These days, most companies have hectic social schedules. From baby showers to retirement parties, cross-generational events like these are examples of how diverse our workforce is right now. Many of us are lamenting the fact that we’re getting older and the workforce is getting younger. But there’s no getting around it; shifting demographics aren’t just perception—they’re fact.
This is a vital concern for organizations across the world. Today’s workforce is more diverse than ever, and that diversity is creating challenges that expand beyond training and meeting rooms. We have to start asking the question now: Are we ready for this shift?
Here are three of the biggest trends support organizations need to be focusing on:
Increased globalization of the economy
Changing demographics of the workforce (causing a shortage of skilled workers)
A shortage of skilled workers (leading to more contract and freelancers)
The last trend—a shortage of skilled workers—should be of greatest concern to companies today. In the United States, more than 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65 every day (that’s one every eight seconds!). Between now and 2020, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be 54.8 million job openings, and 61.6 percent of those will be due to replacement (i.e., retirement).
Many organizations aren’t prepared to handle this change. They aren’t investing in knowledge management and knowledge resources to ensure that valuable information is retained by the organization when employees retire (or are retired). I recently worked with a company that retired almost 300 employees (approximately 10% of its workforce), many of whom worked in IT and support. To start shifting the organization to a younger demographic, this company elected not bring on any of these retired workers on a contract or freelance basis. In one sweep, decades of knowledge left the company for good.
No sector will be immune from these shifts. The Office of Management and Budget estimates more than 20 percent of its workforce is over the age of 55. By 2017, the Office of Personnel Management reports that more than one-third of federal workers will be eligible to collect retirement benefits. Currently, just seven percent of federal employees are under the age of 33. By 2020, this age group will make up 50 percent of the entire workforce.
So, where do support organizations need to start focusing their energies and strategies? There are two key components that are essential for success today and in the future:
What are the unique characteristics of each generation? How can we can better understand, train, and retain across different generations?
What are the methods of support that our users and customers prefer across different generations?
First, we must understand the characteristics of each generation, including what they value, how they learn, how they like to receive training, what motivates them, and how they like to engage with technical support.
Baby Boomers (1946–1964)
Values: Baby Boomers value work that is meaningful. They believe in the "What can I do for the company?" mentality, in doing the job right the first time, and in working their way up the ladder. Paying your dues, loyalty, and respect for authority and hierarchy are hallmarks of this generation. This generation values face time, so work-from-home flexibility isn’t as important to them. Boomers tend to move more slowly than the other generations.
Motivation: Trust is an important motivation, both between employees and in the organization. Rewards for a job well done (i.e., bonuses and perks) play a big part in motivating Boomers.
Learning styles: Boomers favor books, standard operating procedure manuals, face-to-face presentations, meetings, lectures, and workshop training (featuring case studies and examples they can engage with).
Training environment: Boomers value training that allows them to transform knowledge into a tangible skill. Certifications are of high value because they increase one’s reputation and knowledge. They require trainers who respect their knowledge and engage them in the learning process. Boomers tend to be very auditory, so learning is best delivered when they can discuss and read information.
Technical support preferences: More and more support organizations are offering "Genius Bar" walk-in–type support. This is exactly what the Boomer craves: live interaction with a qualified technical support professional! Boomers prefer more traditional methods of support and communication, including telephone support, face-to-face (on-site) support, walk-in support, and email. This is important for a support organization to understand, because we’re rapidly moving away from traditional support channels. What percentage of your customer base falls into the Boomer generation? If it’s a large percentage, your support strategy will need to reflect their needs and preferences.
For example, many companies are replacing email with a web portal. Boomers will use this channel for support if and only if they’re trained properly and understand how to submit their own tickets through the web—and what is in it for them. Focused marketing and training in new electronic support offerings are musts.
Generation X (1965–1980)
Values: Generation X is a hybrid of the more traditional Baby Boomers and the more technically proficient Millennials. Generation X prides itself on being independent, resourceful, and fun. They’re very focused on goals and objectives, yet they want the freedom to produce as they see fit. They also believe that loyalty must be earned; they don’t blindly follow. Many Generation X-ers watched their Baby Boomer parents work hard and give up a lot while they were growing up, which can cause some skepticism and lack of trust.
Motivation: Generation X is motivated by fun, freedom, and flexibility. They liked to be coached, so they can adjust and improve their job performance. Flexible schedules and work-from-home options are important to this generation.
Learning style: Generation X prefers to learn via interactive training and likes to ask questions. They like having the flexibility and freedom to learn at their own pace (i.e., video tutorials). However, what they are learning must be have real-world application, or they will dismiss it. Case studies and hands-on opportunities to explore or demonstrate skills work well with this generation.
Training environment: Generation X likes to learn alone, rather than in a team environment. It’s important to create an environment of learning that is continuous, flexible, and informal, but one that also allows time to ask questions and receive feedback. Technology-based methods that allow people to learn at their own pace, including e-learning and multimedia training, are preferred.
Technical support preferences: Generation X will seek to find the answer themselves first before engaging technical support, but when they do they prefer a mix of traditional and electronic channels. Email, telephone support, chat, video tutorials, and online forums are their preferred methods of support. It’s vital that organizations provide Generation X with a range of support channels and the ability to choose.
Values: The Millennial generation—which, again, is going to be 50 percent of the workforce by the year 2020—is known for being the most misunderstood and the most difficult generation to manage. Millennials have enjoyed many social and educational opportunities that weren’t afforded to the other generations. Millennials have also been encouraged to express their opinions, secure in the knowledge that their input is valuable and valued (whether or not it truly is). Overall, they tend to be more optimistic and accepting of authority than Generation X.
Motivation: Millennials want to be rewarded, but they’re driven less by money and more by what they can accomplish. A common misconception about Millennials is that they won’t and don’t work hard. This generation simply requires relevant work, clear objectives, and consistent coaching.
Learning style: Millennials like to be stimulated with new ideas, and they relish opportunities to grow and learn. The respond best to collaborative, media-rich, technology-driven training, and they tend to be extremely visual learners who are team-oriented and like to work in groups. Social media, texting, and e-learning are the preferred learning methods for this generation.
Training environment: The training environment needs to be structured yet flexible, with clear objectives and time to perform self-assessments. Millennials like immediate feedback, so trainers/facilitators should know how to deliver feedback in a timely and effective manner customized to the student. Technologically, videos, digital media, and gamification tools can dramatically increase the engagement and success of training for Millennials.
Technical support preferences: Millennials want all the technical and collaborative support tools they can get their hands on. They prefer to use blogs, forums, and social collaboration (chat and video) to search for solutions themselves before they’ll actually pick up the phone and call for support. They expect immediate response, so be prepared to support this generation quickly and effectively!
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The workforce is changing rapidly, forcing a shift in how we manage our teams and support our customers. There are three primary strategies support organizations must implement to stay ahead of the game. First, conduct a customer landscape survey, focusing on the current generation breakdown of the customer base, the support tools they want, and the services and products they want that you aren’t delivering. Second, support organization must focus now and implement the following strategies to stay ahead of the evolution. Second, conduct a learning-needs analysis to figure out how each member of your team learns, how to tailor your training to meet the needs of all generations, and how to improve your coaching/mentoring program. Finally, conduct leadership training to make sure your leaders know how to engage their employees and manage across generations. If you start asking yourself these questions now, you’ll be ready to weather the changes ahead.
Fancy Mills has more than eighteen years of experience in training, consulting, recruiting, and workforce management, focusing on the technical support and call center industries. As a Certified Workforce Manager, Fancy has helped companies develop staffing and workforce management best practices and SOPs. As a member of the HDI Faculty, she has helped certify more than 20,000 support professionals, managers, directors, and corporate trainers. In addition, she has facilitated courses in presentation, communication, and time management, and she’s presented at industry conferences and events. She’s currently pursuing her MS in educational human resource development, with a specialization in adult education, at Texas A&M University.