There’s an assumption that millennial workers will be welcoming the enforced shift to home working with open arms. After all, if the stereotypes are to be believed, they prefer more informal communication, more relaxed dress codes and are comfortable working and collaborating virtually.
But with many workplaces now comprising four generations, it’s important to recognise that while digital natives may well adapt more speedily to new working arrangements, all generations can add value to the remote workplace. HR has an important role to play in helping managers understand how the different generations perceive and like to manage work – and how this translates into the virtual space.
Differences and similarities
Hult Ashridge’s ongoing research into the generations at work has shown that employees at different ages and stages do have much in common. All want to feel valued and respected, want challenging and interesting and work and are keen to learn and share knowledge. But due to different social and environmental influences during their formative years, there are variations in what people expect from work and the way they like to operate.
When it comes to communication, for example, millennial workers often prefer email over telephone and can be uncomfortable with face-to-face dialogue with their seniors. Work-life balance also divides the generations. Employees of all ages prize this to a degree, but it is much more important for millennials, who simply don’t aspire to the long hours, always-on culture they see in their generation X or baby boomer colleagues.
If not managed carefully, home working could actually serve to highlight these differences and cause tension in teams. Older employees may find it frustrating, for example, that younger colleagues are reluctant to pick up the phone and sort an issue out. Equally, younger employees may feel their work-life balance is under threat in a remote environment where there is an expectation (perceived or otherwise) that they will be available and instantly responsive.
HR has a role to play in helping managers understand generational differences, and in particular how they can manage these so that they don’t get in the way of teamwork and engagement in the virtual environment. There are three key areas to consider:
Clarity around boundaries
With home working being introduced at speed, it’s all too easy to focus on the practicalities. But it’s also important to be crystal clear about how it will be managed and where the boundaries are. Will people be expected to be online between 9am and 5pm, for example, or will there be core hours with some flexibility around the remainder? Will everyone be required to take part in team check-ins at set times? Are there agreed response times to emails from colleagues and clients? If this is made clear at the outset, there is less chance for conflict or resentment to arise from people’s different working styles and preferences.
Varying communication styles
Managers also need to take into account the varying communication preferences of their multi-generational teams. For one-to-one communication, it’s possible even when working remotely to take an individual approach. For more general communication, a mix of methods (emails, video calls, web chats and telephone) will ensure everyone’s needs are met and messages land well. During times of uncertainty, it’s really important to keep the lines of communication open, and to understand that some people (regardless of generation) will need more help and support than others in navigating difficult times and coping with unfamiliar working practices. The key is to ask people what they need.
Our research showed relationships with colleagues was seen as a priority for all generations in the workforce. Millennial employees, particularly those at earlier stages of their careers, enjoy collaboration and want to feel supported in their roles, while baby boomer workers are often keen to stay in work beyond conventional retirement ages because they value social interaction. It’s important for overall engagement and motivation that opportunities for relationship building continue in the remote space. Some measures that might help are ensuring there is time for social chat at the start of virtual meetings and scheduling the occasional remote lunch, coffee break or catch-up so people can continue connecting with their colleagues on a personal level. Virtual coaching and mentoring relationships can also come to the fore during these times.
The shift to remote working has been driven by necessity – but it may well prove the catalyst for long-term changes in working practices. As everyone strives to get to grips with the changes, one of the pay-offs may be stronger relationships between employees across the generations and better understanding of each other's needs, drivers and motivations.
Carina Paine Schofield is senior research fellow at Hult Ashridge Executive Education