14/10/2013

By Srimathi Shivashankar, Associate vice-president of diversity & sustainability, HCL Technologies

Why is diversity important to organisations of today? I am often asked this seemingly innocuous, yet critical question. In response, I always quote Stephen R. Covey who famously said, “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities”.

As workforce demographics shift, and unified glocal markets emerge, diversity comes closer to becoming a business reality. Treated by some as an excuse for senior executives to showcase their commitment to embracing differences, diversity is increasingly becoming a business imperative. Today, global enterprises operate across continents, communicate across time zones and work in virtual teams while facilitating collaboration across diverse cultures. This diversity propagates innovation and transformational solutions and creates more global opportunities, fostering economic growth across the world. While diversity focuses on accepting and nurturing differences that stem from things like age, background, culture and gender, there is also an increasing need today to understand and nurture multi-generational diversity in the workplace.

The Harvard Business Review suggests that in four years, Millennials, or people born between 1977 and 1997, will account for nearly half of all employees worldwide. This means that organisations and their employees will need to understand how work is done differently in different generations including customer needs, interactions and work styles across different generations.

Likewise, in their book ‘The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop, and Keep Tomorrow’s Employees Today’, Jeanne C. Meister and Karie Willyerd talk about how the workplace of the future is being shaped today by Web 2.0. This is a collection of breakthrough social media technologies which, along with the Millennial Generation is shaping the way we work. They believe that companies, while using marketing and social media techniques to connect with their customers, should employ similar strategies to connect with their workforce. In other words, companies can no longer rely on a ‘one-size-fits-all’ package for their workforce.

In India, research is being conducted to understand how the worldview of the younger generation impacts their relationship with other generations in the workplace. Building a workplace for a multigenerational workforce requires an understanding and attitude change that goes beyond formulating best practices alone. Nurturing multigenerational diversity is not only about promoting a workplace where differences are accepted, it is more importantly about redefining the workplace to value and desire these differences. Social learning and knowledge management practices are leveraged only when employees from various generations come together to teach and learn without a sense of hierarchy.

Although there are important differences between employees of different generations, there are also significant commonalities, which can be important to leverage.

According to AARP, an American non-profit organisation that focuses on enhancing the quality of life for people over 50, organisations that leverage these commonalities are better equipped to create work environments that support a multi-generational workforce. Irrespective of the generation they belong to, employees view work as something beyond their pay checks. They place great importance on feeling ‘valued’ in their jobs, want workplaces where they are recognised and appreciated and demand a strong employer focus on their individual career-development. Democratic workplaces where flexibility is allowed attract and retain the best employees.

Building an organisational culture based on values such as openness, trust and transparency go a long way in setting an ideal foundation for a multi-generational workforce to thrive. Strong corporate governance policies, employee well-being programmes and training as well as development initiatives lead to best practices that leverage commonalities.

Organisations must also take steps to enable employees dispel pre-conceived notions about each other’s generational backgrounds. This is achieved by giving appropriate avenues and opportunities to Communicate, Collaborate, Customise and give back to the Community. Simple internal communication publications that help employees distinguish between generational myths vs. realities are helpful tools in promoting a more inclusive workplace. Redressal and feedback forums where employee opinions are valued and attended to continually establish a sense of trust with the employer. Regular communication must be established with employees across different generations to understand their key expectations.

HR departments must also ensure that employees understand how to interact with each other in acceptable ways that befit the generation they come from. While younger employees can be encouraged to employ more formal ways of addressing and communicating with their older peers, senior employees must be motivated to join and participate in company-wide social networking platforms. Training and development programmes must be customised to suit the employee’s age and experience.

Community-service offers unique and fulfilling avenues for employees to work together for a good cause. Collaborating in projects outside the workplace is useful in promoting a sense of camaraderie and oneness among employees. As socially responsible businesses, organisations can create employee-centric community programmers to promote generational diversity.

Organisations must include the need to redefine the workplace for a multigenerational workforce in their long-term vision and planning. This understanding must not be restricted only to Human Resources but also to Sales, Marketing, Management and other key stakeholders who must predict their changing customer base and be prepared to address the changes. Differences are valued in workplaces where there is no place for misconceptions or discrimination. Building a workplace for tomorrow is not only in the hands of every employee today but also in their hearts and minds.

Leveraging commonalities, communication, collaboration, customisation, community service and promoting a democratic workplace play key roles in building a workplace for a multigenerational workforce. When this understanding and advocacy is promoted, it drips down to every employee who will adopt the same approach.

After all, let’s not forget that, when all’s said and done, the employee should come first!