Successfully managing a laboratory requires a wide range of skills and knowledge. One of the most challenging parts of laboratory management is managing and leading the people. One of the many different aspects of leading people is addressing the challenges of a multigenerational workplace. Different generations in the laboratory bring different expectations, needs, and assumptions. Our challenge as laboratory managers is to synthesize a cohesive community from the people spanning these different generations.
The five generations
Today’s laboratory can have up to five different generations participating in the work. These generations are defined by their birth years:
- Silent Generation (1928 – 1945)
- Baby Boomers (1946 – 1964)
- Generation X (1965 – 1980)
- Millennials (1981 – 1996)
- Generation Z (1997 – 2012)
In most of today’s laboratories, baby boomers, generation X, and millennials provide the vast majority of the staff. There are still a few silent generation folks in the workforce, and generation Z is just now reaching the workplace.
As the baby boomers retire, millennials are now the most populous generation in the workplace. Generation X was never a very big generation and the baby boomers are likely to hold on to their authority and leadership until the millennials are ready. In many workplaces, generation X is likely to be overlooked as the large cohort of millennials take on leadership and authority.
The silent generation is known for strong fundamentals, strong core values, and diligent financial habits. They don’t complain, don’t ask for much, work hard, and respond when asked. The name of their generation adequately explains their behavior in the workplace. They spent their developing years in a world of want, driven by the Great Depression and World War II. They understand dedication, cooperation, and loyalty. Baby boomers grew up in the post-war expansion, and the rise of the US as a superpower.
Key characteristics of baby boomers include:
- Value workplace visibility
- Equate authority with experience
- Define themselves by their job
Baby boomers expected to rule the world and have largely done so. As a very large generation, they have always had to compete and to develop skills and talents to enable them to rise. Being part of the prosperity of the post-war years, they are generally optimistic and believe they can turn things around and drive improvements with hard work.
Generation X is the small generation sandwiched between the baby boomers and millennials. Generation X watched their parents struggle with lay-offs and the loss of employee retention programs like pensions as shareholder value became the watchword of capitalism. Generation X tends to be more individualistic, flexible, value balance in life, and ready to enjoy life. They don’t show the same loyalty to companies that previous generations did. Being the first generation to grow up in a digital world, they are also very tech savvy.
Millennials are now the largest generation in the workplace. They grew up with helicopter, or snowplow, parents who have helped them every step of the way. Those parents also structured their lives as children with camps and sports, so they live highly structured lives and are team-oriented. Millennials tend to focus on development, thrive on learning new job skills, want flexibility, ask countless questions, and seem to need constant feedback. They are highly educated and also are burdened with large student debt. Millennials are the first generation to grow up with mobile phones and are digital communicators. They sometimes seem unaware of non-verbal clues, which leads to communication issues with older teammates.
For many of us, generation Z is just entering the workforce. Early indications suggest that generation Z will prefer more traditional communication, have a desire to work more as individuals, be more motivated by stability, and are naturally competitive. They have parents who may not have been able to build better lives than their parents, and are the first US generation to not have that expectation. They also can’t imagine living without a cell phone and have mobile-first habits.
Elements of managing a multigenerational staff
Many of the leadership practices that we employ around other forms of employee diversity will also work well with generational diversity. Here are some practices that may help you address generational diversity in your laboratory.
Combining people from different generations into teams is a great way to expose staff to different ways of working and to the different strengths that each generation provides. As these teams begin to perform, they will exhibit the strengths of the diverse members and those complementary strengths will enable weaknesses to be covered. A team approach also helps mitigate some of the communication issues. The older team members will provide traditional face-to-face and telephone communication and the younger mobile-ready folks will introduce more digital communication to the team.
As laboratory managers, can we be sufficiently flexible to connect to the needs of our generationally diverse staff? We need to become comfortable with a wide range of communication styles and formats. We can use workplace flexibility around schedules, remote work, and work style to get the best from our staff. By demonstrating flexibility on a wide range of topics, we can satisfy the diverse needs of our multigenerational workforce.
Mentoring is a great way to share important information between people at work. We often think of mentoring as the older, more experienced people showing the young people the ropes, which is still important. However, mentoring can be much more than this. We can also use flash mentoring to share skills, like digital communication, from those who are tech savvy to those who think differently. The more we can get those who know to show others, the better our teams will perform.
Not everyone wants the same things we want, or does things the way we would. Our laboratories will benefit from our ability to accept that some things might be different—and acceptable. That could mean utilizing more digital communication, understanding that the young person wants more time off to travel, knowing that some people want your feedback weekly, and some are happy to only talk about their performance at an annual performance review. If we can ensure that the outcome serves the organization’s mission, then there may be many different ways to get there. By balancing the needs of the organization with the many ways to deliver them, we can build trust with our staff.
Making time to be available to talk with staff is vital. While all laboratory managers have many things to do each day, prioritize some time to leave the door open. By listening to people, we can learn about them and from them. Listening to their ideas, concerns, and needs helps reduce the barriers between people. In addition, going out to see them in their space can also be very powerful. Many good things happen by using management by walking around. Listening while in their space enables small bits of advice to help things along and discovers problems and issues while they are small and more easily addressed.
Take some time to get to know the staff as people. Understand their needs, desires, and wishes. Getting to know them as people will also reduce the misunderstandings associated with assumptions and generalizations coming from generational differences. The tendencies ascribed to different generations are generalizations. Individuals may not conform to these generalizations. It is important that we recognize people from other generations as people, not as labels.
Working with many generations in the laboratory can be very rewarding. Each generation brings different strengths to the organization. As a baby boomer myself, many of my peers often complain about working with millennials. They consider them immature and lacking propriety. As our laboratory grew and we hired more millennials, I had a very different experience. I found their constant questioning, constant challenging, and desire for feedback refreshing. They asked questions and challenged things that I never would have done at their age, but they asked good and important questions. Addressing their questions helped improve the business. Also, their willingness to share very personal information with each other helped build equality in the business. Management could no longer treat people differently and expect those secrets to be kept.
While each generation has important generalized differences, so much is still consistent between workers of very different ages. People still expect to be treated fairly, be paid appropriately, have some autonomy at work, be able to find life balance, and get help developing their skills. Recognizing that much of leading the people in the laboratory is independent of generation can help us remain calm in the face of generational differences.
- Paychex, web article “How to manage the 5 generations in the workplace” https://www.paychex.com/articles/human-resources/how-to-manage-multiple-generations-in-the-workplace, 26 July 2019
- Indeed Web Career Guide “Characteristics of “Baby Boomer” professionals” https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/finding-a-job/baby-boomer-characteristics, 12 December 2019
- The Balance Careers web article “Common Characteristics of Generation X Professionals” https://www.thebalancecareers.com/common-characteristics-of-generation-x-professionals-2164682, by Sally Kane, 12 December 2019
- Business Know How web article “Characteristics of Millennials in the workplace” https://www.businessknowhow.com/manage/millenials.htm, by Terri Klass and Judy Lindenberger, 21 February 2020
- Better team web article “5 Traits of Gen Z in the Workplace” https://www.betterteam.com/5-traits-of-gen-z-in-the-workplace, 17 July 2019
- Zaharee, Marcie & Lipkie, Tristan & Mehlman, Stewart & Neylon, Susan. (2018). Recruitment and Retention of Early-Care Technical Talent: What Young Employees Want from Employers A study of the workplace attributes that attract early-career workers suggests that Millennials may not be so different from earlier generations. Research-Technology Management. 61. 51-61.