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How to engage Generation X in the workplace

How to engage Generation X in the workplace

Jonathan Davies


See how an intranet works

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12 mins read

Thu, Mar 7, '19  

All those guys that changed the world - Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey, Sergey Brin and Larry Page - are innovators and future-thinkers who saw the future and went for it.

They’re also all from Generation X, the “slackers” who grew up playing video games after school while their Boomer parents worked late, and who had to figure out their own way, their own answers and their own identity. Nobody handed anything to them; they made it themselves.

Generation X workers are among the most resourceful and innovative a company could ask for – so why is everyone so focused on the generations around them?

Generation X is individualistic, technologically adept, and flexible. They’re used to autonomy, and they’re used to digital. But they have a keen eye for BS and grew up skeptical of the mainstream – no corporate script nor opaque messaging will get them fired up for you. They’re career cynics, and being stuck between the Boomers and the Millennials is not thawing those icy hearts at all.

It’s increasingly accepted Generation X is the generation that business has forgotten. Growing up in the long, never-yielding shadow of the Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers are waiting longer for leadership positions as they wait for the Boomers to retire. And just when it started to look like they might have a shot at the top, in walk the eager and demanding Millennials who expect quick advancement or they’ll move onto other opportunities. This is the sandwich generation, forever stuck in the middle.

“Gen X is your bread and butter,” writes social scientist and generational expert Mary Donohue for the Huffington Post. “They have worked through more recessions than their parents or grandparents ever did. Most often they are executive leaders who are on the cusp of becoming the C-class, but aren't thriving in the workplace. The closer these workers get to 55 the more their knowledge becomes invaluable to your organization and to your customers. They are your intellectual capital.”

Donohue also notes, though, that Generation X is tired and exhausted because they have to manage both Boomers and Millennials. This causes disengagement and a sense of “presenteeism”, where they just show up and go through the motions because they need the job to get the money to care for their aging Boomer parents and pay for the education and housing of their Millennial kids.

“If not repaired,” continues Donohue, “Gen X malaise in the workforce corrodes the enthusiasm and commitment of Millennials. This malaise can be attributed to Gen X no longer feeling valued. Gen X are the managers, and our data indicates that if organizations begin to pay attention to the Gen X-Millennial relationship, your churn will drop by 50% and your productivity will increase by 11%.”

Those are some huge figures, so how do you increase Gen X engagement and productivity before their disengagement spreads?

Don’t bombard or hover over your Gen-Xers - mobilize them instead

These are the independent, autonomous thinkers, so they won’t respond well to a nanny state. Don’t hover at their desk – send them an IM to ask if they have time to chat face to face instead. Likewise, a robotic all-staff email that lists rules is likely to have them rolling their eyes and hitting delete faster than a Delorean travelling through time.

The good news for Internal Communications teams is that Gen X is an avid defender of workplace communication, and cares about company culture.

“Sixty-seven percent of Gen X leaders are also effective in "hyper-collaboration," and are working relentlessly to break down organizational silos,” write Stephanie Neal and Richard Wellins for CNBC. “Gen X leaders' strength for working with  - and through - others is enabling them to shape the future of work and generate faster innovation by getting people working together to solve customers' and their organization's issues.” You should enable this through your Google intranet and team collaboration tools.

You still have around 20 to 25 years left with your Gen X workforce, which puts them in prime territory for knowledge transfers. Use their experience and expertise to build a company wiki in your Google intranet, or involve them in the build and deployment of your Google team collaboration tools. It will appeal to the tech-head in them while ensuring their knowledge is captured for posterity. Plus, asking them to lead these projects will show they’re not forgotten, and help to make them feel all warm and fuzzy. (Our resident Gen-Xers wholeheartedly vouch for the warm and fuzzies as a means of engagement. Chocolate also works. A promotion is better.)

Enable autonomy through technology

Despite what the media might tell you about Millennials’ obsession with their smartphones, Gen X is in fact the most connected generation. They use social media 40 minutes more each week than Millennials, are more likely to stay on their phones at the dinner table, and are more likely to spend more time on every device they have available.

The Internal Communications team can use this to its advantage – especially as Gen X now hold 51% of leadership roles globally. Imagine the impact it will have on engagement with and uptake of your digital workplace when your Gen X leadership team adopts it wholeheartedly. Get the leadership team communicating with wider colleagues through your Google intranet, using integrations like Slack or hosting Meet to connect across the divide and give them shiny tech to play with. Can they post a morning greeting from the daily commute? The social intranet was made for these guys, not just the Millennials, and it even gives them a mobile app to avoid dinner conversation.

But although Gen X is generally tech-savvy they aren’t necessarily jumping onto the latest innovation as early adopters, so you’ll need a mixture of digital and analog for a Gen X workplace. Just don’t forget the shiny digital; they crave connectivity like an addict.

Remind them about work/life balance

Their Boomer parents were workaholics; everything was about pleasing the boss and moving up the corporate ladder. For their Millennial underlings, it’s all about using the digital workplace to enhance work/life balance – enabling working from anywhere at any time to give freedom to pursue passions.

Gen X might see the value of leaving the office relatively on time to get home, but they’ll just jump back online once they’re there, voraciously reading about the industry developments or answering emails and IMs from the dinner table. They cannot switch off - 20% of them say they’re struggling to achieve a work/life balance - but the cynic in them isn’t sure about all this body-mind-soul stuff the kids are on about.

Use your Google intranet and team collaboration tools to remind Gen X to switch off, even if they have to do it by joining a Meet training session on how to switch off. Of course, better and more efficient team collaboration will give them back hours in the week where they can learn more about relaxation – or jump onto their PlayStation.

But remember: generational segmentation is not the answer

In our recent report on the Rise of Google Workspace , Internal Communications guru Helen Deverell suggested thinking of your audience in terms of generations is “too simplistic”.

“I frequently conduct Internal Communication audits and the reasons people don’t use social collaboration tools or digital workspaces at work is often because they don’t have time, the content isn’t relevant, or no one has explained the purpose of tool. Very rarely is it because they’re uncomfortable using technology,” she said.

When rolling out your digital workplace, the most important thing to do is to provide training and appoint champions who are enthusiastic about technology. The forgotten Gen-Xers, with their technology obsession and their passion for mentoring, would make the perfect champions for your Google intranet. Get them using Google collaboration tools and they’ll soon be shouting from the rooftops about how much easier worklife is.