Age is a number, not a credential. Unfortunately, stereotypes still influence perceptions of age in the workplace. Statements such as “he’s too old to learn a digitalised workflow” or “she’s too young to lead a team” undermine the value and talents of the people involved.
Preeti Monga, chief people officer at engineering-research firm Pluss Advanced Technologies, contends that a person’s knowledge increases with his/her experience, and this is not solely limited to work but is also a holistic experience of life events as well. At the same time, younger employees could get overlooked, often in traditional sectors, solely because of their age, even though they might bring in a fresh perspective or might have the requisite skills.
Pluss has a team comprising Gen X (born between mid-1960s and early-1980s), Gen Y (born between early-1980s and mid-1990s) and Gen Z (born between mid-1990s and early-2010s).
“Research clearly shows that age diversity can improve organisational performance. Several HR practices can improve the age diversity climate within an organisation, to have the potential to further organisational performance as well as lower employee turnover. In fact, studies also find that the productivity of both older and younger workers is higher in companies with mixed-age work-teams, and is positively correlated to performance in complex decision-making tasks,” she adds.
In an interaction with People Matters, Monga explains why age diversity is overlooked by a majority of companies in diversity and inclusion (D&I) programmes and efforts and how organisations can combat challenges that they face due to age diversity in the workplace.
Here are a few excerpts
Why is age diversity important in the workplace?
Age is a diversity issue, we need to look at diversity as a large bowl of salad, full of colourful and vibrant vegetables, each containing nutrition and flavour, that we can mix and match with dressing to match our tastes i.e., goals. Mixing the generations in the workplace has its advantages and its challenges, as each generation has its own strengths, and skills they bring to the workplace.
By accepting and embracing people of different ages in a professional environment, employers can foster an inclusive and productive culture, something any organisation of any size can benefit from. With different experiences, skills, and talent to draw from, companies with an age-diverse workforce have the opportunity to accelerate innovations in engineering and consumer engagement, and thereby drive growth for an organisation and its people.
Pluss Advanced Technologies is a living example, we have grown about 60 times in the last nine years - having age diversity at the workplace has contributed significantly to it.
Why does age diversity tend to get overlooked by a majority of companies in D&I programmes and efforts?
Ageism, or age discrimination at workplace, is the most unnoticed and underrated form of discrimination.
While the bias around gender, backgrounds and sexual orientation has declined considerably in the recent past, in part due to the widespread effort and awareness around it, the unconscious bias around age has barely shifted. This is because some companies still work on the notion that higher the age, better the performance, or, conversely, low ‘average age’ represents a nimble and cool organisation.
While we see a considerable effort being made towards making the workplace inclusive, age diversity is not given as much importance in the D&I programmes. I believe more empirical evidence of stellar performance of age-diverse teams would get more organisations to consider this aspect proactively.
What are the challenges of age diversity?
There are many advantages of age diversity. However, the first thing which hinders synergies in an age-diverse team is a lack of mutual interests, which leads to lack of communication, and ends with an egoistic approach to any problem.
Some factors that organisations should proactively address while formulating their age diversity related policies are:
Lack of Communication: One of the most common challenges which age diversity faces is lack of communication. The younger members of the workforce feel that they are overshadowed by the achievements and experiences of their senior co-workers. So, they feel that their opinion or ideas may not be given as much importance. This leads them to keep to themselves, and resentment forming over time.
The older generation, on the other hand, has more of an ego issue. They don’t think they are answerable to those younger than them or that the ‘young ones’ could have better ideas or solutions than them. This creates a rift in the workplace which eventually brings down productivity if left unattended.
Resistance to Change: Certain employees do not want to change their work ethics and have difficulty adapting to a different structure.
For example, they sometimes refuse to acknowledge the reality that digital technology is making some workflows more efficient, which is often taught and introduced to the company by the younger generation. Since they are unwilling to adapt, conflict arises.
Groupism: This is a very common disadvantage that is seen in most age diverse environments. Employees in the same team mix with people of the same age, and feel comfortable with them due to their shared experience. They tend to exclude those of a different age, which, in turn, hinders collaboration, and the growth of the company.
Seniority: Older employees are experienced and have a solid knowledge base in their career that is vital for business growth. However, they can become difficult to work with if they are not patient in sharing their knowledge with the younger employees or if they feel threatened with ‘low average age of the company’, leading to disruptions and oversights at work.
How can organisations manage age diversity in the workplace? How is Pluss managing it?
Age diversity is nothing new, nor are generational gaps.
Outlooks, behaviours, attitudes, and expectations will continue to vary from one generation to another. But we live in a world striving to be more empathetic and understanding, and in the process, more innovative and productive.
Despite the difference in upbringing, preferences, and work ethics of an age-diverse workforce, we, at Pluss Advanced Technologies, do not believe that any particular generation needs to be managed or motivated differently when everyone comes together as a team.
Instead of categorising our workforce into “old” or “young,” we think about where each person stands in his or her life and the best we can do to support him/her.
For instance, offering flexible working hours is one way to help our workforce do their work without having to stress about starting work at a fixed time each morning, and the resultant rush hour commute.
Employees who are also parents have the freedom to design their workday around their children’s activities, and we have found that they still complete their day’s work efficiently. We believe in lending a hand in making the lives of our workforce comfortable.
We also encourage mentoring and reverse mentoring, in our office, laboratory and manufacturing facilities. This means, the Gen Z (born between mid-1990s and early-2010s) are involved in decision making, product testing calls, and even leading meetings.
This, we have seen, helps them feel more confident and connected.
In return, Gen X (born between mid-1960s and early-1980s) gain new perspectives, and Gen Z gets opportunities to learn from Gen X, especially on applications of engineering and scientific principles.
Our emphasis is on offering a rich experience to every employee, empowering them across levels, and providing them with opportunities to acquire new skills, be it related to engineering, people management, or customer service.
More importantly, there is a clear focus on career advancement and learning programs for every single member of the workforce, to keep a growth mindset across the organisation.
Our approach is to look at people as individuals, rather than stereotyping them. We focus on their talents and provide for them an environment conducive to collaborations as well as individual contributions.
However, there are challenges, which vary from tightly defining roles and responsibilities to organisation wide appreciation of contributions of every employee. We rely on extensive communication to address this, communication within teams, through periodic Town Halls, monthly newsletters, review meetings, and even at small places like the lunch tables and gaming area.
We aim to make our employees appreciate, and practice, that every voice counts, and every voice matters.
What we find as a great driver across generations is the pride they are able to take in their work and seeing it make a difference, especially in the communities in India and abroad (like in transporting temperature sensitive vaccines in rural areas, without the need for constant electricity).