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Tackling 3 Technology Challenges of Intergenerational Workplaces

Intergenerational Workplaces

Intergenerational Workplaces

As part of Solutions Review’s Contributed Content Seriesa collection of contributed articles written by our enterprise tech thought leader community—Simon Haighton-Williams, the CEO of The Adaptavist Group, talks about the “digital divides” between intergenerational workplaces and shares insights on how companies can address the challenges they face. 

Before the advent of AI and the concept of four-day workweeks, enterprises struggled with divides among their multigenerational workforces. While much of that past division was fueled by generational stereotypes, recent data from The Adaptavist Group’s fourth annual Digital Etiquette: Mind the Generational Gap study highlights technology’s role in intergenerational conflicts as workplaces balance four working generations for the first time.

One significant finding from our study found that different age groups experience varying levels of familiarity and comfort with technology, with 92 percent of knowledge workers facing conflicts over digital tools. Past research conducted by the Pew Research Center supports this data as well. Their findings illustrate that younger adults outperform older colleagues in tasks requiring digital skills, such as using social media or troubleshooting electronic devices.

On the other hand, older workers typically excel in a wide variety of soft skills, such as communication, empathy, and interpersonal relations. Years of experience in various professional and personal contexts have honed their ability to navigate complex social dynamics, resolve conflicts, and build meaningful relationships.

Don’t just take it from me; according to Tom Strong, Director of Employer Activation for the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, older workers possess various sought-after skills, including communication, creative problem-solving, innovation, collaboration and teamwork, and conflict management. “Mature workers tend to come with experience and soft skills honed over decades of employment,” Strong said. “Some have technical skills already but may need to be introduced to next-gen. technology fields.”

However, considering that more than half of companies employ three or more generations, now is the time to examine how each generation interacts with technology differently. Organizations need to harness the real benefits of different age groups’ unique thinking and use of technology, which can drive businesses and innovation forward.

Technical Approach: Differences in generational working styles and digital savviness

One of the primary challenges in bridging the ‘digital divide,’ or differences in generational work styles regarding technology, is understanding that it doesn’t only apply to new technology. Efficacy with legacy technology is also a vital part of any workplace. For instance, 51 percent of Gen Z respondents admire their older colleagues’ phone confidence, while much of Gen Z is racked with ‘phone phobia.’

However, older generations’ mastery of older technology can also frustrate younger teammates. Over half of Gen Z respondents cited frustration toward older colleagues as a result of the perception that older workers impede progress by relying on outdated techniques.

There does appear to be some semblance of common ground when it comes to email, which remains the number one application for 66 percent of all workers across generations. Perhaps the best attribute a tool can possess is longevity—email has been a tried-and-true form of communication for decades, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an office of workers who are unfamiliar with it. But, despite most generations knowing how to use email, adhering to communication standards when interacting through email can get a little nebulous without firmly established rules.

Communication Breakdown: Getting lost in translation

It wasn’t a huge surprise that our research found that 43 percent of respondents struggle with misinterpretations of tone or context when engaging in digital communication with their teammates today. As teams increasingly rely on digital tools for communication and collaboration, a staggering 92 percent of knowledge workers admitted to experiencing conflicts arising from their use. More alarmingly, 60 percent acknowledge that these disagreements impede productivity and teamwork, highlighting the urgent need for more precise communication standards across generations in the digital realm.

Unfortunately, without adequate training and when teams feel they must adhere to ‘unwritten rules’ at work, enterprises jeopardize their productivity goals and inadvertently establish a breeding ground for toxicity. Although technology undoubtedly offers immense potential for enhancing productivity and collaboration in the modern workplace, its practical implementation requires a nuanced understanding of intergenerational dynamics and a concerted effort to bridge the digital divide.

Considering this information, it’s evident that intergenerational workplaces face a communication paradox—while older knowledge workers are more adept at professionally communicating, younger workers are more comfortable and often better with the modern communication used on collaborative platforms, such as Slack and Microsoft Teams.

Everybody’s Doing It: AI adoption and concerns 

Unlike past tech disruptions, which occurred gradually, today’s workplace is being reshaped by technology at an unprecedented pace. Previous technological shifts, like the introduction of the Internet or email, happened over the years or even decades. But today, technology like AI is going from niche to the most important technology in the enterprise in a matter of months, demanding continuous learning from workers. For example, Gen Z leads AI adoption at 32 percent, while 12 percent of workers over 50 leverage AI platforms like ChatGPT and Claude.

As AI usage skyrockets at an unprecedented pace, so too is a deep concern among 65 percent of knowledge workers who fear AI may exacerbate existing divides. Indeed, companies need to be cautious about allowing new technology like AI to drive an unnecessary wedge between age groups. Therefore, the focus should be on fostering human connections around the tool and mutual understanding of its application and impact across the workforce.

For example, 68 percent of knowledge workers believe AI can accelerate Gen Z’s ascendancy in the workplace, highlighting the need for reverse mentoring around using AI for older generations. That said, there is little doubt that managing the multigenerational workforce is more crucial than ever as AI enters our lives and poses a greater risk of dehumanizing interactions between generations.

Ultimately, the challenge for employers in addressing the digital divide for intergenerational workplaces and their use of technology is threefold: to create a culture that values individual contributions, encourages cohesive teamwork, and respects generational diversity without resorting to stereotypes.

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