Guide: 10 Principles for Managing Mixed-Age Teams

10 Principles for Managing Mixed-Age Teams

New approaches to managing your workforce can leverage the strength of each generation

by Heather Tinsley-Fix, AARP, August 17, 2020

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En español | The current labor force — both in the United States and globally — is more generationally diverse than it has ever been. Twenty years ago there were only three generations in the workforce (silent generation, boomers and Generation X), but today the working age population includes millennials and Generation Z in addition to the other three (though of course the silent generation is the smallest percentage). And longevity trends indicate this will remain the case, with half of all children in the U.S. age 13 and younger predicted to live to 104. Even with the possibility of an increasing number of people working remotely, experts agree people will both need and want to work longer than the traditional retirement age.

Chances are, you may have noticed this wealth of ages in your own workforce composition — and may be wondering what to do about it. Are there distinct advantages that come with a mix of ages, and if so how can you leverage them? The good news is, even during a global pandemic, there are distinct advantages to an age-diverse workforce. Research shows that mixed-age teams in organizations with strong inclusive practices drive higher productivity and lower turnover (for both older and younger workers). This is partially because diversity in general boosts organizational outcomes, but age diversity in particular appears to boost productivity at the team level, likely due to the effect of “knowledge spillover” — sharing knowledge gained from past experiences.

Best practices for managing multigenerational teams are not entirely different than those for managing teams in general. However, here are 10 specific principles that will help you build and manage age-diverse teams.

1. Value

Concentrate on the value each team member creates rather than on their title or seniority. Whether through public recognition or private development conversations, focus on the value each team member contributes and how that value stems from their unique skill set rather than from how senior they are.

2. Experience

Emphasize experience (and its relevance to the team's work), regardless of age. The unique experiences of early, mid-, and late-career workers each have a role to play in creating products, designing solutions and solving problems. Adopting this mindset will enable you to recognize all team members without falling prey to age-based stereotypes.

3. Bias

Scrap the stereotypes and stay alert for unconscious bias. Don't assume (for example) that younger workers are fast or older workers are tech-illiterate — observe each team member individually. Encourage team members to call out instances where they feel they (or others) are being limited by stereotypical thinking.

4. Professional development

Promote training opportunities — encourage everyone on the team, regardless of age, to take advantage of all offered training and upskilling benefits provided by the organization, including tuition reimbursement, interim assignments and job shadowing.

5. Communication

Accommodate differences in communication styles. Some team members prefer text and chat to email, others prefer phone or in-person conversations. Check in periodically on how communication is received, particularly with regard to word choice and even punctuation. Some generational differences do exist, and these can unintentionally result in offense or misunderstanding.

6. Life stage

Adopt an expansive view of age that moves beyond a person's chronological age and takes life stage into account — some boomers are going back to school, many Gen Xers have young children, roughly a quarter of family caregivers are millennials. Major life events are a stronger indicator of employee needs and affinities than age.

7. Mixed-age teams

When possible, deliberately pair older and younger workers on tasks or projects. Research shows that mixed-age teams are more productive and perform better on complex and creative tasks than teams without a spread of ages.

8. New skills

Approach development conversations from a growth mindset (everyone can learn) and in a positive light (how can we leverage you, what do you need?). Avoid inadvertently dismissing older workers with traditional approaches to development that associate growth with youth. And provide support for workers who might feel daunted by the prospect of developing new skills.

9. Compensation

Think creatively about compensation and other incentive structures to reconfigure how “career success” is defined. While moving “up the ladder” is one way to incentivize employees, placing a premium on knowledge and experience is another way to value workers who continue to contribute at a high level.

10. Knowledge transfer

Be deliberate about knowledge transfer. While it often happens organically, it is wise to encourage it, as well as to devise a system for capturing what is being transmitted. Explore how knowledge transfer can double as training opportunities for younger and older workers alike. And make sure to foster an atmosphere of psychological safety to alleviate tension between generations that may include fears of being pushed out on one end or denied opportunity on the other.

How are you leveraging your mixed-age team, particularly in the time of COVID-19, when many team members may continue to work remotely? Please feel free to share your experiences and ideas in the comments section.