By: Rob Salkowitz
Does your company tend toward a go-slow approach to new technologies? If so, you may be sending the wrong message to your multigenerational workforce -- including your aging workforce.
As manager, you can provide employees with team activities that will not only bridge the generational gap around your workplace social media policy use and technology, but also generate effective team building strategies between older workers and younger workers.
As more companies adopt social computing for internal and external communications, it is important to be sure that you articulate a clear social media policy around their appropriate use. The problem is that workers of different generations tend to view these technologies, and the practices that surround them, differently. It is critical to get workers of all generations on the same page when it comes to using social media and technology at work.
Multigenerational Workforce Views of Technology
Keep in mind that this multigenerational workforce issue is not a matter of age. Studies have shown that older folks can learn and use new devices and software as well as anyone. In fact, seniors over 65 are the fastest-growing demographic on Facebook today.
However, someone who has been working in a job for a long period of time forms certain ideas and habits, reinforced by experience and success. Introduce a new piece of technology, or any new practice for that matter, and the employee will see this as a problem to be solved: “How can I adapt this new tool to the job I already know?”
Younger people have the opposite experience. They are well-versed in technologies like social networks, mobile devices, instant messaging and digital content from their experience as students and consumers. When they come to work, they may be wondering how they can use the tools they know to solve new and unfamiliar problems in their job.
If the workplace does not provide them with the social media tools they need, or has a policy for blocking social media access to the sites and services that give them access to their knowledge sources and networks, it undermines their potential productivity; it also sends a strong signal that the corporate culture does not adapt to change or welcome new ideas.
Engaging the Skills of Young Workers
So how can businesses take advantage of the tech-skills that younger workers bring to the office while encouraging their more experienced employees to participate and share their knowledge? One effective strategy is reciprocal mentoring.
Most people are probably familiar with the traditional concept of mentoring, where a more senior person takes a young colleague under their wing and imparts knowledge and career guidance. Reciprocal mentoring takes that concept a step further by creating a two-way conversation. As the mentor teaches the newcomer valuable business information, the young person can help their older colleague master the techniques of new technology, including how to avoid the embarrassing “newbie” mistakes that inhibit a lot of inexperienced users from participating in online activities.
Reciprocal mentoring elegantly solves several workplace issues at once:
1. Mentoring is great for onboarding new hires. If you’ve made the investment to hire and train a new employee, you want to make sure that person starts making an impact right away and sticks around to keep adding value in the future. Assigning a mentor is a good way to supplement existing training and orientation programs and giving the young employee an advocate and resource they can turn to within the business.
2. Reciprocal mentoring allows workers of all ages to feel valued. Young people coming into your business want to show what they can do. By sharing their knowledge to help colleagues with less experience with technology, they can contribute something of value right away and be recognized for it. Older workers want to demonstrate that they still have something to contribute. By participating in reciprocal mentoring, they not only pass along their knowledge and wisdom, but also keep their tech skills sharp and current.
3. It supplements and reinforces existing training programs. Online and classroom training programs can be great, but nothing beats the experience of one-on-one learning. In the mentoring environment, each employee can ask questions and learn at their own pace, in a relationship where they feel comfortable.
4. It lowers adoption risk of new technologies, particularly those that might disrupt or discomfort experienced workers. Studies show that most social and collaborative deployments fail due to low user adoption rates. With better uptake across the organization, businesses can increase the value of their IT investments and realize return on investment more quickly.
5. It builds relationships across the generation gap. Each generation, from Baby Boomers to Gen X to Gen Y, has its own workstyle and set of behaviors at work and misunderstandings commonly occur when these workstyles clash. Fostering cross-generational dialogues in any organization can be a challenge. Technology can provide a basis for starting conversations that could help resolve other issues and create a more smoothly-functioning workplace.
Reciprocal mentoring programs can yield huge benefits for your business, but implementing them takes some skill and forethought. All participants should undergo some basic training and orientation to ensure that mentoring relationships respect personal and professional boundaries, are structured and productive, and are not intrusive on other important workplace activities. Mentors and mentees should be carefully matched. When the formal mentorship program is concluded, participants should document their experiences and suggest refinements to the process going forward.
Rob Salkowitz is a consultant specializing in next-generation workforce and social technology. He is the author of Young World Rising (2010) and Generation Blend (2008), both published by John Wiley & Sons. A co-founder and partner in MediaPlant, LLC, Rob lives and works in Seattle, WA. Follow him on Twitter @robsalk.
Check out the Monster Infographic: Who Is More Entrepreneurial Minded: Gen Y, Gen X or Boomers?