Technology: the generational divide. Or is it?

Conventional wisdom would have it that introducing new technologies into a working environment enriched by up to 5 generations, with all the attendant stresses and strains, is bound to add an extra layer of mis-understanding and tension to even the most laid-back office.

But when I see my 80-year old mum navigate her iPad for emails, news, and entertainment, I wonder whether technology needs to be a divider of generations or can act as a bridge between them. After all, I use Skype to communicate with her remotely. I send digital photos of the family.  I download audiobooks for her to listen to while she potters around the house, and I book all her holidays online.

Granted, at the office, the technological expectations of a 20-year old will be vastly different from someone in her 50’s. In fact, we know that 75% of millennials (roughly speaking, those born between 1979 and 1991) regard technology as an enabler across all areas of their lives, compared to only 31% of GenX’ers like myself (1964-1978) and 18% of Boomers (1954-1963).  So how can we use technology to enhance everyone’s workplace experience, and to draw out the strengths of each generation?

Here are some ideas:

Communications

Younger generations use their phones for most forms of contact, including taking notes at meetings (where older generations tend to prefer pen and paper) and instant messaging instead of email or face-to-face contact.  They also thrive on instant and consistent feedback, and this is where technology can help.  In a traditional setting, much experience is conveyed through mentoring relationships.  But today’s more  flexible working conditions can make this difficult. This difficulty could be addressed with ‘remote mentorship’ where the mentor is a person who likes to maintain an office presence, but the mentee prefers a more agile approach to work.  In this type of pairing, the mentor can pass on insights from on-site company meetings and convey the significance of personal relationships to the more physically-remote mentee.  Separately, technology makes it easier to adapt and compromise.  In the instance of a more traditional approach to mentoring, for example, the relationship can be taken to a more remote level after a few initial face-to-face meetings, thereby blending the communication between in-person meetings and online contact.

Generational Perceptions

As one executive puts it, “In a multi-generational workforce, there is potential for negative stereotyping. Older workers may perceive millennials as entitled, tech-obsessed or too eager to challenge norms while millennial employees could see previous generations as being ‘stuck in their ways’ and difficult to train. Organisations need to take steps to ensure managers overcome their unconscious bias,” (The challenges of managing a multigenerational workforce, Forbes 17 March 2016).

Could we use technology to diffuse stereotypes?  We could, for instance, let people tell their stories via short videos and let them upload these to a work portal, for everyone to see.  Technology can also be used to draw out the strengths of the various generations. For instance, the enthusiasm for innovation of younger workers can be tempered by the experience of more mature workers in understanding the costs and risks involved in innovative ideas.  Various analytical programmes, for instance, can be used to measure risk and cost of new ideas incubated through a company’s innovation centre.

Employee Engagement

The one thing all employees have in common, regardless of age, is the desire to be engaged at work. A number of companies have already started using HR software that allows them to develop and encourage each person individually, based on their own preferences, strengths, and experiences.  This allows managers to be more in-tune with individuals’ successes and developmental needs.  A more individualistic approach helps dispel stereotypes and rash unconscious judgments and, as a consequence, allows each person to contribute with their very best.

So, while our technological preferences appear to divide the way we live and work, in reality, technology offers many more solutions that allow us to focus on our united strengths and bridge those differences.

To join the discussion on this topic, join us on 4 October at our panel event Connecting Three Generations in the Workplace

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