Our workforce today is made up of a rich mix of generations working side by side. Each brings its own skillsets, ideas and experience. But each can also have different mindsets, opinions and outlooks. The challenge for agency leaders is to enjoy the diverse nature of their teams and the opportunities this brings, while balancing the potential challenges generational differences spanning a possible 50 years could bring.
In this guide, we’ll explore some of these challenges, debunk some stereotypes and help you understand the beauty and benefits of a multi-generational workforce... and, crucially, how to keep them on board.
Mainly for the obvious reason that you want the best people working in your agency – not one of your competitors. Especially if you’ve invested in training and development.
Keeping the right skills and the best people is crucial for client consistency, too. High turnaround and constant new faces can irritate clients, who like to work with people they know will deliver their projects.
Plus, there are big cost considerations associated with recruitment. And no matter how good your new hires are, they will take time to get to know your agency and clients.
Realistically, people will leave from time to time, and that’s to be expected. But you never want this to be because they don’t like working for you, or because they think things will be better elsewhere. Making your agency a great place to work is pivotal to keeping your people on board.
And when you have, as you hopefully do, a diverse range of generations working in your teams, you need to read the room and make sure what you’re offering has wide appeal to everyone working there.
"Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is a success."
Challenging the stereotypes
While these can be useful to understand, it’s important not to make assumptions about people. Each person within a generation is an individual and needs to be treated as such.
While each generation might have joined the workforce during a specific era, their responses won’t have all been the same. So this is a process of balance and navigation. Don’t make assumptions. But do be educated on the nuance of appealing to multiple generations.
Matt Smith, CEO of marketing agency BDB, shares his 6 tips for managing a multi-generational workforce...
1. Stop labelling people
Stop talking about generational differences. Your management goal should be about working with individuals, not talking about those individuals' ages. Doing so will make the age gap less important to your team and help remove related stigmas. Instead, your employees can place their focus elsewhere, like on working as a cohesive group.
2. Identify common traits and interests that cross the generations
Encourage everyone, from company leaders and employees—to embrace what they share, not what divides them. Not only does this build collaboration, but it also helps build trust across generations. You might be surprised at how much commonality exists between generations.
3. Encourage mentoring opportunities
Younger and older employees can mentor one another in unique ways. Generation Z was weaned on technology; a member of that group may be the perfect go-to person for general internet- or smartphone-related questions. Similarly, a Gen X-er or Baby Boomer might be able to give significant insight on career growth based on his or her wealth of expertise. In creative industries, growing up in a world of print can bring a whole new perspective to a piece of online creative.
4. Encourage all employees to lead
When planning project staffing, try to mix and match employees of all generations based on the unique skill sets they bring to the table. The more chances they have to broaden their horizons, the less the age differences will matter.
5. Eradicate a one-size-fits-all managerial approach
It's OK to manage people differently based on their goals, abilities, and strengths, as long as you stay within human resources parameters. Evaluate employees based on who they are, not based on the generation they belong to.
6. Have a strong vision and value set
Every employee will do better at work if they feel a sense of purpose. Baby Boomers are very loyal and will therefore appreciate a strong company vision that they can buy into and understand their role within. At the other end of the scale, Generation Y and Z, who are thought to lack loyalty, need something outside pay to bind them to a company. If your vision includes all generations and your values include respect and inclusion, then this will naturally encourage collaboration.
Forbes highlighted a recent Twitter discussion on millennial issues. They quoted @throwingwords who concisely put it this way:
"Provide purpose and promote passion. The Why matters more than the what."
You’ve recruited and trained your people, now you need to keep hold of them. Here are some good ways to do this:
The technology trap
Multi-generation teams can be comprised of people who were born into a connected world and those who weren’t. But once again, this doesn’t mean you can make assumptions.
Those born into a digital world won’t have an inherent knowledge of the exact systems and technology you need them to use. Meanwhile, older team members will be used to training, learning and adapting to new ways of working.
If you’re implementing a new agency management system (or updating your existing one), you’re all working on the same page. The key is to gather feedback on what your team members would find useful from the system and for you to explain the benefits.
Regardless of generation, you’ll often find some natural resistance at first anyway. But a good systems implementor will offer comprehensive training for all users.
Getting the right systems and processes in place can help to make the working day smoother for all team members, so don’t shy away from using technology to make things better.
Top tip: make sure everyone has access to training in all aspects of your technology, with opportunities for follow-ups and extra support where it’s needed.
Opening the (many) lines of communication
We’re lucky in the multiple methods of communication open to us today. Different generations may have varying preferences: for example, older generations may prefer phone calls and email, while younger generations may prefer instant messaging.
The beauty here is that there isn’t really one ‘correct’ way to communicate. But you do need to make sure that everyone is comfortable. Forcing people into face-to-face meetings when they have a huge workload can feel counterproductive, especially if an email would have covered the issue.
Equally, some clients prefer calls and meetings as they’re more personal than messaging. You want to keep your clients happy. But to keep them with you, you need to keep your team members happy. Trust your colleagues to make the right call.
Top tip: make sure everyone knows they have many routes of communication and provide the right means and methods to help them do this.
Do you offer a promotional pathway for those that want it? Communicate your process to all team members. Some will be happy doing what they’re doing, but others are always looking ahead: make sure you’re part of their vision.
Reward and recognition
Praise and appreciation go a long way to making you feel nurtured at work. This could be informal and frequent (often preferred by younger generations) or more formal (favoured by older generations). Consider a mixed approach but make it clear that you’re recognising good work, however this is done.
Matt Smith, CEO at marketing agency BDB, conducted a survey among his employees to help him devise a benefits package to suit his multi-generational workforce.
The top three results were:
Offering a good, competitive salary may seem basic but it will appeal directly to a diverse workforce. Equally, making employees feel valued and offering flexible working where they need it will also go a long way. Remember, different generations will have different priorities, so you could consider adding things in, like support for those struggling with menopause, or grandparents’ leave, to reach workers of all ages.
We’re all becoming increasingly aware of the importance of ethical practices and focus on sustainability and behaviours that are planet friendly. Having a good CSR policy and communicating and living your values is a great way to make your agency a place people want to work.
Whatever you have in place, make sure it’s workable, practical and has clear outcomes which you can communicate to your teams.
We’re a much more open society today and this has translated into the workplace, too. Younger generations have grown up with open conversations about things like gender, mental health and diversity, which may have been previously seen as subjects to avoid in a professional setting.
The key here is to respect personal boundaries. Make it clear that no subject is off limits, as long as it’s respectfully discussed, but equally that nobody should be forced to offer opinions or join in if it makes them uncomfortable.
Top tip: make sure all your policies are up to date and compliant with current legislation. Communicate these to all your people, and make sure they’re easily accessed. Be clear that confidential conversations will be upheld.
Watch your bias
For those indignantly protesting they aren’t biased, rest assured this is unconscious. But even still, it can be identified and navigated.
For example, if you’re looking for someone to lead a social media campaign or add posts to Instagram, would you automatically look to younger team members? Or if you think a particular client needs extra gravitas, would you seek out older colleagues?
It all goes back to our assumptions: older team members might be just as social media savvy as younger ones, and their younger counterparts might be an equally confident voice in meetings. Or not. It’s all about personality and ability.
Top tip: make sure all opportunities are open to everyone and don’t dismiss the idea of certain colleagues taking on certain projects purely because of their age.
A Gartner study revealed that a highly inclusive environment can improve team performance by up to 30%. Another by McKinsey & Company suggested that companies with the most diversity outperform those with the least by 36% in profitability.
Ultimately, you want to offer your people a pleasant and safe working environment, with good benefits and plenty of opportunity and recognition. Creating a culture of respect, inclusion and collaboration is key, encouraging your teams to learn from each other and be mindful of different preferences in ways of working and communicating. Flexibility is also key, not being too rigid in demanding things are done a certain way.
It boils down to: treat your people well and they’ll want to stay. Regardless of age or generation.