Generation MixerCompanies must think outside the box when creating work environments for different age employees
By Lisa Tanner, Staff Writer
"It drives me nuts that they e-mail each other rather than sticking their head around the corner of the office and talking to each other," says Dickey, part of the family that runs Dickey's Barbecue.
But he understands that younger workers see e-mail as a valid form of communication. And he realizes that younger workers are a key to future success for the business founded by his father in 1941 and which now includes 77 restaurants.
It's the younger generation, led by his son Roland Dickey Jr. as CEO, that will shepherd the Dallas-based company's growth, now averaging 12 new restaurants a year.
The experience of Dickey's Barbecue illustrates the changes many companies are experiencing as younger workers enter the business world, bringing their new ideas and methods of communication.
The challenge for companies and managers is to create a work environment that is comfortable for all age groups, yet still attracts a new crop of workers. The youngest group, called Generation Y, numbers about 76 million and includes people born, roughly, between 1980 and 2000.
Businesses are struggling to find better ways to appeal to -- and communicate with-- the youngest generation of workers, because attracting that group will become more critical in the coming years as baby boomers retire and GenXers are promoted to higher positions.
Customizing the message
For Mack Lawhon, managing partner and CEO of Dallas accounting firm Weaver and Tidwell LLP, the differences between generations comes down to attention spans. And the just-out-of-college millenials have a very short attention span.
"They're used to video games and television and everything visual, so their attention span is about 90 seconds," Lawhon said. As a result, they're not likely to read a three-page memo or open a four-page spreadsheet, he said.
Company leaders have instituted new technology such as podcasts and on-demand video to reach the younger workers, who are accustomed to getting information in a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week environment.
"They are very frustrated if they can't get the information they need immediately," he said.
Each week, Lawhon himself delivers a different, 90-second announcement video that plays whenever one of the firm's 300 employees boots up their computer.
The company's workers range in age from recent graduates to 64 year olds.
"We've assessed our communication methods to make sure they are relevant," Lawhon said.
Sometimes the behavior of younger generations can fly in the face of older workers. For example, ideas of proper work attire can vary vastly.
When Harl Asaff and her husband, Jim, founded SmartShield Sunscreens 12 years ago, the company didn't have a dress code. But when one former worker reported to the company's Dallas office in shorts and flip-flops every day, a dress code was implemented.
"We're not strict by any means," Asaff said. "But I certainly never showed up like that for work."
SmartShield sells its specially formulated sunscreen products to transportation departments and golf courses and other businesses whose workers need heavy-duty sun protection.
Adapting management styles
Having different generations in the workplace is good for business, because adding to a company's diversity ultimately makes it stronger, said John Reed, Dallas regional vice president of staffing giant Robert Half International.
Those who supervise people with different life experiences often adapt their management style to a particular professional's needs, he said.
Sometimes called echo boomers, or millennials, 20-something Generation Y workers crave mentoring and flexible work schedules that promote work/life balance and allow time for volunteer efforts. They tend to communicate through e-mail and instant messaging, which is not necessarily an approach favored by other generations in the workplace.
Their fellow workers are a part of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980; the baby boom generation, born between 1945 to 1964 ; and senior workers born prior to 1945. Bridging four generations in the workplace is a challenge, said Eddie Hightower, vice president in the Dallas office of Gevity HR Inc., a Florida-based human resources outsourcing company that maintains regional offices in Dallas.
The key is finding out what motivates each group and adjusting company communication methods and activities to inspire them.
"Managers have to be more adept," Hightower said. Millennials, for example, are more likely to respond to an offer of additional time off after a complex project, while baby boomer employees, accustomed to doing whatever it takes to get ahead, might respond more favorably to a financial bonus.
Members of Generation X, the nation's first so-called latchkey kids, are accustomed to more independence, and respond to communication styles and policies that acknowledge that.
The key for companies is to have a plan to manage and retain diverse groups of workers, Hightower said. "Sticking your head in the sand won't work."
Managing different generations in the workplace is "challenging, interesting and exhilarating," said Jim Thompson, president of The InSource Group, a Dallas-based technology staffing and consulting firm.
Although the groups have different expectations and different behaviors in the workplace, companies shouldn't assume that a broad initiative to address a particular group will reach every individual.
Baby boomers are accustomed to a command-and-control environment, for example, and are comfortable with structure. Succeeding generations are less so.
Generation X-ers are self-oriented, self-reliant and self-sufficient. They want to know what needs to get done, want to focus on that and then get on with their lives.
"They may not react well to meetings or teams," Thompson said.
Generation Y, on the other hand, is all about technology.
"They're early adopters of everything," Thompson said, and derive information from nontraditional media sources. They're also looking for relationships with their bosses, rather than just being prepared to follow orders.
"The question is how to provide the right kind of leadership to motivate people," he said. "You can't underestimate what each generation brings to the table. That creates a stronger organization and is definitely worth the effort."
One local company has a number of programs in place to captivate its young work force, including free snacks, sodas, coffee and even dinners. Gearbox Software, an independent video game development studio, also pays 100% of worker's health and dental insurance premiums and pays 40% of product royalties to its employees.
The company's work force spans the ages of 21 to 52, with 80% of the employees age 37 and younger. As a result, the company is structured in a way to appeal to younger workers, who often prefer a later work schedule, more flexibility and a more casual environment.
"Even though they may not come to work until 10 a.m. and they are wearing a T-shirt, jeans and flip-flops, they still manage to accomplish their goals and make very successful games," said Stacie Wren, human resources director. "In fact, I've seen some of these 21-year-old employees work harder and work longer hours than some of the corporate professionals I've worked with in the past."
Attracting younger workers is vital for companies looking to replace retiring baby boomers.
Accounting giant KPMG LLP is putting more thought than ever before into reaching prospective summer interns, hoping that some of them will return to the company full-time once they enter the work force.
It's a critical effort for the company. In Dallas, 80% of the company's new hires come from its intern classes, said J. Scott Wilson, partner in charge of recruiting for the Southwest region.
About 98% of those offered a position accept it.
The new hires are the largest group of employees. The company employs about 1,300 in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and about 10% are interns.
To attract and motivate younger workers, it's important to recognize their interests. They're looking for relationships with people in the company, so it's important to provide mentoring, Wilson said. In response to the group's need for work-life balance, KPMG offers a generous vacation plan.
Technology, rather than dividing the groups of employees, is bridging the gap at KPMG. "We all have BlackBerrys," Wilson said, so it's not just the young people who use the handheld devices to send text messages. That use of technology has actually helped to erase traditional barriers between the different employee groups.
This article appeared in the Dallas Business Journal - September 7, 2007
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