5 Tips for Understanding Multigenerational Coworkers

Deb Hipp

Four different generations comprise today’s workforce, spanning from retirement-aged Baby Boomers to newly graduated Generation Z. Sandwiched between are the Gen Xers and Millennials.

With all those different ages and perspectives, some workers may base what they see as a coworker’s failings on the generation in which that person was born.

Yet many employees enjoy working with people of different age groups. In fact, a survey conducted by office products company Ricoh found that 71% of workers surveyed find a multigenerational workplace “an asset to the company.” Around 76% of those same employees “enjoy working with colleagues of different ages.”

So, why do workers of different generations often misunderstand each other’s work habits? And how can you avoid generational bias in the workplace? A happy multigenerational workplace begins with understanding the reasons for certain generational differences.

How Culture Shapes Work Habits

“A multigenerational workforce makes an organization more successful,” says Meagan Johnson, a generational expert in Scottsdale, Arizona. Johnson is the author of Generations, Inc., a book about the multigenerational workforce. “Age diversity allows access to a greater variety of perspectives and talent, and more generational representation in the workforce is also representative of the population at large.”

Want to better understand your colleagues’ work habits? Consider the cultural era that shaped each generation’s perspectives on work and communication.

You don’t want to paint an entire generation with one broad brush, but a few generalities can offer some insight into multigenerational communication style.

Meet Your Multigenerational Coworkers


Generation Z

Gen Z, comprised of people born between 1997 and 2012, is the newest generation to hit the workforce. Gen Zers grew up immersed in technology, reality television and social media. This means they’re expert multitaskers who who prefer getting immediate feedback.


Millennials

Millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, arrived when a greater number of parents had children later in life. Many of those parents were more involved with their kid’s activities and goals than previous generations. So, Millennials generally received encouragement and praise on a regular basis. As a result, many thrive in a work environment where they get plenty of feedback and recognition.


Generation X

Many members of Gen X, born between 1965 and 1980, grew up as “latchkey kids” of working parents. These self-reliant kids received instructions and got the job done with little supervision. As a result, many Gen Xers like independence when it comes to decision-making and project management at work.


Baby Boomers

Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are the generation that questioned authority by protesting the Vietnam War and insisting on racial and gender equality in the workplace. Boomers designed a work environment that embraces teamwork, structure, supervision and clear instructions.

Combining varying ages and viewpoints helps create a vibrant workplace. But sometimes, generational bias gets in the way. That doesn’t have to be the case, however.

How to Thrive in the Multigenerational Workplace

Here are five tips to prevent faulty assumptions about multigenerational coworkers.

1. Don’t Take Personality Type Out of the Picture

“When you say things like, ‘The younger generation doesn’t want to work hard,’ that’s not true,” says Johnson. “When attributing certain work traits or habits to a person, you’re just describing someone’s personality. The bigger issue is that people in a particular generation may work differently from you.”

2. Engage in a Peer-Mentoring Relationship

A workplace benefits from pairing workers of different generations for a few months. That way, each can gain from the other’s work habits and perspective, says Stan Kimer, owner of Total Engagement Consulting by Kimer in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The older worker might share expertise on the marketplace and customers. The younger worker could introduce new technologies or methodologies.”The organization will gain value since both parties will hopefully develop into advocates for cross-generational mutual respect and sharing in the workplace,” says Kimer.

3. Acknowledge Problems

You can’t resolve an issue if you pretend it’s not there, says Johnson. For example, let’s say a Baby Boomer employee gets annoyed with a younger coworker who doesn’t return calls. Encourage them to ask that coworker in a non-confrontational way what’s going on. Maybe that worker prefers to text and puts off returning calls until the end of the day.

Johnson recommends asking the other person what he or she prefers. Then use a “match-match” approach: If a coworker calls and leaves a message, call the person back. If a colleague sends a text or email, respond in kind.

4. Be Aware of Differences

It’s easy to misunderstand what’s behind a work style if you don’t ask the person what they need. For example, Millennials tend to want more involvement from managers. Sometimes older workers may see that trait as a lack of ambition or being tenacious. But it’s more of a need for a collaborative approach, says Johnson.

“Be aware of the difference and feel comfortable with the conflict,” says Johnson. “Everybody wants to feel heard and recognized. But what that looks like differs from generation to generation.”

5. Be Flexible

You may like doing things a certain way, but don’t shoot down someone else’s suggestion right away. Does your Millennial or Gen Z colleague prefer Zoom chats over conference calls? Would your Gen X coworker be as efficient continuing to work from home post-pandemic?

“Rather than saying no right off the bat, ask yourself whether what they want negatively impacts cost, quality, safety or service. If the answer is no, why not give it a try?” says Johnson.

Open Minds Make a Better Workplace

Now that you know how to communicate better with coworkers outside your generation, why not take it a step further? Spend time with coworkers and get to know them for who they are as individuals instead of just members of a certain generation. You’ll each become better employees for reaching out of your comfort zone. Workplace dynamics will also benefit. And who knows? You may even make a new friend.

Let us know in the comments below:

What challenges do you face working with multigenerational coworkers? Do you enjoy working with others of different ages?

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