Engaging a Five-Generation Workplace

Up to five generations now coexist in many workplaces. At Workday, for example, ages range from baby boomers, who were born between 1946 to 1964, to Generation Z employees who are just joining the workforce, fresh out of college. We know that generational differences are causing some of the biggest shifts in our workplaces, and a recent report sponsored by Workday supports this.

The report confirmed my thinking that the rise of millennial employees into leadership roles and the entrance of Generation Z into the workforce are two of the biggest contributors to changes in traditional approaches to leadership, learning, and workplace culture.

We think it’s vital that all five generations understand the unique perspectives and needs of each to more fully leverage the potential of every company’s most valuable asset: its people. I’ve been exploring the needs of the younger generations in the workplace—specifically millennials who are becoming leaders and Generation Zs—and how best to keep them engaged at work. They are, after all, our world’s future leaders, and those who will be making decisions for our organizations for many decades to come. Here are some takeaways.

Millennials Take the Lead

By 2025, millennials will make up three-quarters of the global workforce, and many of them will be in leadership positions. A number of them are already at Workday, so I shared our research findings with them to get their reactions. For example, do they agree that millennials demand transparency where they work?

I spoke to Diana Fischer, director, Global Impact and Employee Programs, about her experience as a millennial leader, and her thoughts on the characteristics associated with her generation. She agrees wholeheartedly with the transparency finding.

“I would never want to work somewhere that lacked a high level of transparency and respect for opinions across age groups,” she told me. “Call that a millennial way of thinking or just call that a contemporary approach, but a thriving organization should be porous across levels of seniority, across teams, and across functions.”

When it comes to learning, she also agrees with the report that the internet is the No. 1 resource for millennials, who are used to learning things on their own.

“I believe in empowering individuals to do their own work and find their own answers. That’s just more efficient. But we should also focus on the soft skills that really can’t be learned on the Internet: How do you develop manager skills? How do you promote effective communication? How do you become a good business partner? Millennials are not going to get those answers on Wikipedia.”

As a leadership team, we agree with Diana. That’s why we empower employees to share their knowledge and learn from each other through platforms like Workday Learning, which echoes a consumer experience like YouTube and offers a range of learning and development opportunities.

Diana has a few words of wisdom for other millennials who aspire to leadership roles: “Show your curiosity and success will follow. Start from a place of listening. Be analytical, be curious. Say yes to all of those development opportunities.”

And of other people leaders, she asks, “If you’re managing the millennial workforce, how are you creating space for them to chase opportunity where they see it? ”

Generation Z Makes an Impact

We have a 12-month program called Generation Workday that focuses on members of Generation Z. We help these employees, who we call GWs, develop their skills; we also provide them with opportunities and connections and encourage them to have fun. The program has a high retention rate, but I was curious to hear the personal anecdotes behind the numbers.

George Matelich is a senior associate product manager who is part of Gen Z. He told me about the importance of being known as a person, not just an employee; this sentiment reflects the results of McKinsey research, which found Gen Z values individual expression more than other generations. “Not only did the program help me grow professionally, but it also encouraged me to bring my best self to work, which helped us all connect with each other. We’re more than just our skill sets.”

Our research found that across all five generations, there are more similarities than differences.

Concurring with Gen Z research, George agrees that a strong financial footing was top of mind for him when he was searching for a job. Kate Dey, manager, University Programs, observed a bigger focus on finances for this generation, too. Many of them had parents who were laid off during the Great Recession, she says, and are also graduating with a significant amount of college debt. “They are interested in financial planning, the best 401(k) approach, and whether to sell or keep their restricted stock units.”

According to our report, Gen Zers also worry about social issues and like to get personally involved in social causes. Vanessa Heimowitz, program manager, Talent Acquisition, has noticed this in her interactions with this group. At Workday, she runs impact projects for GWs: Participants come up with a range of projects, many of which benefit the community. They’ve organized a used-book swap, with the unused books being donated to a local library, and they’ve also worked with low-income students to provide career coaching. Vanessa notes that GWs want to dive into projects that involve giving back and connecting.

More Alike Than Different

Our research found that across all five generations, there are more similarities than differences. We’ve been honing our focus at Workday on moments that matter to each employee throughout the employee experience and across these generations. We strive to meet employees where they are and help them develop their capabilities through growth opportunities and deepening connections with colleagues.

So how do we make sure we’re providing these things? We don’t use the stereotypes of a generation to structure programs, but it’s smart to pay attention to our blended workforce and their wants and needs. We work hard to develop our programs in a way that allows them to flex to the unique differences and needs of each team. And our weekly Best Workday Survey gives us detailed insights into the experiences and feelings of all the generations at Workday.

While it’s important to understand the differences between generations in the workplace, the most important thing is to treat people as individuals. From baby boomers to Generation Z, we can all get behind that.