WorkZone: Maneuvering the multigenerational mash-up

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CEOs at some companies still make announcements by leaving voice mails on their employees' phones. Safe to say, some of them never get the message.

"Millennials don't listen to voice mail," said Lindsey Pollak, a speaker and author whose next book will deal with leadership from the generation whose oldest members are just in their early 30s.

Also safe to say an announcement on Twitter might never reach the baby boomers who haven't yet embraced that technology. They might be waiting for a face-to-face announcement in the office.

At this unusual juncture in history where four different generations are still present in workplaces, there's a mash-up that means everybody has to learn to be conversant, if not fluent, in Millennial, Generation X, Baby Boomer and Traditionalist communications -- at least for a few more years.

Within a decade, the hordes of millennials will start taking over, predicted Ms. Pollak, whose most recent book, "Getting from College to Career: Your Essential Guide to Succeeding in the Real World (Revised Edition)," came out in paperback two years ago.

For now, she said, "We're just in this sort of meshing of four generations." And that means taking time to understand and accommodate the different styles.

A 2013 survey for insurance company The Hartford, which she serves as a spokesperson for, polled 1,000 full-time workers and found no lack of opinions about other generations. About 74 percent of Gen Xers -- categorized as ages 35 to 44 for the survey -- agreed the younger workers on their heels could appropriately be nicknamed the "entitlement generation." Ouch. And 55 percent of millennials -- ages 18 to 34 -- thought boomers delaying retirement were keeping those coming along from getting jobs.

Yet the connections between millennials and the boomers may be going more smoothly than those with the Gen Xers, a smaller group that has had to carve out its own path between the two more populous generations.

The survey found 89 percent of millennials agreed boomers are a great source of mentorship and 93 percent of boomers said millennials bring new skills and ideas to the workplace.

If the Gen Xers -- that middle generation that Ms. Pollak is part of -- seem a bit miffed by all this, she said there's some justification. They just paid their dues "five minutes ago" and now they're feeling crowded by the newcomers. She predicted there won't ever be a Gen X president and said leadership of companies will quickly start coming from the millennial ranks. "We're just not a big enough generation to make an impact."

In the short term, the "muck-up" of generational styles requires everyone to consider their audience when they're trying to accomplish things at work. The chief executive trying to get an announcement out to a workforce filled with employees of varying ages should both give that speech and send out an email, Ms. Pollak said.

"I really think adaptability is the name of the game," she said.

Older employees have to get comfortable with technology like texting and instant messaging that their co-workers use. "Don't resist the technology because it threatens you," Ms. Pollak said. That tired excuse of being a Luddite who can't keep up? "That is over," she said.

The millennials are coming and they will make the workplace their own.

If some of their habits drive older workers crazy, this may be the last chance to pass along some of the better qualities of previous generations. For example, "We have to start instilling in millennials now the importance of face-to-face" communications, said Ms. Pollak. She's also hoping a last-ditch effort can win some of them over to another traditional standard of professional workplaces: good grammar.

Who will do the teaching? She's looking at the boomers, noting that the millennials have already said they are respected mentors. "They want this guidance."

Teresa F. Lindeman: or at 412-263-2018.

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