As many people now work beyond retirement age, there may be up to five generations and a 50-year age difference in today's workplaces. A 17-year-old may struggle to communicate effectively with a 67-year-old co-worker, but new research by recruitment firm Randstad NZ reveals that bridging the generation gap by opening communication channels brings many benefits, including gaining a competitive advantage.

Katherine Swan, Randstad NZ's country director, says its latest Workmonitor report looked at the benefits of employing a multi-generational workforce and found that businesses who embrace age diversity are more agile when it comes to problem solving, creativity and idea generation.

"The good news is that Kiwi businesses are enthusiastically embracing age-diverse workplaces," she says, "with 88 per cent of us preferring to work as part of a multi-generational team, which better places us to come up with innovative ideas and solutions. However, three-quarters of us also believe the biggest challenge is in finding channels of communication between the generations."

Nan Dow, executive practice director of Randstad company RiseSmart Australia and NZ, says that given we are working in a more complex environment with many businesses managing up to five generations of workers, there's much to be gained by striving for a culture that brings out the best across generations.

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"These generational differences are quite literally the 'future of work' and having such a rich and diverse talent pool can be a huge advantage for businesses. In order to create a positive culture that gets work done, businesses need to encourage employees to look beyond preconceived stereotypes and bias."

The findings showed that 85 per cent of Kiwis believe collaboration between different generations is mutually beneficial.

The Chorus Experience of Age Diversity

When multiple generations collaborate on projects at Chorus, it provides greater diversity of thought — unlocking creativity and different approaches to problem solving. "Having a diverse range of ages also helps us to relate to our customer base," says operational development advisor Philippa Powell.

"Millennials and younger employees provide new skills and ideas that are essential in the telco industry as technology continues to evolve. Mature workers are also a highly skilled and valued group of people because their substantial technical and specialist expertise means they can share knowledge and act as mentors for our younger workforce."

With the report finding the biggest challenge in multi-generational workplaces to be the difference in communication styles between young and mature workers, Swan says different demographics should be aware of contrasting styles that are expected and appropriate within the workplace.

"This includes different formats, media, regularity of communications and appropriate terminology. An example of this difference in communication styles is during the recruitment process. Most people forget their target audience."

Interestingly, it was millennials — Kiwis aged 18-34 — who struggled the most with communication, 38 per cent finding it difficult to connect with co-workers from other generations.

"When entering the workforce, millennials are often less experienced and have had fewer opportunities than mature workers to collaborate with a diverse group of people," explains Swan. This correlates with the finding that only 13 per cent of Generation X and Baby Boomers — Kiwis aged 45-67 — cited the same concerns, with most feeling quite comfortable communicating with co-workers from different generations.

"Compared to millennials, these demographics often have more experience of dealing with a diverse range of individuals," says Swan. "They're usually confident in their communication styles and have spent more years working across teams, projects and organisations."

Swan believes businesses need to open up avenues of communication between generations and encourage understanding of different communication styles to achieve cohesion.

"Organisations need to be aware that different communication styles exist and should work on creating different platforms where all employees feel comfortable. Ensuring there are multiple channels of communication, for example 'town hall' events instead of one-on-ones, internal communication portals and webinars, does assist in bridging communication gaps.

Town hall events offer an informal environment in which senior leadership can share company performance and responses to competition, in addition to answering questions from their employees. They are an ideal platform to bring the generations together to share milestones, discuss new plans, and clarify topics of concern."

When it comes to career progression opportunities, the report found that mature age can be seen as both a challenge and an opportunity. Currently, just over half of Kiwis feel that younger employees have more career progression opportunities than the more mature workforce, while almost half believe the generations are treated differently by their managers. Swan says employers can put actions in place to ensure employees of different generations are being treated consistently and fairly, and are being given equal opportunities for career progression.

"Employers need to ensure there are strong training and development, recruitment and review processes in places for all employers regardless of demographics. Organisational leaders need to ensure their management teams are skilled in communicating and developing employees across diverse teams."

The findings also showed that although 61 per cent of respondents prefer their direct manager to be older than themselves, 86 per cent believe their direct manager's age doesn't matter as long as they're inspirational.

And it seems that most managers are getting it right. The majority of respondents said their direct manager was talented at working across the generations and cared about staff career paths.

The five workplace generations

● Traditionalists — born before 1946
● Baby Boomers — born between 1946 and 1964
● Generation X — born between 1965 and 1976
● Generation Y or Millennials — born between 1977 and 1997
● Generation Z — born after 1997.