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What’s Holding Employees Back From Active Engagement at Work? Don’t Overlook Generational Differences

Santiago Jaramillo
Santiago Jaramillo

In a recent article for Forbes, I wrote about how different generations are motivated by different things, and why the lack of motivation and a lack of engagement go hand-in-hand. For the first time in history, up to five generations of Americans are working side by side. This means business leaders must pinpoint and understand generational differences in order to proactively build an inclusive company culture designed to sustain motivation and engagement.

In late 2017, Emplify discovered some major culture gaps across the multigenerational workforce, reported in our Engagement Trend and Index Report. It’s important to explore these gaps and evaluate how you might be at risk in the future. Start by leveraging these four steps to motivate and engage all employees, regardless of their generation, and continue honing in on creating a more inclusive environment for all workers.

These four steps first appeared in Forbes on December 18, 2017 and then on LinkedIn Pulse on March 10, 2018.

1. Understand employees.

Surfacing insights from employee feedback is the first step to understanding common pain points experienced across generations. One Emplify customer, for example, employed a mix of younger employees who were looking to grow and contribute (and turn over if they didn’t have a voice) and older employees on the verge of retirement.

After surveying its team, the company found low utilization among its production workers, young and old and uncovered the root of its operational inefficiencies by asking for additional employee feedback. After purchasing better equipment for its production facility, the team’s production capacity increased by $3.8 million and the production team went from being the lowest-engaged segment in the entire company to the runner-up, second only to senior leadership.

There are many different ways to obtain such key employee insights, so it’s important to land on a solution that accounts for employees of various tenures and generations. Explore the options and methods available on your company’s quest for employee feedback, and be sure to select the features and reporting options your teams will access.

2. Champion a culture of camaraderie.

Workplace friendships and connectedness are so important, they actually have an economic impact on the well-being of a company and its employees. One study found that when people have a friend they see at work on most days, their happiness level increases the same amount as it would if they made $100,000 more each year.

Building and championing camaraderie doesn’t have to be grueling or time-consuming. Bring employees together so they can learn about each other in non-work settings. From a company-funded lunch to a family picnic to a virtual happy hour to connect remote employees, real connections will cross over into day-to-day collaboration and productivity.

Cisco Systems, an IT company with over 67,000 employees worldwide, began going out of its way to facilitate “productive connections” between employees. Director of inclusion and diversity, Marilyn Nagel, said, “Engagement looks different to me than the person sitting next to me. What works for me may not work for others. It all depends on where I am in my career. So coming up with programs that meet the needs of all employees is an ongoing challenge.” It’s our job as business leaders to decipher the real causes of people issues and propose useful solutions.

3. Unite teams.

Generational tension, which stems from the lack of understanding or respect for someone of a different generation, still exists. Company leaders can’t force friendships, but they can encourage the development of organizational connections by organically uniting different teams.

Lack of team unity hinders productivity. According to Harvard Business Review, strategically aligned enterprises have a much better chance of winning in today’s challenging business environment. When business leaders create and communicate company-wide goals that require employees to work together in smaller teams or cross-functionally, it has a profound effect on team unity. Leadership teams can set a strong example of cross-department collaboration. Employees will be more willing and likely to work and communicate with peers outside of their immediate team when it’s the workplace cultural norm.

Our customer Student Connections was tasked with creating a new division apart from its parent company, which prompted a feeling of uncertainty and insecurity among employees stemming from a lack of cross-functional understanding. The organization then created a culture committee to help showcase projects and celebrations from various departments. This initiative allowed for a shared understanding of how everyone fit into the mission of the company.

4. Give employees the chance to learn.

Our research found that employees with two to three years of experience struggle most with utilization, role clarity and professional development opportunities at work. Professional development is increasingly important in the workplace. Deloitte has repeatedly found this to be of key importance for employees. Spend on corporate training has grown to over $70 billion in the U.S. Research confirms that continuing education is vital to employee retention, productivity and motivation.

Reciprocal mentoring programs, which pair new workers with seasoned employees for on-the-job skill building and role clarity, can effectively supersede generational differences. A number of major U.S. corporations including General Electric and HP have notable adopted such programs as a favorable method of continuing educational opportunities for all employees.

Given the multi-generational attributes of today’s workforce, we’re more likely to have a diverse, experienced group of employees, which leads to stronger teams and bigger, better ideas. Stay focused on one or two key initiatives to move the needle for your workforce. Pay attention to generational differences, but ultimately listen and encourage employees to be open with managers and leaders. This is the key to an engaged workforce, regardless of age, generation, gender or background.

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