Playing the generation game

Written by
Changeboard Team

23 Feb 2015

23 Feb 2015 • by Changeboard Team

Generational differences

People are living and working longer. This global trend is up there with the most prominent workplace changes we can expect in the coming years. According to the latest Government figures, there will be five-and-a-half million more over-65s in the UK in 20 years’ time, which will double to around 19 million by 2050. All of which means that we must focus now on an issue already firmly established in the workplace: generational difference.

Conferences and column inches have been dedicated to the rise of Generation Y, their symbiosis with technology and how to attract and retain young talent coming into the workplace. However, it’s not only the skills of the youngest in the working population that need to be unlocked to create an environment where every age can contribute and succeed.

Learning from different generations

Like Generation Y, the other three of the United Nations’ working age population groups – Generation X, baby boomers and traditionalists – all have different experiences, motivations, skills and outlooks, which result from growing up in particular times under particular influences. It is crucial an organisation recognises these distinctions.

With 35,000 employees across the UK and Ireland working across six sectors, Sodexo has a broad range of age groups working in a diverse number of locations.

To facilitate a better understanding of generational differences the work stream launched the ‘Generations’ employee network in the UK and Ireland in October, which will explore how we can maximise our employees’ skills.

For us, understanding and responding to generational differences between employees is just as paramount as adapting our offers to end users. Our people serve up to one million customers a day, from school pupils to students to soldiers to prisoners and right up to elderly patients in hospitals. Different ages, different experiences. This is why Generations is one of six work streams in our diversity and inclusion approach, each of which has an executive level sponsor and work stream leader.

Engaging across age groups

Of course, not everyone of a similar age has identical behaviours, but by giving our people a grounding in the broader wants and needs of different generations, we can give them a better understanding of our customers, clients and each other.

 One of the first areas the Generations employee network will probe is why under-30s may not feel as engaged with the company as others. Initially the network will run focus groups.

Our employee engagement score on diversity and inclusion is 14% above the national average, but we find those under 30 are the least engaged. Research shows Generation Y enters work seeking instant challenge, feedback and recognition, which may be harder to find in companies with a culture more aligned to the hierarchical tendencies of earlier generations. We believe through facilitating better understanding we can change that.

With more than 200 employees signed up by the launch date, the Generations network will look to address further idiosyncrasies of generational difference as it matures. Retaining talent after maternity leave and managing work-life balance as a carer are but two factors we want to analyse.

Encouraging engagement

A more unique challenge to Sodexo is our employees are based primarily on client sites, meaning less access to their own dedicated meeting spaces than other large companies. To address this geography and bring the Generations network to life, the work stream produced the GenMatch Game. Almost 2,000 sets have been sent out across the business. The game seeks to overcome the challenge of finding time and space by being a short format, informal way for local managers to introduce teams to the subject of generational difference.

Using common characteristics such as work motivators, clothing styles and attitudes to technology, the GenMatch Game encourages players to discuss the experiences of each generational group. One piece of feedback from a frontline employee shows the kind of reaction the game seeks to provoke:

“I am the youngest in my Sodexo unit and was shocked to see certain quotes matching different generations. It made me notice how we differ, also how many influences we all have. My influence is my dad, he has strong opinions, which makes sense as he is a baby boomer. In my group we all discovered there are so many expectations and experiences related to the workplace and how we move around it.”

By provoking these discussions among staff informally, we can pave the way for them to understand each other, our customers and clients better. Ours is a service industry – a people industry – and people are crucial to our success.