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Awareness builds bridges between generation gaps

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Awareness builds bridges between generation gaps

Three practical tips for cooperation between generations
For a company like Hint, knowledge is its biggest asset. However, since knowledge resides in the mind, giving it an intangible and invisible nature, its value is difficult to transfer. This is especially true when it comes to knowledge transfer between people of different generations. Sometimes these differences get in the way. How, then, do you ensure that everyone benefits from each other’s expertise and skills?

The whole industry is currently facing a huge brain drain. Employees are retiring en masse and taking with them all their knowledge and expertise. Transferring those skills has proven difficult in practice and this can cause problems in the workplace. Actually, it’s already too late if you start thinking about how to replace experienced people at the moment they leave. For a long time at Hint, therefore, we have been trying to connect the different generations of employees and get them to learn from each other. Our staff ranges in age from Generation Z to Baby Boomer to everything in between. The older, experienced employees know a lot about the energy sector, proven technologies and have many contacts in the market while the younger employees bring knowledge and experience with the latest digital technology, 24/7 online mentality and view our business with fresh eyes. They complement each other and together they are incredibly strong. But do they leverage each other’s knowledge well enough? We investigated.

Investigation into knowledge transfer
One of our employees has recently studied the communication between generations in the workplace. For this, he interviewed each employee and asked them about their experiences with regard to the mutual communication in projects and knowledge transfer. It became apparent that many employees, in addition to positive aspects, also experienced difficulties. Unclear communication and unclear division of roles were named as ‘problems’, for example, in the communication techniques. Sometimes colleague communication is too complicated or the different ways in which people express themselves clash: direct or nuanced, long-winded or more to the point.

The study’s most important finding was that many employees find it difficult to transfer knowledge. The reason for this is sometimes on the side of the receiver, who can feel that the shared information comes from too high of a level. For example, because he or she lacks the necessary knowledge to understand it. Also, the information shared is often too general or presented in an ad hoc manner. Differences in age and character also play a major role. The younger worker may have a shorter attention span, but may be thinking creatively while the older colleague often offers deep knowledge about a specific topic, but finds it difficult to empathize with the younger person’s seemingly ‘superficial’ manner.

As part of the study, we also played a ‘generation game’ together. People of different ages tried to jointly determine the typical characteristics of different generations. Not easy! Ultimately, you can not but conclude that one can’t stereotype an entire generation. The differences are there, but in practice you deal with unique personalities who never quite fit the generalized picture of their generation.

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Communication is a two-way street
How do you deal with this? And how do you ensure that knowledge is commonly shared and does not remain hidden in people’s minds? In general, the advice is: make people aware that there are differences between age groups and between people in general. These differences can greatly affect communication. If they are discussed often enough, people will consider them in their collaboration with colleagues. They will better empathize with other people’s situations and backgrounds, not just communicate from their own ‘frame of mind’. Also, they will be open to the views of others and be open to communication with them, without judgment. Each generation has a different standard of what ‘normal’ means. Talk to each other and find out what expectations others have. Older people say sometimes, “young people need to ask more questions”. But look at it the other way around: perhaps the older workers need to start the conversation more often. Everyone needs to take responsibility herein. Communication is a two-way street.

As management, there are quite a few concrete steps you can take to foster generational collaboration among employees. These are my top three tips:

  1. Set up project teams consisting of different types of people of all different ages. This results in balanced teams with members who complement each other. By working closely together they will gain more understanding of each other.
  2. Organize regular, informal, moments for conversation in which everyone can tell each other about what they are doing in their work and where they are having trouble. This makes it easier to help each other.
  3. Let old and young employees train together. Each group has its own strengths and expertise. If they can educate each other therein, it is instructive for both parties. You can even consider instituting a mentor, or old apprenticeship system.

Two know better than one, and ten even more. Therefore, remove the impediments to sharing matters on the workfloor. In this way you build bridges for all the generation gaps!

Wouter Last, president Hint