Todayâs multi-generational workforce has a lot potential, but will onlyÂ reach it if organisations can manage its many complexities.
By Simon Kent
A long history in the paper and packaging industryÂ means the workforce at Mondi is extremely diverse.Â The company has operations in over 33 countries andÂ creates paper and packing for large, fast-movingÂ consumer goods (FMCG) companies such as Nestle, P&G,Â and Unilever. According to Group HR Director MichaelÂ Hakes, many of the companyâs 26,000 employees startedÂ with Mondi straight out of school and still make up anÂ important part of its workforce some 40 years later.Â Naturally, this has created an age-diverse workforce thatÂ presents both benefits and challenges.
âThe main challenge in managing a workplace withÂ diverse ages is ensuring that there is a good levelÂ of understanding between the generations,â saysÂ Hakes. âDifferent generations have different workingÂ behaviours. Without an understanding of varyingÂ attitudes and working styles, it can be difficult forÂ businesses to handle conflicts effectively and to establishÂ a more efficient and inclusive workplace.â
The multi-generational workplace is not new, but asÂ companies seek to attract, retain, and get the best outÂ of the workforce, it has become a specific challenge.Â David Gibbens, an associate director in the HR consultingÂ division at RSM HR, notes that social pressures haveÂ heightened this issue. âPeople are needing to workÂ longer and consequently, employers are becoming moreÂ aware of generational differences in motivation andÂ more,â he says.
Gibbens suggests that the âfive generationâ workforceÂ runs against the idea that there is a one-size-fits-allÂ solution to employing workers. Working styles, patterns,Â skills, and rewards must all be different, but GibbensÂ warns against compartmentalising these into specific ageÂ groups. Bias must not come into play when consideringÂ what an employee could do or where their skills lie.Â âSome 20-year-olds will be more analytical than olderÂ staff,â he says, âand there are some 50-year-olds whoÂ can be more energetic salespeople than those in theirÂ 20s.â
Ensuring that employees perform at their best is moreÂ dependent on their personal motivation than their age.Â âYou need to consider how employees are drivenâwhatÂ fundamentally gets them out of bed and to work,â saysÂ Gibbens. âThat transcends generational differences.â
At Mondi, getting the best out of people means utilisingÂ the companyâs in-house training provision, the âMondiÂ Academy,â as well as offering opportunities for internalÂ job moves to help people progress and achieve theirÂ goals. But further initiatives are required to ensure that everything runs smoothly when age groups workÂ together.
âIf companies are to encourage and support multi-ageÂ teams, they must create workplaces that are open andÂ flexible to different attitudes and ways of working,âÂ explains Hakes. âOur ambition at Mondi is to createÂ an open culture that inspires our people to reachÂ their full potential. Communication is key to this andÂ companies should ensure that they are using multipleÂ communication channels.â
With a positive culture, the older generation can shareÂ its in-depth knowledge and experience whilst theÂ younger generation brings new skills and techniquesÂ to the table. âCreating this cross-generationalÂ understanding can be a challenge, but when theÂ workforce recognises each otherâs strengths andÂ weaknesses, their combination can be a powerfulÂ asset,â he says.
Jitesh Patel, CEO of office design and build companyÂ Peldon Rose, reflects on how the physical workspaceÂ could be enhanced to meet generational needs:Â âBusinesses should create a range of spaces which staffÂ can enjoy according to their age, personality type,Â mood, and work,â he says. âFor example, 57 per cent ofÂ Gen Z employees think they will work best in a smartÂ working office compared with only 26 per cent of allÂ employees, so businesses should try to provide a varietyÂ of places within the office where people can choose toÂ work.â
Specific initiatives to get age groups working togetherÂ are also popular. At media agency MediaCom, a reverseÂ mentoring scheme has been introduced to help createÂ a cross-generational culture. Nancy Lengthorn, theÂ companyâs head of diversity and inclusion and futureÂ talent, says this strategy couples older executives withÂ younger employees. âThe initiative allows us to pair anÂ experienced white male director with a young femaleÂ from a BAME background, for example,â she explains.Â âThis gives the director an opportunity to gain insightÂ into the specific challenges that a junior person from aÂ different background faces, helping them to open up inÂ the workplace.â
In addition, Lengthorn says the initiative provides everyÂ worker a voice in the company and access to seniorÂ management in a safe, welcoming environment. âTheÂ leadership team set up the programme and matchÂ people together, but the rest is genuinely up to thoseÂ taking part,â she says. âEveryone gets out of it as muchÂ as they put in.â
A big part of MediaComâs business is connecting globalÂ brands with different types of audiences, so making theÂ most of its diverse workforce aligns with its overarchingÂ goals. Lengthorn says the mentoring scheme generatesÂ an âempathetic workplaceâ where the challengesÂ that people from different cultures and backgroundsÂ experience on a day-to-day basis can be shared. âTheÂ more time our senior people spend with our junior staff,Â the more apparent it becomes that so often, our youngÂ people have the answers,â she says. âThey have theÂ passion and fresh eyes to drive our business forward.Â The real opportunity comes when the generations workÂ together to harness that passion and fresh thinking andÂ underpin it with experience and influence.â