HomeEmployee ExperienceDEI&BDiversity & InclusionChanging the conversation about age in the workplace

Changing the conversation about age in the workplace

  • 4 Min Read

Working with different generations means differing expectations and desires. How can business leaders create an environment where everyone can work to the best of their ability? 

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Statistics and projections produced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have long shown that the UK’s population is ageing. Their latest projections show that in 50 years, there are likely to be an additional 8.6 million people aged 65 years and over. People are living longer means that people are working for longer. Consequently, the conversation around how businesses manage an ageing workforce needs to change in order to boost business performance and culture

Currently, the average workforce spans four generations. For businesses, a multi-generational workforce has important benefits. Arran Heal, Managing Director, CMP Resolutions, shared his thoughts on how businesses can change the conversation around age by catering to every demographic.

Mismatch matters for every day relationships and performance, and increasingly so as older workers stay longer in their roles and the divide grows. Because, generally speaking, we’re not the good communicators we think we are. 

Despite more than a hundred years of office working, employees still struggle to have ‘good’ conversations – the kind that are genuinely open, reasonable, take other people’s needs into account and aren’t based around politics, fear of disagreement or challenge.

The new ‘normal’ of using digital platforms for instant conversations, increases the availability and volume (in terms of quantity and noise), but only exacerbates the issues involved. Digital media isn’t only a tool made by people; it’s also making people, and how they see and treat each other. This is not only changing how we work, but also the rules of workplace life. Little worlds based on long-established traditions of behaviour, subtle codes of manners and deference, of implicit trust and nuanced conversations, are being swept away. This creates tensions between generations over behaviours: managers who have to cope with team members with a sense of entitlement to feedback, to air personal opinions, a right to comment on how they are managed – as much as managers have the right to comment on their performance; a lack of respect for age and the experience that goes with it; and as a result, rather than the manners that were used to oil the workplace, we’re seeing more blunt and transactional forms of management. There’s a mix of old and new attitudes and behaviours, a sense of old civilisations and the arrival of the barbarians, the generations of people who speak as they find.

Conversational Intelligence

The ability to have good conversations – or what might be called ‘Conversational Intelligence’ – lies at the heart of the issue. Technology itself is just a tool. What’s needed in organisations is better skills, better processes for encouraging good conversations, an understanding of difference and constructive ways to make the most of those differences.

HR teams can encourage more understanding and awareness of ‘good’ conversations to defuse issues. What matters is having a reasonable and mature, ‘clear air’ culture. Staff at all levels need to have enough trust in the organisation to feel able to be open, knowing that differences of opinion can be useful, and will always be managed constructively. Strong, well-understood and recognised systems for dealing with minor grievances and clashes, for informal paths to mediation, are fundamental – as are all processes that encourage open, face-to-face conversations and communication, that provide a balance to the dependency on digital communications.

Be more present

Managers need to structure their communications and relationships with staff in ways that provide an important element of time, to mitigate against knee-jerk reactions and voicing of instant opinions. That’s why the face-to-face method needs to be used as much as possible. They provide a useful series of pauses to arrange and set up and deliver, ensuring time for reflection and a context where thought and behaviour will be different. And in support of this approach, there needs to be work on ensuring people understand that face-to-face doesn’t just mean bad news. Conversations only improve when they are a natural and regular part of working lives, not as an event – being summoned to a meeting, or into a weekly team slot. Make sure there are consistent messages about expectations of staff in terms of open conversations – and make it clear that support and development are available; encourage senior managers and leaders to be the role models and put more time and resources into supporting people to move towards dialogue with each other and away from escalating their negative feelings.

An older demographic in the workplace is just another form of diversity. And as with all areas of diversity, challenges and prejudices disappear and become irrelevant when they are treated  with open, grown-up conversations.

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