How to Engage Your Multigenerational Workforce through Learning and Development


At a time when Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials (Gen Y) and Gen Z are all working together under the same roof, how can organizations leverage individual generations’ strengths to drive better business performance? In this wide-ranging conversation with Annice JosephOpens a new window of SAP, we explore how organizations can leverage learning and development initiatives to cater to specific generational needs to improve morale, engagement and performance.

For the first time in history, we have five generations working together in the workplace – traditionalists (born before 1945), to Baby Boomers (born between 1946 to 1964), Gen X (1965 to early 1980s), Millennials (early 1980s to mid ‘90s), and Gen Z (mid ‘90s to early ‘00s). This generational diversity presents organizations with a wide range of challenges (and opportunities).

Speaking exclusively to HR Technologist about the key challenges of having a multigenerational workforce under the same roof, Annice JosephOpens a new window , Global Lead for Cross-Generational Intelligence at SAP, says, “There is a general lack of awareness when it comes to multi-generational differences and commonalities. Stereotypes can hinder transparent communication and have the grave potential to harm team productivity. Acting based on assumptions and ignoring commonalities between generations can deteriorate from team bonds and negatively affect collaboration, cooperation and camaraderie.”

To manage a workforce spanning multiple generations, organizations must help each generation understand the other and overcome barriers of ageism, unconscious bias and pre-conceived expectations. Building a culture of continuous learning helps break these barriers, boost morale and improve engagement and performance. 

“Inclusion for all is something that organizations should actively seek to enable in their environments as it is a way to bring people together.  One way to advocate for inclusion between generations is for leaders to encourage new employees to integrate with one another – for example, conducting open and appreciative communication within teams, aligning on goals and reserving time for knowledge transfer. By addressing challenges, surfacing unconscious bias, seeking communication and awareness and creating a community of trust and respect – leaders can play a large part in cultivating an inclusive culture,” adds Joseph.

Multigenerational learning helps employees of different generations collaborate better, and grow and learn from one another. Learning and development programs like mentoring and job shadowing are crucial to leveraging the skills and knowledge of workers across generations. Business leaders like former CEO of GE, Jack Welch, advocated methods like reverse mentoring all the way back in the ‘90s to help older generations learn IT and computer skills from their younger colleagues.

Jeff Van Spankeren, Principal at OneDigitalOpens a new window , believes organizations must access developmental gaps to overcome intergenerational challenges. He says, “Employers can develop initiatives to identify any developmental gaps between their aging workforce and their norm. Employee’s feelings towards their personal advancement or development can be real or perceived. To address these issues, focus groups, surveys, and personal meetings can be conducted to ascertain the necessary information. Once identified, gaps can be bridged through additional training to help level-set employees as best as possible.”

Today, major organizations like SAP, Xerox, Microsoft and IBM have rolled out reverse mentoring programs to encourage multigenerational collaboration, communication and knowledge sharing. One of the biggest advantages of reverse mentoring is that it helps build confidence in younger employees and inspires older generations to learn about new technologies, tools and digital strategies – all of which helps improve business outcomes.

Learn More: 

Top 8 Best Practices for Employee Cross-TrainingOpens a new window

3 Best Practices for Improving Multigenerational Learning:

Each generation has unique learning preferences as well as specific motivators for engaging in the learning process, largely shaped by the educational system, learning methods used at the time they were in school, along with available technologies and popular culture.

Speaking about catering to the unique learning needs of each generation, Spankeren believes, “Employees from different generations learn uniquely and an employer must be open-minded and creative to educate their employees through different, and multiple, mediums and formats. For example, employers can educate via on-site meetings, recorded meetings, on-demand videos, on-demand podcasts or mobile apps, to name a few. The number on question an employer should ask in determining an education strategy is, ‘How do we effectively reach our people?’”

To build a productive multi-generational workforce, organizations must take proactive steps to address unique learning needs. “Today, the need for learning by itself is no longer a one-time effort, it is a continuous and comprehensive process. Understanding that today’s workforce is multi-generational, it is crucial that learning is inclusive of all generations – starting from the very beginning at the onboarding processOpens a new window ,” Joseph opines.

She has identified three best practices that drive significant improvements in learning effectiveness, especially when taking generational differences into account:

1.Personalizing the learning experience

Personalized learning pathways improve retention and application of new knowledge and skills on the job. This approach considers various learning styles, and an employee’s habitual mode of learning. “The first thing organizations need to do is address the learning needs of specific generations. Companies need to ensure that these needs are recognized and considered at all stages of strategic career planning and project transitions. Also, of importance, today, learning is also not limited to course and institutional learning but extends to more interactive learning including e-learning like onboarding apps, gamification and podcasts,” says Joseph.

2.Embracing agile learning methods

Agile learning methods focus on speed, flexibility and collaboration to drive better learning outcomes. Learning KPIs like ‘time-to-proficiency’ have become top priorities for organizations everywhere. Joseph believes that, “in addition to learning being a continuous process, it is also important to be agile when accommodating all learning styles. To be successful, organizations need to create environments where people can un-learn, learn and re-learn. For example, SAP takes into careful consideration all generations represented in its workforce and caters to their unique needs. For example, SAP’s newest employees receive a self-driven, interactive onboarding app (very different than a traditional classroom learning setting). In some cases, SAP offers a combination of e-learning and face-to-face instruction to ensure onboarding is respectful and inclusive of all generations.”

Combining learning technologies with complex cognitive needs are a great way to create agile learning models that can meaningfully engage generationally diverse employees with learning goals.

3.Collaborative learning

Collaborative learning methods have been recognized as one of the most effective methods to foster a culture of continuous learning. With segment-leading organizations already having deployed learning programs that encourage learning between generations, the trend is only set to grow. By shifting the collective mindset at work so different generations see each other as partners, they can all benefit from the mix of fresh ideas, fresh insights, tempered with experience and wisdom.

For organizations, providing a healthy mix of all three best practices outlined above is the best route to ensure greater learning efficiency and engagement for all generations.

Check out this great Ted Talk by Chip Conley on ‘What baby boomers can learn from millennials at work — and vice versa’

Our bonus tip is: Ask your employees how they’d like to learn. Sometimes, a simple survey can help your organization save time and money when creating a multigenerational learning plan. After all, despite the differences, employees across generations have more in common than most organizations realize.

Annice shares four common denominators of employee happiness across generations:

  1. Recognition: Employees from every generation want to be treated with respect and trust when it comes to the work they do. When people are valued for the work they bring to the table, it makes them happier, more motivated and engaged.
  2. Compensation: It makes sense that this is a commonly cited factor for employee job satisfaction because all generations seek financial stability and security. Despite the economic conditions of the world they grew up in, all generations seek to be compensated fairly. Therefore, it’s important for employers to reward their employees monetarily, as well as praise them for their achievements.
  3. Flexibility: Employers need to be conscious of meeting and suiting the changing needs and demands of employees in different life stages. Flexibility is a major commonality across generations. Employees like to have a choice of when, where and how they can do their work to the best of their abilities.
  4. Accessibility: Lastly, to deliver on promises of respect, fiscal rewards and flexibility, organizations need to give all generation access to the proper technology and tools. To support the operational needs of an inclusive, multi-generational culture, this piece is essential.

In conclusion, organizations must embrace the commonalities across generations to deliver targeted learning and professional development programs in ways that suits every learner’s style, and helps employees overcome the prejudices they may even unconsciously harbor about other generations.