Kim Lear, founder of Inlay Insights, speaks at the CDW Executive SummIT: Managing the Evolving Workforce.

Aug 19 2022

CDW Executive SummIT: Confronting Generational Differences in the Workplace

Workplaces now include members of varying ages and multiple generations, and each group has different needs and preferred styles of communication.

When discussing hybrid work environments, many conversations focus on the challenges of communicating and collaborating while working in different physical spaces. Collaboration platforms have provided solutions to some of those problems, but some of the issues are more sociological than technological.

For instance, consider the various attitudes and expectations of workers from different generations. Not only do they find themselves at different phases of life, but they’ve also lived through different experiences and developed characteristics based on those experiences. All of these factors, and others, can make it difficult for people of one generation to effectively communicate with members of another.

Kim Lear, founder of Inlay Insights, presented a session titled ”Preparing for the Future: Decoding the Generational Trends Shaping the Next Era” at the CDW Executive SummIT: Managing the Evolving Workforce, where she examined how these trends can affect workplace communication. Despite the many differences among workers, she suggested, organizations can find ways to work across generations and move forward together.

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The Current Workforce Spans Four Generations of Employees

It’s probably not surprising that communication becomes challenging when conversations involve members of four distinct generations. At present, the workforce is primarily made up of baby boomers, Generation X and millennials, with Generation Z beginning to come on board as well.

Lear explained that she uses generational theory “to capture the story of shifting ethos, a mood change, the story of us as a society, and how that changes over time, and what that means for the way we work, our relationship to work.”

She defined generational theory as “rooted in sociology, not psychology. But both schools of thought are equally important, especially for leaders. Psychology is looking at who you are as an individual, your unique upbringing, your relationships, your parents, the way you practice religion. With sociology, we’re looking at broader, macro shifts, demographic changes, cultural evolution.”

READ MORE: Find out what IT leaders can do to embrace hybrid work.

The Workforce Is Undergoing a Shift in Demographics

As Gen Z enters the workforce, baby boomers are aging out and retiring from their jobs. As a result, Gen X and millennials are moving up to fill vacant senior positions, and in many cases, that shift can create gaps in knowledge and experience. Such gaps have the potential to compound the staffing challenges many organizations already face with the Great Resignation and a widely acknowledged talent shortage.

“In addition to all of the other changes happening in the workforce, we also have this generational changing of the guard,” which can be disruptive, Lear said. “We're going through a transition that will have these huge ripple effects on the way people view what’s expected out of work and how companies are organized.”

As younger generations continue to represent a higher percentage of the workforce, it becomes crucial to find ways to pass on institutional knowledge. Sometimes that transfer of information necessitates a willingness for more senior employees to understand the different styles of communication and learning their counterparts prefer.

Kim Lear, Inlay Insights
We're going through a transition that will have these huge ripple effects on the way people view what’s expected out of work.”

Kim Lear Founder, Inlay Insights

Younger Generations Have Different Expectations of Work

Each generation’s relationship to the workplace is informed by their collective response to the stories they inherit about society, Lear said. “And this is how change happens. The new generation decides what they want to build upon, what they want to stand on and what they want to edit and augment.”

“And so there are these big questions that they're asking around, ‘What is the role of work supposed to be in my life?’ And I think that would really be something that defines the next year, the exploration of that question.”

“There’s been these conversations around the future of work: Is it going to be one that kind of doubles down on belonging and a sense of fulfillment? Or is it going to become more transactional?” Lear asked.

Based on her research, she’s observed that young people are inspired and open to a certain style of leadership. They gravitate toward “leaders who actually do create a sense of real belonging in the workplace, who have that generosity of heart to try to help them see things in them that they don't see in themselves, to be able to pull out potential.”

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Photography by Joe Kuehne

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