The generational gap in the workplace has become a much-discussed topic in recent years, as an increasing number of graduates are joining the workforce, while at the same time more senior members are delaying retirement to a later age.
The result is a blend of baby boomers and Gen Z in the office, which brings with it a new set of challenges. In many ways, technology is seen as one of the main causes of the generational divide in the workplace today, and yet it is also a business enabler, if dealt with effectively.
Diversity for good or ill?
Tech association CompTIA revealed that although employees across the generations have similar career goals, millennials are much more comfortable using technology, and view their older colleagues as rigid and stuck in their ways.
Meanwhile, research conducted by Canadian recruitment agency Robert Half, showed that communication skills, the ability to adapt to change and technological abilities are the top three areas where generations differ the most in the workplace.
Generations X and Y often view change ‘as a vehicle for new opportunities’, while Gen Z simply ‘is accustomed to change and expects it in the workplace’. Baby boomers on the other hand are more reluctant and cautious when it comes to adapting to changes.
So, how do we use generational diversity to our advantage in the workplace, instead of a divisionary force?
Mind the gap
First, we need to understand how different generations view technology. The research reveals that when it comes to technological skills, unsurprisingly, baby boomers and Gen X are more inclined to learn via ‘traditional instructor-led courses or self-learning tools’, while millennials prefer ‘collaborative and technology-centric vehicles’.
This attitude towards technology is confirmed by research from data analytics company Nielsen, which shows that more than 74% of millennials believe new technology makes their lives easier, compared to 31% of Generation X and just 18% of Baby Boomers.
Solutions and Challenges
At Corporate Traveller, a division of the Flight Centre Travel Group, we have seen similar trends in the area of business travel.
We’ve developed technology platforms (such as AI, chatbots and sophisticated online booking tools) to assist our customers and give a better service, but we’ve also seen that not all travellers are keen to embrace these changes – an interesting dilemma, particularly as we know this is indicative of a great organisational concern and challenge.
Technology’s rapid evolution has led to a surge of digital tools in every area of a corporate’s life. In travel, these tools can not only enhance the travel and booking experience for the traveller, they can also lead to lower transaction fees for the company.
However, although companies are often keen to drive tech adoption among their employees, this can in fact create a gap between generations. Some employees are simply more tech-ready than others to embrace technology, which can create friction.
A Blended Approach
The solution is for companies to understand the nuances of the different generations and adopt a ‘blended’ approach to technology, instead of a one-size-fits-all approach.
Success in a world of blended technology comes from ensuring that technology enhances human efforts to create a seamless experience for the employee.
Paul Daugherty and Jim Wilson, co-authors of Human + Machine: Reimagining Work in the Age of AI, explain in their research that what has been missing from the AI conversation are the collaborative tasks where humans help machines and machines help humans – something they call the ‘blended space’.
As an example, Daugherty and Wilson say that in the industrial world, technology has not replaced technicians, it’s merely enhancing their decision-making process.
Whereas previously technicians used to keep a checklist to maintain industrial equipment, AI-powered technology can now show technicians real-time characteristics of their equipment at all times, allowing them to make informed decisions in real time about what to do to maintain it.
It has allowed them to go from a tedious, checklist-driven, inefficient process to a real-time process that’s personalised to the piece of equipment.
In travel, we see that technology such as online booking tools are a great solution when travellers are booking a simple trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town for two days to meet important clients.
However, the human touch becomes important when a traveller for example gets a distressing phone call from home that they need to fly back immediately. It’s after hours and the last flight is leaving soon.
The last thing the traveller will want to do is log onto an online tool to try and book a seat. In these cases, it’s important for a traveller to know an expert consultant is just a call away to provide support and help with flight arrangements.
The same is true for complicated itineraries that require the high touch input of an expert. If the traveller is planning an elaborate trip to woo the investors of the company around the world, he will benefit from the personal advice on visas, and itinerary management of a professional consultant.
A travel management company will be able to help arrange forex, assist with visa applications and arrange airport transfers, all in one transaction.
So, what’s the lesson? If we want everyone in our organisation – and within our customer base – to embrace technology, we need a mix of the new and the more traditional. We need to understand that there is a time and a place for both.
Pulling it all together
Consider your organisation: Where does technology make sense, and where is the human touch still important? How can technology augment the valuable skills you already have? How can you ensure that your Gen X and baby boomer employees embrace technology, rather than feel threatened by it?
These are important questions to be asking.
In our world, Artificial Intelligence and bots should not replace human interaction but can help service providers deliver a better and more personalised customer experience. I believe there is a variation of this truth in every single industry.
A well-considered blended tech approach will not divide the workforce, but will help build a bridge between the different generations.