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Rick Blabolil
November 12, 2011

Why Understanding Your Multi-Generational Workforce Is Paramount

One of the messages we brought back from the Incentive Marketing Association Executive Summit in August was that the businesses that understand their multi-generational workforce—and respond with appropriate rewards and recognition—will succeed. Those that don’t will struggle. And it all comes back to communication.

You’ve already heard the generational stereotypes: rigid “traditionalists,” spendthrift Boomers, conservative Gen X-ers (maybe a backlash against the Boomers?), and the ever-questioning Generation Y whose need for reasons has given them the nickname “generation ‘why’.” But when we dig a little deeper, we find that beneath these easy labels there’s a lot of information that can help us to engage, motivate and reward every employee in ways that resonate with them. In our work with clients, we see again and again big differences in the ways the generations communicate. Take meetings, which used to be considered the best way to get a message across to a wide audience—and they still are, in some cases. We’ve seen that Baby Boomers love meetings. They love the dialogue, making sure everyone is on the same page, and verifying everything. But meetings can be torture for Generation Y employees, those 29 and younger. They just want quick, concrete, succinct communications: “Tell me what you want and I’ll get the job done. I’ll exceed your expectation. Just don’t hover and don’t tell me how.”

And this brings us to the platform for those communications. Different generations respond positively to different platforms. Here’s an example: One of the panelists at the Summit said he repeatedly called his Generation Y son on the son’s cell phone. The son wasn’t responding. So the father sent an email. Still no response. Finally, he sent a text message. Instant response. Why? The son didn’t want a long phone conversation or to take the time to draft a reply email. “Text me and I’ll give you a quick answer” is what he told his dad. In fact, according to Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 31 percent of all cell phone users prefer texting over phone calls.

So what does this mean for your programs? It means digging deep into the demographics of your workforce to understand the generational make-up. It means re-thinking your program’s communications campaign and feedback loops, and re-crafting them in ways that ensure they resonate with each generation. This will probably mean multiple platforms for the same message: Tweets and Facebook for Gen Y, meetings and maybe webinars for Boomers, memos for Traditionalists. It means revamping your awards. Generally, Boomers have had the privilege of riding a strong economy and have spent accordingly. When we reward a high-performing Boomer with a luxury gift, we’re telling them that we know they enjoy and appreciate the nice things in life. When we reward the achievements of Generation Y employees with generous access to downloadable music, we tell them we understand them. And the Traditionalists in your workforce are most likely to appreciate a more formal, tangible, and probably public, form of recognition.

This sounds complicated, so you might wonder, Is it worth it? Yes it is. When your employees can access your program’s communications in a way that is most comfortable for them, you’ve engaged those employees. It’s important to remember that offering the various means of communication to everyone and letting them choose how they want to be engaged will allow for individuality across and within each generational group. When they receive performance updates through a medium that is integral to their lives outside of work, you’ve engaged and motivated them. And when you recognized their performance with rewards and the kinds of recognition that are meaningful to them, you’ve reinforced that performance and engagement, and probably increased their sense of loyalty as well. Most external marketing campaigns take into consideration audience segmentation and one-to-one messaging. It is time that programs aimed at engaging and impacting employee performance use similar considerations for reaching internal people, one-to-one.

By communicating with, engaging, motivating and rewarding your employees in ways that are meaningful to them, you’ve strengthened your business’s position. According to Gallup, there’s a direct connection between increased employee engagement and ROI. Gallup reports typical gains at the organizational level of nearly 7 percent in quality and nearly 6 percent in safety, for example. In the Gallup meta analysis of 152 organizations, those with world class engagement had 3.9 times the EPS (Earnings Per Share) growth rate.

Increasingly, we find ourselves counseling clients on cross-generational and multi-generational issues affecting their incentive programs.  It’s a dynamic that will grow in importance as the timeframe for generational distinctions shrinks. Do you have insights to share regarding a multi-generational workforce? Just use the textbox below. We’d like to hear from you.

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For one author’s take on social media’s role in analyzing performance:

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