Today’s workforce is decidedly multigenerational: If you walk into any office or firm, on any given day, you’ll find baby boomers on the cusp of retirement working side-by-side with Generation Xers staking out new leadership roles and millennials eager to make their mark.
And today, more than ever, each of those generations arrives at the office with diverging expectations and opinions of how to best do this thing we call work.
A new survey from Robert Half Management Resources confirms these generational differences are more than just perception. When finance executives were asked which areas they see the greatest differences among their employees who are from different generations, 30 percent cited communication skills, 26 percent said adapting to change, 23 percent noted technical skills, and 14 percent said cross-departmental collaboration. Only 7 percent said they didn’t see any differences.
The research highlighted key differences in three areas among baby boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1977), Generation Y (1978-1989), and Generation Z (1990-1999).
1. Communication style. Baby boomers tend to be more reserved, while Gen Xers favor a control-and-command style, the research indicates. Conversely, Gen Yers prefer a more collaborative approach to communication, and Gen Zers prize in-person interactions.
2. Change management. Gens X and Y tend to see change as a vehicle for new opportunities, while Gen Z is accustomed to change and expects it in the workplace.
3.Technical skills. When it comes to building their abilities, employer-backed training is expected by all workers. Baby boomers and Gen Xers value traditional instructor-led courses or self-learning tools, while Gens Y and Z, which includes millennials, prefer collaborative and technology-centric options.
“Each generation brings unique characteristics to the workforce, which should be embraced,” Tim Hird, executive director of Robert Half Management Resources, said in a written statement. “Too often, managers see these differences as negatives, but building a team with diverse perspectives, insights, and strengths can only be a positive, leading to improved products and service levels.”
Hird believes much of the consternation about generational workplace differences is unnecessary handwringing.
“Managing a multigenerational team doesn’t have to be hard,” he said. “For example, for years employers complained about how the work styles of millennials were disrupting the workplace. We know now, however, they simply have different outlooks, and the resulting changes from employers, such as new communication methods and enhanced work-life balance offerings, have benefited companies and employees alike.”
Technology Has Changed the Game
The need to balance generational differences is perhaps felt most acutely in the accounting profession, where intense competition for new talent means top millennial candidates are able to demand more from their prospective employers.
“The talent war is our biggest challenge,” said Drew Andrews, CPA, managing partner and CEO of Whittlesey & Hadley PC in Hartford, Connecticut. “We are constantly asking ourselves: How do you modernize while retaining the firm’s values and what has made us successful for over 55 years?”
Andrews said many of the differences he sees along generational lines are inherently rooted in the evolution of technology and how it has recast expectations of work-life balance and communication styles.
“Technology has changed the way we do business, which also has an impact on multigenerational dynamics. The evolution to paperless, the reliance on nonverbal communication, and the flexibility remote work access can provide – these have all impacted our firm culture, especially when recruiting top talent,” he said.
A timely example: A blizzard recently hit Whittlesey & Hadley’s New England offices, yet the firm was fully operational because most employees could work from home.
“Twenty years ago, the expectation would have been to find a way to get to the office or take a vacation day,” Andrews said.
However, the relatively new ability to work remotely raised concerns for more seasoned employees, he admitted.
“Among senior partners, the inability to work from home most of our careers had an impact on our personal lives, so work-from-home arrangements evoke emotions around trust and equality,” Andrews said. “We’ve tried to adopt the mentality of ‘assume good intent until there’s a reason to question it.’ I think sometimes there’s a feeling among senior partners that they had to walk 10 miles uphill in the snow, and so should the younger people. But the world has changed and so have the expectations.”
Andrews offers the following tips that Whittlesey & Hadley has used to successfully bridge the multigenerational divide:
1. Foster an open-door policy, and communicate early and often. “We are responsive to employee feedback,” Andrews said. “As a leadership team, we are constantly monitoring employee engagement and we have committed to building a feedback culture. This includes weekly meetings with employees and a philosophy that encourages everyone throughout the firm to provide coaching in real time when it’s the most impactful. Additionally, firm news is posted daily on our intranet and we host annual firm-wide events, including our ‘state of the firm’ meeting.”
2. Create a culture built on trust by giving employees the opportunity to work on projects that may be outside of their comfort zone. “Partners take on the ultimate responsibility for the work product, but they are encouraged to challenge their teams,” he said.
3. Celebrate – recognition is crucial. “This isn’t just monetary,” Andrews said. “Recognition can include lunch with the managing partner, intranet announcements, or the ability to lead a special project.
As principal and director of personnel for Dworken, Hillman, LaMorte & Sterczala (DHLS) PC in Shelton, Connecticut, Michael Ganino, CPA, CFE, oversees a 40-person team of “baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials – all interacting daily with clients and with each other.”
He also believes the communication divide created by new technologies is one of the greatest challenges in managing his firm’s multigenerational team.
“Bringing together the generations in a meaningful way that contributes both to the success of the firm and to the professional development of the individual is no easy task given the multiple ways to communicate and with communication styles so diverse between each generation,” he said.
Ganino said younger staff want to converse in new ways (using Skype and instant messaging, for example) that older generations may feel are unnecessary. He also believes more experienced members of the firm should understand the younger generation’s critical need for immediate feedback.
As mentors, the more experienced members of the firm may believe an in-person meeting is the best way to build a solid relationship and will delay feedback until they can schedule that meeting, Ganino said, but younger workers need real-time feedback.
“While proper feedback is important in any generation, I’ve come to learn that whether good or bad, it is imperative for the youngest in our firm to receive this timely and in the appropriate manner, and at times, the more senior members may not appreciate this,” he said.
Work styles, particularly when it comes to work-life balance, are also a generational issue, Ganino added, with each style believing it is best.
To change those default attitudes and develop solutions forged in the spirit of compromise and openness to communication, DHLS identified best practices from each generation through a multigenerational review.
As a result, the firm modified many of its practices and benefits to allow its employees greater freedom to succeed (and fail), the ability to be recognized for achievements, or to be held accountable for shortcomings.
For instance, “the elimination of minimum chargeable hour requirements as well as mandatory Saturdays during tax season enforced the recognition that we’re professionals, and given the proper expectations and accountability, we’ll find success and an improved work-life balance,” Ganino said.
The firm also improved work-life balance by establishing summer hours and creating a policy for flex time and remote work outside the office. Ganino said other successes include:
- A structured bonus plan.
- Paid-time-off rewards for leading community and firm activities.
- Above and Beyond program, where employees can be nominated by managers or partners and rewarded for their extra effort with an Amazon gift card and a thank-you letter for a job well done.
DHLS also has a mentor program that is the official bridge between the generations, and the firm created a human resources manager position to ensure proactive success.
“Are we perfect? No,” Ganino said. “We continue to grow and adapt to changing circumstances, doing our best to identify ways to bring the generations together. Most importantly, we see our employees, from all generations, as our greatest asset.”
Robert Half Management Resources also offered additional tips on managing a multigenerational workforce.
About Deanna Arteaga
Deanna Arteaga is a professional freelance writer and public relations specialist who for the past six years has covered CPA industry trends for AccountingWEB. She also writes about CPA firm marketing, higher education and professional development for CPAs, and workplace trends in the accounting profession. She has more than 20 years of journalism and public relations experience, including her tenure as a former newspaper reporter in suburban Chicago where she covered breaking news, municipal politics, and state legislative issues.