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The Benefits and Implications of a Four-Generation Workplace

People of Baxter

For the first time, there are now four different generations working in the U.S. economy. Each generation brings certain preferences or "norms" for communication style and mode, how they make decisions, perspectives on workplace culture and environment and overall behavior. This mix of preferences is impacting the relationship between employer and employee, and how employees work together.

Business affinity or resource groups, such as Baxter's Early Career Professionals, are helping to connect employees of different generations and advocate for varied and flexible development programs, technology platforms and other tools that engage and accommodate a wider range of employee preferences. The two co-presidents of the Early Career Professionals resource group at Baxter, Sydney Cope and Sarah Villarreal, and Baxter's Vice President of Talent Management Irina Konstantinovsky recently shared their perspectives on the benefits and implications of a multi-generation workplace.

Question: What generational differences in the workplace do you see here at Baxter?

IRINA: The most exciting culture shift that the younger generations bring to the workplace is the focus on results rather than a static measure of effort or hours at work. This trend, combined with technological advances that enable us to be connected, and our need to operate successfully in a global environment creates the opportunity for a real shift in where, when and how we work. The lifestyle preference of the younger generation has influenced us to make changes in our workplace practices, like the "dress for your day" policy and exploring ways we can improve telecommuting and flexible work arrangements.

SARAH: A significant number of millennial employees live in the city, and as Baxter's offices are located in the Chicago suburbs, our generation is spending a lot of valuable time commuting. Baxter has made significant strides in helping us make the most out of our commute, like enabling and encouraging use of public transportation and providing access to personal Wi-Fi hotspots or MiFi devices, so we can be productive to and from work and lessen the time we need to spend at the office.

SYDNEY: We're also able to work remotely on occasion. This can be a huge benefit, since it allows us to work in an environment that fits best with our schedules and lifestyles without impacting productivity. With technology advances, it's possible to communicate with people all over the world at all hours of the day, and whether at the office or at home you can still complete your work. And, by allowing flexible work hours that are best suited to a person's schedule rather than a traditional nine to five workday, we can provide better coverage throughout the day and have more resources available at any given time.

IRINA: Baxter is definitely well aware of the differing values and needs of each generation of employees and we are working to develop best in class practices that allow us to collaborate and harness the power of diversity - be it generational, by ethnicity or cultural.  At the same time, we are focused on the core components that make a company a rewarding and attractive place to work for multiple generations, including meaningful and challenging work, collaboration and teamwork, developing skills and careers and receiving regular feedback.

Question: Has a difference in communication styles among generations ever been a challenge for you? What advice do you have for bridging these differences?

IRINA: Communication styles do differ across generations, which can present challenges. I think many of us experience this daily at home. My daughter would much rather text, tweet or post a picture in Instagram than pick up the phone or send an email. Sometimes, she'd rather text me even when we are in the same place!  On top of that, when she writes a text I have to work through deciphering and make sentences out of letters such as G2G or IDK.

I don't think this is as acute in a workplace such as Baxter, where certain formalities like using complete sentences continue to be the norm. I'm sure some may find this to be an unnecessary formality. However, I do not see that changing just yet in the business setting and in a global company like Baxter. It's a good example of the adjustments to "norms" that we all have to make.

SYDNEY: Compromise is definitely a key component of being able to communicate effectively with other generations. Millennials often prefer succinct types of communications, like email or instant messenger, rather than face-to-face conversations. I prefer having quick and concise conversations, whereas many of my colleagues from other generations enjoy more face time and are very conversational. I take the time to listen to a story about my colleagues' kids or stop by to say hello when I have the time to give, but I still use other faster forms of communication on my busier days. It's important to maintain relationships with your colleagues and consider their communication preferences.

SARAH: One of the challenges of our generation is being viewed as "young" while also trying to provide ownership and input on various projects. This becomes especially challenging when a millennial has direct reports from other generations. It's important to gain a sense of trust and respect within the group first. This ensures your colleagues understand you're willing to work with them rather than dictating what to do and how to do it. In that sense, it's also essential to do extra research to be able to back up what you're saying in order to really be trusted as a valuable member of the team.

Question: Do you feel employees understand how work is approached differently in different generations? How do employees accommodate these differences?

IRINA: The stereotype is that younger generations are generally entitled, technology savvy, overly eager, critical, superficial and more focused on enjoying life. Younger generations may perceive older colleagues to be less flexible, or slow to learn.  

These are definitively stereotypes. Yet, there is tremendous power in understanding differing approaches and strengths of each generation. Older workers have invaluable knowledge and experience, and younger workers have a willingness to try new things and approaches. This combination of skillsets could be quite powerful and advantageous if we find productive ways to engage all. Think about the power of harnessing the best of multiple generations to drive innovation and make rapid and disciplined decisions together.

One of the characteristics of top talent is the ability to continuously learn and improve - inclusion is about learning, understanding and appreciating differences. When such differences and diversity are embraced, it leads to better ideas and solutions. I believe this is a journey in which differences will continue to challenge our perspectives.  Generations at work are a way to understand that new challenges and opportunities are ahead, and can help us all learn and grow. I'm eager to learn what's in the alphabet after (Gen) Z!

SARAH: Employees recognize these differences, but whether they appreciate why they're different is another story. That's something that's great about having a business resource group here at Baxter that's solely focused on early career professionals. It gives us a chance to talk about challenges we see and provides solutions to resolve them. The discussion within and ideas from the group allows us to better connect with our colleagues all around Baxter.

SYDNEY: Different generations also approach problem solving in different ways. For instance, millennials are generally more comfortable working in teams, whereas other generations tend to work more individually. As an adjustment, it can be nice to come together as a team after working on a project individually. By mixing different styles, we can drive more efficient workplace practices and innovative results for our company.