Inside Supply Management Magazine

November / December 2020

Generational Challenges in the (Remote) Workplace

November 10, 2020
By Michael J. Urick, Ph.D., MBA, MS, SHRM-CP, SSGB

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has led to such workplace changes as government-mandated factory shutdowns, social distancing at businesses and work-from-home arrangements. Because most procurement roles have a reduced need to be present in physical workspaces, these types of jobs have been prime targets for continued remote work.

Many companies, however, have been unprepared to facilitate ongoing online-work communications. Organizations where multiple generations work together often experience additional challenges. 

Acknowledging Stereotypes

Multigenerational workplaces aren’t uncommon — and most companies have experienced a dramatic increase in age diversity. Perceptions of differences between generational groups cause communication breakdowns in normal, face-to-face workplaces. So, it makes sense that intergenerational communication breakdowns occur even more frequently and in more extreme ways in remote work. Though issues regarding online workplaces — like concerns about child care for younger employees and age-related COVID-19 infection and recovery   rates for older ones — may plague only particular age groups, negative perceptions of generational groupings are likely to impact all employees.

Interestingly, there is no consensus among generational academic researchers on the prevalence of measurable generational differences. Yet, negative perceptions of individuals of certain ages remain common, and they lead to generational stereotypes, biases and challenging interactions — problems that become all the more difficult in online work environments. Such perceptions, of course, may be simply misperceptions since they might not be reflective of all individuals of a certain age.

In some instances, employees of different ages may avoid online communication with each other. Such a lack of intergenerational interaction causes a breakdown in knowledge transfer, increased stress and conflict, and workplaces that are less efficient and productive.

Many other perceptions can lead to less-than-positive intergenerational communication. Based on nearly a decade of research, I believe two types of perceptions are likely to be the most impactful to poor intergenerational workplace communication during the pandemic: those related to (1) technology and (2) handling of crisis situations. Both perceptions can lead to stereotypes, biases and stigmas — which could demotivate impacted employees and cause them to disengage.

Technology. Perceived technology- use differences are reported by nearly all my interview participants. Often, younger generations are perceived to be more technologically skilled than older generations, despite a lack of empirical evidence. Such perceptions can lead to stereotypes and communication breakdowns, and, as a result, knowledge transfer will not occur as easily, thus decreasing overall organizational performance. Today’s online-work environments, which force businesses to leverage technology more than they did previously, can have an even greater impact on organizational performance due to individuals acting on these perceptions.

Crisis response. Tensions can emerge when workers stereotype older generations as unwilling to try new things or learn new techniques. Another stereotype is that younger generations are inexperienced. Both stereotypes lead to communication breakdowns. Younger employees may assume older colleagues won’t change the way they work (for example, use a technology), while older employees may assume that their younger colleagues are naive and unprepared to face future challenges.

Because COVID-19 is a global crisis that has forced organizations to find new ways of operating, these assumptions may contribute to miscommunication, avoidance and hostile feelings in online workplaces. And these dynamics could continue after the pandemic. 

Improving Generational Communication

Despite these potential intergenerational communication challenges, organizations can take actions to improve the remote-work environment — as well as workplaces of the future, whatever they may entail.

First, communicate consistently and regularly. Talk to colleagues as individuals, not as representatives of a generation. Avoid negative generational assumptions — instead, focus on the person or people you are interacting with. Share your honest experiences, concerns and hopes as you face  ongoing workplace transitions. 

Also, be open about the current state of operations. Explicitly discuss how work has changed. Work together to create new processes that everyone in the workplace is comfortable with. Collaborate with people of other ages — and learn from them — as you determine how to prioritize tasks, leverage technology and find the new normal. If there is a misunderstanding about expectations or work arrangements, ask questions and demand clear communication and honest answers from management.

Training and development are crucial. Seek experts for insights on best practices for navigating the remote-work environment — and transitioning to the “new normal” workplace. Search for a mentor. Find webinars and tutorials that can help you learn additional skills. Online resources can build your knowledge and even help you develop training for your organization. Partnering with employees of different ages to provide training will help improve collaboration and knowledge transfer. 

Most importantly, be empathetic. Many of your colleagues, regardless of generation, continue to be worried about the coronavirus and are having difficulty adjusting to a new lifestyle inside and outside of work. They can use kindness from colleagues.

While these recommendations seem easy, they may prove difficult. This is a stressful and scary time for many people, so it’s critical to be understanding. Finding ways to better collaborate across generations is crucial to companies surviving these challenging times. Multigenerational organizations that learn to facilitate positive interactions now will likely continue thriving in a post-pandemic era.

About the Author

Michael J. Urick, Ph.D., MBA, MS, SHRM-CP, SSGB

About the Author

Michael J. Urick, Ph.D., MBA, MS, SHRM-CP, SSGB, is director of the Master of Science in Management: Operational Excellence program at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He has previously served as president of Institute for Supply Management®’s ISM—Pittsburgh chapter.