!
What are your top priorities for 2016?
MGO: Talent management, succession planning and creating a truly welcoming and inclusive work environment for an increasingly diverse workforce.