Welcome to FNEI Insights, a blog series where FNEI interviews thought leaders about issues informing sustainable and socially responsible business practices in a variety of industries. This month, we talked to FNEI board member Britton Nohe-Braun, General Counsel for the One Earth Future Foundation, about successfully navigating generational dynamics in a rapidly changing workforce.
Responsive Employers Leverage Individual Strengths, while Respecting Different Communication and Work Styles, Says Multigenerational Advocate and Attorney Britton Nohe-Braun
Everyone wants to be valued and relevant in the workplace. But all too often, organizations miss the opportunity to fully leverage the talents and strengths of people simply by viewing them through the limiting lens of age and generation.
According to the 2020 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends study, 70 percent of organizations say leading a multigenerational workforce is important or very important for their success over the next 12 to 18 months, but only 10 percent say they are very ready to address this trend.
Gina Pell, a tech entrepreneur and creative director, uses the term “perennial” to describe people of any age who have a growth mindset. They’re unifiers, they’re creative and curious they embrace unique talents and differences, and they’re sensitive to the unconscious biases associated with different generations.
FNEI board member Britton Nohe-Braun, General Counsel for the One Earth Future Foundation, considers herself a perennial, having spent most of her legal career successfully navigating generational dynamics, starting as a mid-level associate at a large law firm where she had to interact with junior associates and staff in their 20s and 30s to senior partners in their 50s and older.
“Each generation has a different working and communicating style. I found that it was helpful at the start of each project to interview my colleagues about their communication preferences and then communicate with them through the mediums they prefer. This has greatly improved communication, productivity and satisfaction across my teams,” she said.
Today, Nohe-Braun provides legal advice to a foundation that funds innovative peacebuilding programs. One Earth Future aspires to a future where sustainable peace is possible. The role brings her into contact with staff and clients of all ages.
Below, she shares her take on multigenerational workplace challenges, how COVID-19 accelerated the need for solutions to enhance worker communication and understanding across the age spectrum, and what organization leaders need to do to bring out the best in today’s increasingly age-diverse workforce.
FNEI: What are the biggest challenges companies face right now with engaging and leading multigenerational teams?
Nohe-Braun: Communication and workstyle. To overgeneralize, younger generations (millennials, Gen Z, younger Gen X) tend to communicate more informally and value more open and friendly communication. Younger generations also prefer to communicate electronically through text, instant messaging platforms and email. They appreciate a more flexible working style that relies on technology to enable productive remote working to accommodate the challenges of raising a family, working full-time, and having a social life. More senior generations (The ‘Silent’ Generation, Baby Boomers, older Gen X) tend to communicate more formally and value hierarchy and a professional work setting. They generally prefer to work in an office setting and communicate by phone, email and paper copy. They typically are not as comfortable with technology and are skeptical of remote working or flexible schedules.
These different communication and work styles can lead to stereotyping and conflict. For example, more senior generations may view young generations as entitled and lazy and younger generations may view more senior generations as inflexible and insensitive to their personal and professional needs. These negative judgments about one another can create conflict in the workplace and detract from the larger goals of the organization.
FNEI: What are some of the economic disparities you see between different generations right now?
Nohe-Braun: Studies show that Gen Z and Millennials are in a much worse economic situation than their older colleagues were at that stage in their career. Rising house prices, education costs, healthcare costs mean that the younger generations are often strapped with debt, whereas old generations had much less debt and were able to buy assets, such as homes and stock, that have appreciated and generated considerable wealth. This economic disparity can lead to resentment from the younger generations who feel that they are underpaid and undervalued.
FNEI: How did the pandemic accelerate the need to come up with creative solutions to engage and lead multigenerational teams?
Nohe-Braun: The pandemic forced many organizations (including mine) to shift to full-time remote work for all employees. Companies had to scramble to implement technological solutions to enable employees to communicate and effectively work together. This transition was likely easier on the younger generations who are typically more familiar with these technologies and more comfortable trying out new technologies. At least at my organization, the older generations struggled at first and were concerned that working from home would result in a decline in productivity.
Fortunately, these colleagues came around to the idea of working from home and were pleasantly surprised to see that their colleagues were just as productive — if not more productive — working from home. Employees were typically more willing to take calls outside of traditional working hours because they saved time by not commuting and were able to take care of personal chores and errands throughout the day as needed.
As a management team, it felt like everyone had compromised and agreed upon the same communication mediums for the first time: 100 percent electronic, which pleased the younger generations, complemented with Zoom/Microsoft Teams calls which fulfilled the old generations desire for ‘in-person’ and oral communication. Everyone also seemed to agree on the same work style — available during work hours (pleasing the older generations) with the flexibility to run a quick errand/take care of the children (which met the needs of the younger generations) and more after-hours availability for quick or urgent tasks.
FNEI: Have you noticed any companies or organizations who are really getting it right when it comes to engaging different age groups?
Nohe-Braun: Companies that get it right acknowledge the different communication and working styles of the generations and then provide a range of tools and solutions that accommodate these different styles. Also, companies that take advantage of the older generations’ experience to provide younger leaders with the mentorship and professional development they crave get it right.
Finally, I also applaud firms that go the extra mile to encourage each generation to use their strengths to complement the strengths of the other generations. For example, encouraging the Millennial executive to come up with technological solutions while encouraging the Baby Boomer executive to provide mentorship from their years of experience.
FNEI: How should C-suite executives approach the issue of a multigenerational workforce? What are some of the factors they should consider?
Nohe-Braun: C-suite executives should become familiar with the different communication and work styles of each generation in the workplace. They should find ways to leverage the strengths and weaknesses of each generation to create a well-rounded executive team that complements one another instead of one that struggles with the inherent conflict between their differences. This approach requires them to develop solutions that are friendly to the different communication and work styles of each generation and assign roles to individuals that leverage their strengths.
FNEI: What are the benefits of having several generations in one workforce at the same time? How can they influence, inspire, and challenge each other?
Nohe-Braun: The biggest benefit is a well-rounded and diverse workforce. Baby Boomers’ significant years of work experience is complicated by the energy and creativity of Millennials and Gen Z who are keen to find solutions that maximize flexibility and personal time. A multigenerational workforce is also ideal with mentor/mentee relationships that are often rewarding to both parties and strengthen morale and professional development.
FNEI: Anything else you’d like to add?
Nohe-Braun: COVID-19 and the sudden shift to working remotely has forced many organizations to reconsider best practices for communication and collaboration. With stakeholders from each generation (hopefully) involved in these discussions. I’m excited to see what creative solutions these businesses come up with to address the needs of employees of all ages. I suspect we will see some positive and long-lasting changes to how colleagues engage with one another.
How Gen X Is the Key to Making Intergenerational Magic, Not Warfare, Lindsey Galloway, Chief.com
- How to Deal with Generational Differences in the Workplace in 2021, LENSA Insights