How to Keep a Multi-Generational Team Collaborative, Effective, and Productive

There is an ongoing debate whether teams perform better if they are homogeneous or heterogeneous. And while most experts today agree that diverse teams will perform better than less diverse ones, the fact remains that they come with their unique set of challenges.

When discussing the various categories that can make a team heterogenous, the age of the team members is rarely the first thing that comes to mind. However, as most of us have experienced, it is actually quite impactful, with people from different generations finding it difficult to find a common language.

So, how do you keep a multi-generational team collaborative, effective, and productive?

Well, here’s how:

Know Your Generations

  • Pre-Boomers (born between 1925 and 1945); most likely, your team doesn’t include any
  • Baby Boomers or simply Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964)
  • Generation X (born between 1965 and 1976)
  • Generation Y or The Millennials (Born 1977 and 1994)
  • Generation Z (born between 1995 and 2010)

This categorization is based on specific circumstances that have shaped the life paths of people within a generation. But, more importantly for this article, the categorization reflects their career expectations, goals, approaches, and more.

For example, Baby Boomers value job security, perks, and promotions, while Generation X is more interested in developing their skill sets. Millennials, on the other hand, are mostly interested in making a difference and being acknowledged for it.

The approaches to learning new skills will also differ greatly from generation to generation:

  • Boomers prefer face-to-face interaction and collaboration.
  • Generation X prefers real-world, practical assignments.
  • Millennials prefer web-based learning.

Another big difference is how likely different generations are to take their work home with them:

  • Boomers — and even Generation X, to a certain extent — will know very well how to leave their work at work.
  • Millennials are more likely to continue working on a problem once their workday is done.

Of course, preferred communication methods will also differ, from:

  • Face-to-face communication for Boomers
  • Emails and texts for Generation X
  • IMs and texts for Millennials

In addition to these generational differences, you can also expect to see differences stemming from the simple fact that people will be at different stages in their life. For example, younger people will be far better suited to deal with busy schedules and weird working hours than their older colleagues.

All of this being said, there’s one important thing to point out. Just because someone was born in 1985, for example, does not mean they will conform to all the expectations you might have from a Millennial. This categorization is more of a rough guide to different age groups. It’s not something you should absolutely base all of your decisions on. Your team members are unique individuals and not some abstract representations of their generations.

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Stay Generation-Neutral

The most important thing to do when managing multi-generational teams is to ensure that no one is feeling left out. Crucially, you have to ensure no one feels discriminated against just because they belong to a specific age group.

There are a number of ways in which you might inadvertently do this. For example, you might exclude people from certain workgroups or sub-teams for a perfectly innocent and understandable reason, but they might feel that it has to do with their age. It’s essential that you clearly communicate the reasons for your decisions.

In fact, it might sometimes be a better idea to include someone even if you don’t think there is an obvious reason why you would include them. Remember, different perspectives are always a good thing.

You should also ensure that certain communication channels that don’t suit some employees do not become dominant for work-related information. For instance, your younger team members are probably perfectly comfortable having all work-related communication happening on Slack or Discord. However, some of your older team members may be uncomfortable with this and feel that formal emails are necessary. It’s better to overdo it than have someone feel left out.

Team Building

In fact, one of the most common issues with multi-generational teams are various generational misconceptions that individuals might hold. For instance, Boomers will often see younger generations — especially Millennials and those after them — as entitled or lazy. Simultaneously, the younger crowd might think that their older colleagues are too crusty and unwilling to learn anything new.

These misconceptions can be dispelled in a structured office environment (more on this later). Nonetheless, it’s best to let people learn about their teammates in an informal environment. This will show them that their cross-generational colleagues are unique individuals and not just a set of stereotypes.

Naturally, you will want to make sure your team-building activities are inclusive and attractive to all age groups. In other words, keep it simple and not too strenuous (no bungee jumping!).

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Address Cross-Generational Stereotypes

This is something that you should address in a formal office environment.

A great way to do this is to ask different people from the team to spearhead knowledge-sharing workshops. That’s where they will get a chance to teach the “other” generations something that they’re less familiar with. The point is to shift the paradigm where people see other generations as people who are incompetent in certain fields. The workshops are there to help them realize that different generations bring something unique to the team — something that helps the team and themselves.

The good thing is that every generation will have plenty to bring to the table.

The older generations will have a well of experience to draw from, with innumerable successes and failures under their belt. They will also be able to provide insight into the consumer habits of older generations which are (very shortsightedly) often neglected in market research and brand messaging.

Younger generations will be able to teach the “old guard” about the new technologies that can help the team become better, the benefits of more agile processes, and more.

This will help dispel age-related stereotypes as well as promote knowledge-sharing within the team, thus making the entire team stronger.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Good communication is at the core of every successful team. For multi-generational teams, it’s even more important that there are as many lines of communication open as possible.

We’ve already talked about this a bit, but it is so important that it warrants another mention. Don’t focus on a single means of communication, especially if it is particularly “new.”

Platforms such as Slack, for instance, are great for constant communication. However, you also need to make sure that all official business is done via another channel, like email. Older people in your team may feel that it is distracting to follow every channel on Slack. It’s your job to make sure no important information is shared only there.

As a team leader or manager, you also need to ensure your team members feel that they can talk to you about anything. Encourage them to talk to you and conduct one-on-one sessions to ensure people are not sitting on something that might cause them to disconnect from the team. Quick online surveys can be a great way to feel the pulse, but you’ll still want to conduct in-person talks regularly.

Depending on your situation (especially now with Covid-19), you should also aim to have your multi-generational team in the same office so that they can interact face-to-face. The informal communication that will happen in such an environment will do much more to strengthen the team than any formal action you take.

Provide Various Learning Opportunities

For instance, older generations might prefer to have professional training with experts in the field holding classes and workshops. Younger generations will lean more towards web-based learning and conducting their own research. The members of Generation X, on the other hand, might prefer to be thrown into the fire and learn through doing.

Having all these learning options available for your team members will be far more effective than focusing on just one. Sure, it may require more effort, but it will also show them that no one is favored.

Closing Word

Multi-generational teams bring more diverse skill sets, opinions, and ideas to the table. Ultimately, that makes them more superior to homogenous teams.

However, it takes a lot of work to ensure these teams work as well as they can. These tips will hopefully help you do exactly that — keep your multi-generational team collaborative, effective, and productive.

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