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Managing the 21st Century Workforce

More Than Managing Generational Differences

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Dominique Jones
June 2, 2015

In the past, the workforce comprised of two or three generations, at most. Times have changed. Today, people are living and working longer, which has led to a new reality — the multi-generation workforce.

It’s a phenomenon that is challenging public service leaders and directors about how to motivate, engage and retain employees across four generations: Millennials, Generation Xers, Baby Boomers and Traditionals. Soon, a fifth will join the ranks — Generation Z.

Understanding the Differences

Jones juneNot surprisingly, generational differences can impact everything from talent acquisition, team building, organizational response to change and managing, maintaining and driving staff performance. Leaders who understand how to handle the differences between generations can be highly successful at leveraging strengths of each and take full advantage of the multi-generation workforce.

In fact, this understanding can go a long way in helping departments attract and retain employees, build a collaborative workplace, prepare for future change and boost employee engagement levels.

While being cognizant of and managing generational differences appropriately can help build a highly productive workplace, it’s only one element of an effective leadership strategy.

Another key component of any good people strategy is the ability of leaders to manage the person — not simply the generation — through talent management best practices that go beyond birth dates.

Managing across the ages

There are some basic things leaders can do to make the workplace “mesh” for greater employee engagement, productivity and efficiency.

Define and link employee goals to organizational goals

Leaders must work closely with employees to set goals that are linked to the organizational goals they support. This gives staff members an important true context for their work, reinforces the importance of their role in the organization and allows leaders to see that the organization is aligned and progressing on its goals.

Taking the SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant/realistic and time-bound) approach to goal setting  helps take the subjectivity out of goal setting and ensures all employees have a shared set of expectations.
Leaders and employees should regularly review goal progress and ensure they’re still appropriate for their agency or department. Goals can be adjusted where needed, or the manager and employee can take steps to remove any obstacles.

Give employees meaningful ongoing feedback 

Whether they’re new to the workforce or approaching retirement, individuals need to know how they’re doing. This is why it’s critical to give staff regular, ongoing feedback and coaching on performance. During the process, it’s important to focus on desired behaviors and outcomes, and also discuss opportunities for development.

Without ongoing feedback, employees won’t understand how they are performing against key competencies when compared to their personal and departmental goals. Here are some ways to make feedback an integral part of your culture:

  • Communicate to employees that they will be receiving ongoing performance feedback and that they should feel free to ask for feedback if they feel it’s lacking.
  • Book one hour each week to make notes on employee performance over the past few days. Reference these notes to give employees feedback verbally or in printed form.
  • Hold frequent formal and informal meetings with employees to discuss performance, check in on goals and development plans, and provide coaching.

Offer professional and career development opportunities 

Regardless of generation, employees expect their organizations to commit to developing and enriching their skills and experiences.

When it comes to development plans, it’s important for leaders to understand how their employees learn best and then look for training activities that support individual learning styles. It’s often more effective to consider a mix of formal and informal learning activities, which can include accredited training programs, conferences, college courses, mentoring programs and on-the-job learning.

Recognize employee contributions and service

Employees need to feel that their performance will be rewarded fairly and equitably – anything less can negatively impact engagement and motivation. Rewards and recognition applies to work and project opportunities, promotions, service and other awards, but especially to all areas of compensation, including base pay and bonuses.

There are many other formal and informal means for recognizing and rewarding performance without cutting into departmental budgets. From a simple thank you, to small perks, “innovation awards” or “employee of the month” programs, public recognition for efforts and achievements, or even a personalized note/email — there are lots of ways leaders can give employees regular recognition and praise.

A final word about the 21st century workforce

When it comes to getting the most from staff — from Millennials and Gen Xers to Baby Boomers and Traditionalists — following talent management best practices is ageless for driving employee engagement and productivity.

This means organizations need to focus on employees as individuals, not only as members of specific generations. That’s the true key to building workplace culture where employees feel respected, appreciated and valued.


Author: Dominique Jones is the vice president of human resources at Halogen Software, a leading provider of comprehensive software-as-a-service, cloud-based Talent Management solutions. Dominique has over 15 years of experience in the talent management industry both in Europe and North America and is focused on providing practical insights that help HR positively impact business performance. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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