Generational Differences in the Workplace: Work Environment & Style

For the first time in history, there are five generations in the workplace. Think of all the experiences they have weathered. The Great Depression, World War II, the invention of the internet, and the Civil Rights movement. The AIDS epidemic, September 11th, the 2008 financial crash, the first iPhone, and a global pandemic. The list goes on. Below is the percentage of the current workforce and birth years of each generation:

  • Traditionalists (2%) – born 1925 to 1945
  • Baby Boomers (25%) – born 1946 to 1964
  • Generation X (33%) – born 1965 to 1980
  • Millennials (35%) – born 1981 to 2000
  • Generation Z (5%) – born 2001 to 2020

Generational differences in the workplace can show up in the way people think, behave, and act. They each bring different expectations, perspectives, experiences, and skills to the table. It’s more important than ever for companies to understand the generational differences and what sets them apart, especially with work styles. It’s not only important to engage employees and increase productivity – it’s about making sure everyone has a satisfying work environment when they clock in.

In the workplace, generations can have vastly different work styles – which is what we will focus on in this blog. This could stem from a variety of reasons, such as technology and education. As the workforce diversifies, it is important to acknowledge and understand these differences.

The gap in access to technology is one of the key differences between generations in the workplace. Millennials and Gen Z’ers are digital natives, while Baby Boomers and Traditionalists are digital immigrants who may not be tech-savvy. Younger generations are also more likely to accept new technologies than their older counterparts. Each generation has a contrasting educational background too. Most Baby Boomers were educated before computers became part of everyday life, while Millennials grew up with computers and received a different education than their predecessors.

Another vast difference between generations in a work environment is how generations define their workday. This is mainly dictated by the employer, but now we are seeing hybrid schedules offered as the norm by many companies. Baby Boomers tend to believe working in person is more valuable and revere face-to-face interactions with co-workers. Often, they are more comfortable being in the office rather than working from home. They also look to the younger generations to pass along their career knowledge and enjoy that mentorship.

In contrast, Millennials and younger generations believe innovation and flexibility are key ingredients for success. They tend to embrace hybrid work schedules where they can work from the comfort of their own home or at their favorite coffee shop while splitting time in the office. These generations thrive on learning and going beyond what they learned in school. So becoming a  mentee to older generations works well for bridging the generational gap.

Gen X’ers tend to be in the middle. They embrace society’s need for changing the norm of a typical workday post-pandemic, this generation sees change as an opportunity and enjoys the flexibility of working from home like their younger counterparts or in the office like their older counterparts. Companies with a strong culture and policies in place for workplace wellbeing, offer workday flexibility to their employees. Thus, allowing them to work from whatever environment they are comfortable in or around changing personal schedules.

We’ve already touched on the topic of working from home in a previous blog. But what about communication? This plays a huge role in generational differences in the work environment — in person, remote and hybrid. As noted, older generations tend to prefer face-to-face communication and rely on the phone and email. They become frustrated when attempts at communication are ignored or misconstrued because of technology overuse. Younger generations rely on technology and apps for communication, which can be difficult for older generations to understand. How do we bridge the communication gap?

Think about the global pandemic. We lived and worked from our homes for many months which forced us to filter our “in-person” communication through Zoom, Google Meet, or Teams. This was a huge learning curve for older generations but was the only way “in-person” meetings and social interactions occurred during that time. However, this push to use technology also broadened the education of what we can do with apps and technology. Older generations began to use grocery apps more frequently and Zoom’ed their grandkid’s birthday parties to stay connected. While the younger generations tapped into their desire for autonomy and independence of not being interrupted by in-person distractions of the time.

Lastly, the physical work environment has changed significantly over generations. When Baby Boomers started their careers, many were told to be at their desks 8+ hours a day with minimal interactions with others. Can you imagine how appalling this would be for the younger generations today? Self-included! This certainly was a time before companies made culture, workplace wellbeing, and work/life balance a priority.

Today, we design spaces to be multifunctional and mainly shared. We do incorporate designated areas but rather in a more flexible sense. For example, XYZ company may only have 10% of their workforce in the office on Mondays and by Thursday they have closer to 85%. We must be prepared to equip companies with the needs of a more transient workforce. Spaces such as hubs like collaboration, focus, and social spaces, soundproof phone booth spaces, and even transitional workspace furniture round out what most companies need the most today, adaptability. While closed offices, shared offices, or even open concept rooms may not be suitable for every company, replacing cubical-style farms with collaborative areas is the norm in workplace design.

A multigenerational workplace is part of our reality. We all have something to learn from one another, no matter what generation we were born in. We all have different expectations of our employer and our work environment. With each generation’s perspectives brought to the table, we will increase innovation and allow for mentorship opportunities to broaden our knowledge. Let’s celebrate this and embrace the work style differences, from the older to the younger generations and everything in between.



Written by Anne Holden