The Great Divide

Bridging the generational divide with 360 degree mentoring and acknowledging that ‘talent’ is to be found in all generations.

I’ve been reading Gallup’s ‘State of the American Workplace 2017’. While it is US-centric and I am sitting in an exceptionally warm England right now, it does have relevance.

An item that caught my eye was “Millennials are more likely […] to say a job that accelerates their professional or career development is ‘very important’ to them. (45% of Millennials vs 35% Gen-Xers and 18% Baby Boomers).”(1)

As we well know, career advancement and opportunities stem from the ‘who’ we know more than the ‘what’ we know. An aspect of this is having the ability to get that influential individual to notice you/your talent. And this requires people skills, understanding how to interact or, as they say in Japan, ‘read the air’. This is not a taught module, we can book-learn, but putting it into practice still requires honing though life experiences. I’ll come back to this in a minute.

I have been debating with a few peers about whether the focus on the Millennial entering the workforce has been so successful that other generations may feel marginalised or disregarded.

On the one hand workplaces need to change to be efficient, challenge costs, attract talent etc. On the other is the risk of alienating your existing talent base – those who have been hired for a while, possibly a looong while. I’ve led workplace change programmes where it’s been a challenge get buy-in from non-Millennials. Some of it is education, some of it is assurance, some of it is ensuring that they are, and feel, heard. The common theme of resistance is the fear that the workplace will become uncomfortable, thus unwelcoming to them.

adult ball pit

‘Jump In’ Art Installation,  Ball Pit for Adults, London  |

‘We can inject a fresh approach in your space to support your way of working and creativity, as well as celebrating your department’s personality – which is quite fun.’ I said.

‘I don’t want ‘fun”, Bob scowled, ‘I don’t want something like a ball pit or a shed to meet in. I’m not in a playground, I’m at work.’

It’s an extreme RL example though it is clear: people have seen Google offices…and it is outside some comfort zones.

Adding to this is the debate about how to maintain the company culture with influxes of headcount or where younger people join the business and move on swiftly. And let us not forget IT changes – oh Lordy, let’s not even go there.

Is it me or is there a divide starting here? Which brings me back to my point.

We hear that people want to further their careers swiftly. We hear that people moan about the changes (and their IT). So we have a choice. We can either carry on moaning, working hard to grind down enthusiasm and youthful ideas about changes (I’ve been on the receiving end) or we can learn from each other.

ignore the laptop


We Gen-Xers and older have skills born of experience, the ‘battle scars’ if you will of projects, people, business culture. Where we may struggle is, as IT adopters, with changes in technology (I routinely teach non-Millennial colleagues how to use Gmail). The changes in moving away from an annual review, with documented school reports* employee progress to measure against can be a challenge, it requires a change in management skills. It requires change, full stop.

Where Millennials may struggle is how to navigate office politics, how to layer on information to give end users the illusion of control while stacking the deck in your favour**, or how to challenge a client without undermining or embarrassing them. These skills are life lessons. Some may already have these skills in natural abundance, others have a deep, aching paucity.

We are st risk of creating a ‘nether the twain’ environment. Remember: Space is easy; people are hard. Maybe it’s time to start focusing on the people.

An easy (and cheap) way of resolving this, and creating a win-win situation, is to instigate a 360 mentoring process. Assign a new hire to an existing employee mentor, preferably one that has been around the block a few times. The goal is to ensure ongoing, impartial support, people skills (office politics) development, cultural adoption and swift feedback in both directions. Bear in mind that each of the items in that (in-exhaustive) list have different meanings to different generations. It’s not about “gettin’ down with the kids, dude” but to do with developing understanding of how we each are optimised to work at our best potential. Each generation can teach and support the other.

But that’s the manager’s job, surely? Not always; what are the chances of a manager teaching their direct reports how to manage up?

There is much we can learn from each other. Let’s give it a shot.


(1)  Gallup 2017, Page 31

* I have been accused of being a Millennial in the past; studiously avoiding the risk of sun damage to my skin is evidently paying off..! One thing I do identify with is immediate feedback and continual development. No point saving it all up for year-end and citing examples that can barely be remembered.

** Example: they know asking for a pool or crèche is a non-starter. They also know they can argue loopholes into your data to argue for more desks or more space than is appropriate. This is why you stack the deck – and use the Framework of Influence to do so.





Plan B

Encouraging flexibility in creatures of habit (the end user).

When we start messing with people’s work spaces, we start messing with their heads. There’s no other way around it, and it has to be acknowledged.

This is why workplace is about people, not spaces.

Spaces are easy. People are not; they are the sum of their own experiences and chemical wiring which is different to yours.

Each and every one of us has preferences that meet our own personal interpretation of pleasure, be it comfort, risk, safety, adrenaline, exposure, shelter, luxury or parsimony. If you find a good coffee place (good being subjective to your preferences) you go there the next day. If it is shut on the third day, you feel let down, right? Pleasure rituals are formed hard and fast.

I am often asked how, in a shared office environment, to stop people using the same space (desk / sofa / nook) each day. The answer is: you do not. You are not going to stop people creating preferences. Should you care if Bob repeatedly sits at the same desk? No more than you should care if he decided to wear his Christmas socks in June. Does it affect his productivity and required levels of engagement to deliver his role? Possibly, it depends on the set up, or position, of the desk….and how he’s made.

Engagement sessions at the start of the project may not reveal Bob’s singular preferences. But that’s ok. And the reason that’s OK is because not only are you going to be actively listening to everything your focus group discussions raise, including reading between the lines, you’re also going to be creating a wide variety of space types, with a variety of furniture, providing choice to cater for the broad, magnificent specimen that is office-bound humanity in as many guises as is viable.

But Bob’s going to set up home in a specific location which will then become ‘his’. How is that fair?

sheldon's spot

Plan ‘A’ – not always available (

Now I’m going to assume that Bob’s just a creature of habit, that he’s a pretty easy going, if a little oblivious, guy with a perfectly understandable aversion to mornings. He likes his morning routine: it’s easy and he doesn’t have to think (we’ve all been there).

What does matter, and needs to be discussed openly, without identifying Bob, in a pre-move workshop is: What happens if you come in and someone has taken your favourite spot? The answer: Always have a Plan B. In a first come, first served environment jut because you like a particular space does not mean it is yours and yours alone. You have a choice of spaces, many of which are going to replicate your preferred spot in some form. Are you going to be mean and deliberately target Bob’s seat? Well that’s an interesting proposal Mr/s Workshop Delegate. Group, what are your views on that? Does it tie in with company culture?

To help identify Plan B’s, and support Bob in his quest for the perfect spot, the first day of a new, shared working environment should be more about trying out different spots, having a series of stand-up ‘space introduction’ sessions where you learn about how to meet an individual’s practical necessities, as well as the fun cool things. And Day 1 of the new office should start on the following day.

So when I walked into the office to find my new boss sitting at ‘my’ desk (the perfect desk, the flyby* desk, the ‘back against the wall’ desk) on his first day the voice in my head was shocked and horrified. So I just sat next to him and got on with some work.


*Flyby: People walk past it before they notice it, or you, are there.

The Five Generations

An introduction on the Five Generations and the differences between them.

The Five Generations, eh? It’s a hot topic for those of us in the work place field, though is still taking many unawares. So, in a very small nutshell: we are at the dawn of a new age where five generations will be working side by side in the work place. It’s a huge topic with many peripheral debates and an awful lot of generalisation however, in the spirit of simplifying things, consider this a starter for ten.

Courtesy of graciejboutique

The Five Generations, according to ‘What’s It All About, Alfie‘ principle:

Traditionalists: born between 1938 and 1948. The so-called ‘hanging in there’[1] group with an estimated 5% (1 million) of this generation still working in the UK; this is estimated to diminish to 1% by 2025.

Baby Boomers: born between 1949 and 1967; the dominant working group with 14.9 million people.

Generation X: born between 1968 and 1980; the increasingly important group of 11.4 million workers poised to take over the reins.

Millennials, or Generation Y. Helpfully, this generation is the last to be born in the previous millennium, not those born since we hit the 21st Century. Born between 1981-1999 this is a quickly growing group of 15.8 million people. The youngest will be eligible to enter the workforce in some form this year (2015) . This generation soon ‘[…] will account for nearly half the employees in the world.’[2] By dint of volume they are an ‘enormously powerful group that has the sheer numbers to transform every life stage it enters’.[3]

Generation Z: are those born since 2000. There were 11.5 million of them in 2010; and their numbers are still growing. Currently in education, but will be eligible to start entering the workforce part-time in 2016.

Note: Absolute generational dates are frequently debated though give a good basic framework.

The reason why people (i.e.: work place junkies like me) are getting in a twist about this is that it has never been experienced before. It will impact all areas of business, from how managers communicate with their team to how businesses are run, from IT provision to levels of nurture managers will need to provide. It’s a game changer.

Boomers hold the majority of senior positions, with some Traditionalist executives alongside[4].  These are the knowledge keepers, the business drivers, the leaders – and roughly 10,000 of them will turn 65 today, with 10,000 more each day for the next 19 years[5]. They are the outgoing generation, albeit over the next twenty years.

Generation X are close at Boomer’s heels, but there are more Millennials, many of whom are in management positions already, than there are Gen Xers.

Logically, everyone else will be upwardly mobile, bringing inevitable change and challenges around preferred communication styles, IT adoption, work mobility and employment styles. The challenge is that each generation has its own way of seeing life and living it – and it’s never as clean-cut as we would like it to be because everyone is different.

Below are some fairly significant generalisations, but its a start:

Traditionalists: Hard working, financially conservative; change and risk averse; hierarchical, logical and loyal; obey and set rules with a ‘command and control’ leadership style.

Baby Boomers: An egocentric generation; work is a defining part of their self-worth and evaluation of others; ‘Live to work’; seeks collaboration and team building; culturally diverse ideals.

Generation X: Independent, resilient and adaptable; feedback and recognition; ‘Work to live’; comfortable with authority though not impressed by titles; ethnically diverse approach.

Generation Y: ‘Digital Immigrants’; Taught to question authority; distrustful and cynical; rapid adapters craving challenge; emotional resilience; flexibility is key for work life balance, dress code, management style and location; work is an extension of themselves, not a definition; global perspective with easy integration with diversity; exceptional multi-taskers that seek continuous learning and challenge; feeling of entitlement.

Generation Z: ‘Digital Natives’; entrepreneurial with strong focus on social and environmental issues globally and in the local community; Highly welcoming of diversity and less likely to subscribe to traditional gender roles; highly adaptive and seeks change. The cut-off date for this generation has yet to be identified therefore the full framework for Gen Z is not set and values, morals and behaviours are still emerging.

The crux we are all facing is that generational preferences are considerably different; communication, hierarchy and work, to name a few, are frequently polar opposites. And they are all in the work place at the same time, forging ahead in business with different agendas and approaches.

As the man (well done, Bob) said: Times they are a-changin’.

[1] Boomers and Millennials Whitepaper, Orangebox 2014
[2] Working with Five Generations in the Workplace, Forbes April 2011
[3] Overcoming Generational Gap in the Workplace, United Nations Joint Staff Pension Fund
[4] Volkswagen AG; Samsung Electronics; Warren Buffet etc.
[5] ‘Baby boomers Retire’, PEW Research Centre, Dec 29 2010