Managing the smart city generation gap

- Posted on May 24, 2021

Recognising that one size doesn’t fit all and knowing how to take advantage of the benefits of cross-generational teams, are critical to a healthy and productive workplace.

 With five generations in the workplace at the same time – each bringing different types of skills and expectations – managing age-diverse teams is becoming a skillset in itself.

Traditionalists (the Silent generation 1928-1945) have mostly left and baby boomers (1946-1964) are preparing their retirement plans, taking years of experience with them. Members of Generation X (1965-1979) are replacing them, often already in leadership positions, but the bulk of the people on the ground – the doers – are now millennials (1980-1995).

In the smart city sector, where digital and IoT technologies are integrated into urban infrastructure, we mainly see Generation X (Gen X) and millennials (also called Gen Y) working together. It won’t be long before millennials represent more than 50 per cent of the workforce and they are already managing teams with Gen X members.

Millennials around the world

 Millennials are known by different labels around the world: in Sweden, they are called Generation Curling (reportedly because obstacles have been cleared from their path); in Norway they are Generation Serious; in Poland they are known as Generation John Paul II; in China they are referred to as the the “little emperors” or “the generation that eats the old”; and the Japanese describe them as nagara–zoku, “the people who are always doing two things at once”.

Getting the best out of both Gen X and Millennials can be a challenge with tensions arising in companies that don’t recognise the differences that exist in working styles across these two generations. According to research by global professional services firm PWC, two-thirds (65 per cent) of millennials said they felt that rigid hierarchies and outdated management styles failed to get the most out of younger recruits and almost half (46 per cent) thought that their managers did not always understand the way they use technology in their work.

Many companies selling smart city solutions to the public sector struggle with an ageing and costly workforce. As a result, they come to us to find younger talent who better understand the technology and how it can be deployed. The younger generation, however, often lack understanding and knowledge in areas like governance and haven’t yet developed the social and communication skills which play a key role in public sector sales cycles.

The first step towards bridging the generation gap at work is to truly accept that age no longer equates to seniority. It wasn’t so long ago that age and the number of years in the company were key factors in workplace promotion. As such, positions of authority are no longer a given as you get older. And knowledge of technologies, ability to use social media, and emotional intelligence, have also become base requirements for many senior roles.

Recognising that one size doesn’t fit all, as well as understanding how to take advantage of the wealth of skills and experience that cross-generational teams bring, are critical to a healthy and productive workplace.

Focus on similarities

Every opportunity should be taken to mix teams generationally and emphasise similarities in needs and expectations. Some management practices perfectly suit both age groups. For instance, Gen X and millennials alike appreciate a commitment to work-life balance and flexible and remote working opportunities.

They both prefer to be rewarded by results rather than by the number of hours worked or where they work from. This is good news as the global trend is towards offices becoming meeting spaces and mobile working ever more mainstream. As the first generation to use the word “fun” to describe their dream job, they tend to ask for more office and team interaction than Gen X.

Both generations like to engage their entrepreneurial spirit, even though millennials will tend to speak up more freely and don’t like to compromise their values. Both generations also want to be trusted with the flexibility to determine their own ways of working and want their opinions and views to be heard through open and direct communication channels.

In the smart city recruitment sector, Kurrant Talent sees most sales-related roles as home-based with the ability to reach an international airport or a company office within less than one hour. This is appealing for both generations.

Differing management strategies

Gen X employees (41 years to 56 years-old) are most comfortable focusing on task-based projects, working independently with a good balance of face-to-face or phone conversations and online communication. Ensure you speak to them directly and talk through any issues rather than quick text messaging or emailing.

Having already experienced many years of team-building and kick-off seminars of all kinds, this generation likes to be allowed a life outside work. Make sure that you give them occasional recognition in front of others, typically on special company events.

Gen X views promotion as a reward and welcomes the old way of moving up the hierarchy. It also sees the value of company loyalty, motivation and two-way, long-term commitment. Gen X is also more willing to compromise on its values than millennials in order to pursue career progression and individual success.

On the other side, millennials will tend to bring out their best in team settings. They need to feel that they are making a difference in the world and that their work is aligned with their personal values. They also have a tendency to believe in civic duty. As the generation of immediate gains, they prefer to understand the value of investing their time in a project and how it fits into the bigger picture.

At the same time, managers need to demonstrate that they are not only listening to their ideas but also implementing them. Much more than Gen X, millennials crave regular feedback, praise on every achievement and expect to use their creativity at work. They like clear targets as well as regular and structured follow-up. For all their expertise in technology and collaboration, though, millennials often require training in fundamental areas such as workplace behaviour, communication styles and culture.

As a manager of a millennial, you need to adopt a transparent and straightforward communication style. For example, you might want to host a weekly drop-in session with the leadership team, where anyone can pose questions to the C-suite executives. Millennials also value 360-degree feedback, where they have the opportunity to assess their managers and provide upstream feedback.

Having fun at work is also a common expectation for millennials as they really embody the sentiment that life is too short to be stuck in a dead-end job. This typically translates into more frequent off-site team events or giving them the power to choose to work on the projects that interest them most.

The smart city sector offers a rich ecosystem of people and projects to engage talent and provide ongoing learning opportunities. As millennials are hungry for the next challenge and need frequent incentives, working or managing diverse teams is a strong motivator to them and they would welcome the prospect of changing roles every two to three years. It is good practice to put millennials on rotational assignments more frequently to give them a sense that they are moving toward something and gaining a variety of experiences.

Accelerating globalisation over recent decades means they are also accepting and embracing of different cultures and seek diversity in the workplace. While Gen X hoped for work-life balance, millennials expect it as the norm. They are also much more confident when it comes to challenging the system and expressing their thoughts and concerns as they see their managers as equal.

Millennials have a strong appetite for working overseas and PWC’s research revealed the majority (70 per cent) expect to do an overseas assignment during their career. This is great news for many employers looking with global aspirations. Millennials place destinations like the US, UK and Australia at the top of their wish list but only 11 per cent are willing to work in India and two per cent in mainland China. Despite this, more than half said they would be willing to work in a less developed country to further their career. 

It is important that managers emphasise the opportunity for millennials to learn, change roles, have fun and view their workplace as a second home. Having grown up in the on-demand era, where information, products and services are available either instantaneously or extremely quickly, millennials expect managers to truly act on their promises while Gen X will tend to be more patient and understanding.

Shared goals and learning

Another strategy that can be effective is to frequently emphasise shared goals. By doing so, both older and younger employees can see themselves as part of the same team working towards the same outcome. Indeed, focusing on commonalities or a common direction can reduce perceptions of us versus them and can create or reinforce a sense of “we”. Design an exercise that involves an equally staffed Gen X and millennials project team that jointly defines the team vision and shared objectives and aims.

Beyond defining the strategic vision, it is sensible to consciously mix generations when building project teams and define roles according to each other’s strengths. The underlying concept is that these two generations learn from each other on every occasion in a mentor-mentee relationship upwards and downwards.

With this two-way mentoring, Gen X can typically improve their digital and collaborative skills, while millennials can work on their interpersonal and concentration skills, understanding that public sales cycles require considerable patience and adequate means of communication.

When there is recognised learning on both sides, there will be more respect and awareness of the different skills and experience that everyone brings to the table.

Managing cross-cultural, -generational and -behavioural styles as well as different personality types requires managers to be agile, tolerant and emotionally intelligent. Clearly, it as much about EQ (emotional quotient) than about IQ (intelligence quotient). But seeing things from the other person’s point of view and gaining perspective is one of the most difficult skills to acquire.

This is where HR has a role to play to bring generations together by providing line managers with clear guidelines and insights on their team composition and openly addressing the issue from a talent optimisation perspective.





















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