Many UK workplaces have age diverse workforces and this trend is likely to continue with an ageing population and people needing to stay in work longer.  For managers, an age diverse workforce presents both opportunities and challenges when it comes to managing their needs and expectations. A 2015 research report by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) found a strong link between life stage and work priorities. The ‘Managing an age-diverse workforce: What employers need to know’ report found that younger age groups focus on values such as trust, recognition and freedom while older age groups focus on achieving work-life balance and flexibility. 

A multi-generational team reflects the diverse nature of society and the potential pool of customers, said Mark Smith, Dean of Faculty for Grenoble Ecole of Management. “From a stakeholder point of view, it makes sense to be more age diverse. From a risk point of view, it’s the notion of keeping employees in-house without having to recruit and retain people.”

One of the advantages of managing an age-diverse team is the diversity of thought, comments Michael Jenkins, Chief Executive of Roffey Park. “The challenge of that is how you bring out those thoughts and ideas in different generations. It’s a question of managerial and leadership competency. Managers have to be alive to inviting different opinions from people in the team.”

There is a broadly-held view that diverse teams which includes multi-generational teams are better at innovation and creativity, remarks Jenkins. “You’ve got a different set of perspectives for figuring out what might not and what might work.”

There are other benefits to age diverse teams as well: knowledge-sharing, different perspectives and enhanced customer experience were identified as key benefits of age diversity, according to the 2015 CIPD report.

Managers need to be aware that an age-diverse team will have people at different life stages, remarked Jenkins. “You may have an experienced baby boomer in your team who is not interested in progressing and volunteers ideas only if they’re invited too. You may have someone who is Generation Y and used to voicing their opinions quite openly. A manager has to learn how to marshall those different ways of communicating. Managers have to be clear what the differences in motivations are within the team and they need to be prepared to tailor their approach to motivating them.”

Peter Hawkins, Professor of Leadership for Henley Business School believes that the greater the diversity of the team, the more challenging this is for leadership. “Leaders can either use that diversity to be more of the sum of their parts or diversity can get in the way of cohesion. The most important thing in a team is to create cohesion. That is about having a clarity of team purpose and team goals. That has to be built. It’s the quality of collective purpose and collective endeavour that creates the cohesion of the team and not people getting on well together.”

Managers need to have an in-depth understanding that each generation is not a homogenous block, comments Rachel Suff, Public Policy Advisor for the CIPD. “But if you think of Generation Z, then they have grown up in a completely different context to people in their 70s. Generation Z have gone through massive challenges such as the financial crisis and globalisation. The first step is an understanding and appreciation of the different factors that will engage people. It doesn’t mean different generations want different things from work. For examples, flexible working is just as important to younger workers as older workers but for different reasons.”

There is a lot of scope where multi-generational teams can look for unifying areas of common interest, said Jenkins. “No matter what generation each team member is, a manager is trying to build group cohesion and facilitate a collegiate way of working. Although people are of different ages they can still have shared goals.”

Hawkins advises that team leaders explore how to set a collective challenge that everyone recognises whether they are 18 or 80 and which can only be achieved through collaboration. “Then it’s about how does the team leader actively validate and appreciate the differences that each person brings in a way that is not patronising? How does a team avoid ‘group think’ and allow people to speak from their diversity?”

There is a lot of scope where multi-generational teams can look for unifying areas of common interest, said Jenkins. “No matter what generation each team member is, a manager is trying to build group cohesion and facilitate a collegiate way of working. Although people are of different ages, they can still have shared goals.”

One potential pitfall for managers when it comes to age diverse teams relates to unintentional discrimination, said Smith. “It’s also about attitudes towards age that may reflect wider age discrimination in society. Managers should avoid stereotypes around age. Research points to the positive effect of age diversity as long as organisational policies and climate supports that diversity.”

Younger managers can be intimidated by managing older workers, said Suff. “Our own research found this. Organisations have to be responsible and support line managers in training them to increase their understanding of what is age diversity. It’s also about developing the softer skills of managers so they can bring out the best in people. The organisational culture is really key and that is down to leadership developing an age inclusive workforce. It’s about line managers being able to be consistent in interpreting HR policies and being flexible in meeting the expectations and needs of different generations.”