Engaging workers in today’s public service is critical to organizational success, yet the strategies for doing so rarely take into account generational diversity. Consider for a moment that four generations with birth dates spanning 65 years currently fill the ranks of the public service. Each of these generations has its own unique set of experiences and historical influences, accounting in large part for their differing expectations and behaviours in the workplace.
Understanding the generations and what drives them can offer a key to unlocking engagement and productivity. There is no one size fits all solution. Effective leaders recognize and embrace generational diversity by addressing individual needs with a collective organizational goal in mind. After all, fostering a productive work environment must be built around each employee: understanding what motivates each person at different stages of their lives and careers, and then tapping into those characteristics to maximize productivity and commitment.
Employee engagement consulting firm Blessing and White says strong organizational cultures build a personal attachment that acts as an “emotional contract”. Yet getting that contract in place and reaping the performance rewards means aligning generational diversity around shared goals to create a sense of community and teamwork. Indeed, the firm argues that organizational needs and individual needs must be considered equally. When they are truly aligned, both the organization and the employee benefit to the fullest extent: employers gain the maximum contribution from staff, while employees obtain maximum satisfaction from their work.
Boomers and beyond
The mature generations, which cover the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1960) and Traditionalists (born prior to and during WWII), may well be looking to retirement, but don’t count them out just yet. They form a critical part of the public sector, often occupying leadership roles and driving direction. They possess a collective corporate memory that is astronomical in size, and just as important to the future development of the public service. Yet a large number of mature workers will retire over the next five years, representing one-quarter of the workforce. Many are retiring young, with the average retirement age currently at 58.
“We’re noticing that people are not waiting to hit their years of service. They have it. So that’s one of the risks that we have,” says Robert Kopersiewich of the Centre for Workforce Analysis and Forecasting at Statistics Canada. “People start hitting 55, 56, 57 and so on, and they’re in a very good position to retire if they want to. So how much longer can we attract or retain them?”
Indeed, retaining and engaging the mature workforce should be a key consideration for the public service. Mature workers are an important source of talent. They are experienced and knowledgeable about the departments and agencies they serve. They bring a strong work ethic and a commitment to core public service values.
Harnessing the power
The Conference Board of Canada’s research into engaging and retaining mature workers found that only eight percent of organizations are actively trying to engage them. While public service organizations are concerned about retaining more senior staff to the tune of 70 percent, very few are actively focusing on retention and the vast majority are only marginally to not at all successful at engaging them.
“Despite the differences that exist in the life cycle and motivations of different generations of workers, most organizations use the same engagement strategies for mature workers as for other age groups,” says Karla Thorpe, author of the Conference Board of Canada’s Harnessing the Power report.
The report recommends a number of strategies that have proven effective at retaining older workers and encouraging productivity among their ranks, including:
- Flexible work arrangements;
- Reduced work hours;
- Special projects or challenging assignments;
- Mentoring opportunities;
- Formal recognition programs;
- Post-employment retirement options;
- Phased retirement;
- Secondments; and,
- Training and development opportunities.
Generating high X and Y performance
Gen Xers (born between 1961 and 1982) and Gen Yers (the children of Boomers, born after 1982) require different strategies that tap into key workplace motivators. Both generations seek to belong to innovative organizations that promote a learning culture, where education and training support their career advancement goals and keep them interested. They are keen multi-taskers. They value being kept in the loop through effective internal communications, along with the latest technologies to help them work efficiently. They seek friendly, collaborative workplaces and leaders who support work-life balance.
“Work-life balance is a must and shows employees that employers care to invest in their development as whole individuals, not just as workers,” says Michelle Dagnino, a Toronto-based lawyer and leading expert on generational change. “At the same time, they are committed to productivity and have no problem working longer hours as long as it fits into their schedule. In most cases they will look to shape their jobs to fit their lives rather than adapt their lives to fit the workplace.”
Dagnino argues that workplace policies must embrace the Generation Y mindset, integrating its guiding principles into the organization’s culture. For the public service to thrive under a new generation, its leaders must look at ways to modernize age-old operating systems and management practices. What does this mean specifically?
- Develop collaborative working environments where Gen Yers can capitalize on their strong social networks;
- Be open to new approaches in order to allow innovation to flourish;
- Offer employees the freedom to work at home and set their own hours;
- Provide frequent feedback and individual recognition to increase productivity; and
- Create opportunities for employees to take on leadership roles.
“To truly get the most out their Gen Y employees, employers need to look beyond salary and benefits and explore opportunities for leadership for Gen Yers in the workplace,” says Dagnino. “An employer who can provide and communicate a strong plan for development and advancement will be well on their way to retaining their top Gen Y employees.”
Case study: StatCan
Statistics Canada is one such employer. The Department recognizes the generational distinctions of this key demographic. Independent and self-reliant, Gen Yers seek variety, want challenging work and are less loyal than previous generations. With 20 percent of its workforce born after 1978, implementing strategies that directly address the younger generation’s needs is critical to StatCan’s long-term success.
“We have to focus on bringing people in at the beginning. We want to grow our people,” says Kopersiewich. “If you treat them to the point of where they see their career going and offer flexibility, then you increase your chances of retaining them exponentially.”
The Department takes a “life cycle approach” to career management, offering a recruitment development program aimed at giving young workers opportunities for networking, job rotations and experiences in a variety of subject matter areas. The program contributes to better engagement, and ultimately, greater productivity.
Engagement starts at the top
StatCan’s approach is one that is built on innovative ideas and solid leadership. Indeed, as the research firm Towers Perrin discovered in its global wor