The New Norm: Generational Differences — Adjusting to a Virtual Work Environment
Updated: Apr 7, 2020
PART I - DEFINING THE TIMES
Given the recent global pandemic, economic downturn and fluctuating, if not fully unstable, job market, it is important for employees to be flexible and focus on effectively working together in a new world. All five generations in the workplace have been thrust into challenging situations brought on by the novel Coronavirus, but – as is the case in many crises – a silver lining does exist. Together, we must learn to manage these unexpected changes lest our companies fail and we, as individuals, suffer the consequences.
Relationship building is an increasingly pertinent issue in virtual working environments containing employees from various age groups. As current events force us to delve fully into concepts of remote work and virtual meetings, gaps among the five generations in the workforce are bound to exacerbate. Noted differences among these generations produce workplace conflict, which ultimately creates employee tension and alters industry dynamics. Such unhealthy conflict is most prevalent in times of difficult change, like now.
Each of the five generations mentioned above presents distinct personality traits and distinguishable working skills that shape our everyday work environments, virtual or otherwise. Understanding co-workers’ personality traits and actively bridging generational gaps through effective communication and the utilization of emotional intelligence will help organizational teams not only excel, but also learn more, form better interpersonal relationships and find fulfillment in their work. Whether in-person or remote, these benefits create better employees, enhance morale and increase productivity.
Traditionalists born before 1946
Growing up around the same time as the shaping of the U.S. military as a force to be reckoned with, Traditionalists are characteristically respectful, task-oriented and carefully follow directions. Qualities such as conformity, logic, loyalty and discipline have helped members of this generation rise to the highest levels of corporate employment throughout their tenure. Although many have retired, a new trend is seeing people of this generation reentering the workforce, perhaps due to the great esteem they feel in upholding a company’s history or because they are bored within retirement. Their current weaknesses stem from unfamiliarity with technology. An adjustment to virtual work environments could pose difficult for this group, as coworkers express frustration at the Traditionalists' inability to catch-up.
Baby Boomers 1946-64
Due to their social confidence, Baby Boomers are strong advocates of individual choice, both inside and outside of work. Similar to Traditionalists, they aim to avoid conflict and spread optimism throughout the workplace. We are seeing now how this unique characteristic will play out as the world transitions to remote work in order to keep businesses afloat.
Gen Xers 1965-76
Also known as “Latchkey kids,” Gen Xers spent much of childhood alone and learned to care for themselves at an early age. Perhaps as a way of making up for their lost childhood, they view work as secondary to their lives outside the office and enjoy spending time with their children or pursuing hobbies. How will remote work and lack of personal contact affect them?
Millennials & Gen Z 1977-97; and born after 1997
The older end of Gen Z – ages 21-22 at this point – and younger Millennials representing a misunderstood generation spanning ages 23-39, though hardworking and successful in school, are faced with new challenges in today's ever-evolving workplace: fostering positive relationships with coworkers of differing age levels.
Millennials are best known for embracing changes and challenges within the workplace, and peaking in creativity. These employees tend to need step-by-step instructions before completely committing to a project, but are dedicated to its success once on board. In theory, the transition to a remote work environment should be relatively easy for this group, as they are comfortable with technology, understand apps and, though socially conscious, prefer use of the Internet for communicating.
Gen Z employees focus on experiences as opposed to commodities, prefer brands that feel authentic, are looking for their dream job and are not afraid to jump from job to job quickly to find it. Though we know little about this generation in the workforce, one thing is for certain: Gen Z rapidly adapts to technology, making a transition to virtual work no problem at all.
Combining employees from these generations, all with diverse yet valuable personality traits and working styles, into one cohesive working environment is difficult in and of itself. Now, do it virtually! Everyone in different rooms, technology as the intermediary, with each generation having a different view of that technology and the overarching concept of working remotely. The group dynamics have noticeably changed.
This atmosphere allows for the emergence of negative stereotypes distinguishable between each generation. Such stereotypes cause friction and lower productivity. Rising above and learning how to best move past barriers, however, can create great success and actually bring teams closer together.
Part II (Who We Aren’t)of this series will focus on generational misconceptions and stereotypes, while Part III will discuss steps for turning a potential generational roadblock into unmitigated success and growth.