Bridging the Gap: Leveraging Generational Differences to Create a More Effective Workplace

Over the last century, the design and application of workspace has evolved alongside a U.S. economy that has transitioned to being predominately knowledge-based rather than manufacturing-based. The shift from open workspaces and interactive shop floors to a sea of poorly-lit cubicles and closed offices that has accompanied this evolution has only served to further illustrate the growing contrast.

Only recently are we experiencing a movement back toward a more open work environment, one teeming with collaborative spaces and infused with color, natural lighting and quality workstations. The most influential factor driving these changes is the workforce, and not simply because salaries represent an average of more than 70 percent of a facility’s life-cycle cost, but because for the first time in history, four generations of people are working side by side. As such, a credit union’s success will be due in part to how well it understands and supports the needs and preferences of the different ages and life situations of the employers’ most valuable asset: their people.

It is essential that a credit union’s employee culture reflect the credit union’s core values and goals, and that it leverages the various skills, motivations and knowledge of its employees. With such varied dynamics and worldviews at play in today’s workforce, it is essential that credit unions work toward effective collaboration and communication between the different generations they are employing.

To help credit unions in their effort to maximize their workforce, the Northwest Credit Union Association (NWCUA) 2011 Convention and Annual Business Meeting will feature a break-out session specific to this topic. Led by Bob Saunders and Greg Barrett of Momentum, “Changing Workspaces for the Changing Workforce” will address generational diversity in the workplace as well as providing strategies specific to the needs of credit unions.

One key to determining how a Credit Union should best foster a work culture that successfully bridges generational diversity and work styles is a strong grasp on the dynamics of each generation. In their book “Generations at work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers and Nexters in Your Workplace”, Zemke, Raines, and Filipczak (2000), define four modern U.S. generations:

  • Veterans (b. 1920-1942)
  • Baby Boomers (b. 1943-1960)
  • Generation X (b. 1961-1979)
  • Millennials (b.1980-2000)

The generations can characteristically be defined through the influences, technologies, and values outlined in the following tables.

Veterans – “The Greatest Generation”, “The Silent Generation”

Influences Growing Up


Values Today

Great Depression Punch card Patience & loyalty
Silver screen and radio Magnetic tape & disks Hierarchy & authority
WW II & Korean War FORTRAN & COBOL Hard work & dedication
GI Bill


Public recognition
Growth of suburbia & travel


Set work structures
Play clothes & school clothes



Baby Boomers (80 Million people)

Influences Growing Up


Values Today

Little League & Halloween Integrated circuits Water cooler talk
Television & rock radio Semiconductors Professional identity
Vietnam War FORTRAN, COBOL & BASIC Competitive nature
Women’s & civil rights MS-DOS Optimism
“Summer of Love”


Health & wellness
Space exploration



Generation X (46 Million people)

Influences Growing Up


Values Today

Divorces & recession IBM, Apple & PC’s Autonomy & independence
Corporate downsizing PASCAL, C++, PostScript & GUI Balance work & family
AIDS Floppy disks Conservative spending
Astronauts as victims Internet Critical thinking & reality checks
MTV Computer viruses Flexibility & work options

Millennials/Gen Y (76 Million people)

Influences Growing Up


Values Today

Technology is a given Java, Web 2.0, C# Optimism & confidence
Constant coaching Laptops, tablets & iPods Diversity
Girl power Avatars & wikis Teamwork & participation
Green movement Cloud computing Positive feedback
War in the Middle East


Variety & multitasking
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube


Entitlement & upward mobility



Flexibility & virtual work

Within these four different generations, there is a natural shift toward a larger composition of Millennials in the workforce. As the future leaders and decision-makers for credit unions, their preferences, motivations, and work styles need to be a significant consideration in developing workplace strategies.

As Annika Hylmö of The Insight Generation states, “[Millennials] are a unique workforce that is a great asset to companies that want to be around for the long run. They are a tremendous resource to organizations that want to stay relevant to their customer base. When treated with understanding, support and acceptance of their integral values, the Millennials can be the bridge to the next generation in business.”

The Millennials come armed with a natural ability to work in teams, to work virtually, and to work and think creatively. They are known as being efficient at gathering information online and innately understand how to maximize the potential of technology. In addition to technical aptitude, Millennials are very good at bringing people together and embracing community and diversity.

Given all of these dynamics, successful credit unions are working to develop workspace strategies that not only support the composition of today’s workforce, but that can also adapt to the future needs of the growing number of Millennials. By creating environments that invite employees to collaborate, share information, and learn from one another, credit unions will put themselves in position to better maximize the strengths of this important demographic.

Often, generational misunderstandings in the workplace can be attributed to two significant changes that occurred in this country over the past 60 years.

The first is a transformation in the way we work. In many organizations, the hierarchy has become flatter, so many more employees are involved in decision-making. Employees of all ages and experience levels now interact more as peers and work toward project-based goals, as individual reward has given way to team-based rewards.

Secondly, the change from the industrial era to the age of information has put many older employees in a position of inexperience. As a result, younger employees often no longer feel dependent on the older generations for their expertise. Now a Millennial employee with expertise in information technology might be training a Baby Boomer CEO in the context of social media.

Compounding these challenges is our basic human nature of feeling affinity with people in our age group. In research performed by Steelcase, a leading office furniture manufacturer, workers are inclined to best identify with and have the most admiration for colleagues near their own age.

Despite these various cultural challenges, generational differences can actually be used to strengthen the culture and overall effectiveness of an organization. The key is to find common ground in the areas where each group has priorities and to address them through workplace strategy and design. Three such areas are meaningful work, collaboration, and learning. While the generations might have different points of view on what is meaningful, how they like to collaborate, and the kind of learning they seek, they tend to agree on the importance of these three areas.

All generations value the opportunity to contribute to their organization, regardless of the reason, and they want to be part of an organization where something of value is happening. For some individuals, this might take on a “holistic” flavor, while for others, it is enough that the organization’s services or products are created with pride and quality.

As Lisa Phillips, COO at 3Rivers FCU put it, It’s like the best kind of neighborhood block or cul-de-sac to grow up in, where everyone looks out for each other, learning from each other and showing each other how to take pride in what they have together. Everyone helping their neighbors with problems or concerns that arise over the years, and looking out for the common good and care of the ‘block’ or circle of homes, families, and their community.”

A team approach to addressing issues and generating ideas is the common ground for all generations. Collaboration and learning are closely intertwined subjects, since adult learning is primarily experiential, so supporting collaboration and learning among the generations is essentially a matter of creating as many ways as possible for people to gather together, formally and otherwise.

In order to capitalize on this opportunity, the proper workplace environment must be developed, one that allows for collaboration, impromptu meetings and the enhancement of personal relationships. Collaboration occurs in a multitude of places within the workplace, such as conference rooms, hallways, lobbies, offices and break rooms. Who isn’t involved with conference call and WebEx discussions on a daily basis? During those calls, personal interaction certainly takes place, but the results of the meetings are only most effective if the space in which the meeting takes place is conducive to team input and collaboration.

Credit unions are facing a host of challenges in their efforts to find the right balance between increased productivity and cost containment. Moreover, their most valuable asset, the workforce, is now more complex and diverse than it has ever been in modern history. However, for those willing to embrace these challenges and address them in a strategic way, it can pay dividends for the organization, its employees, and its members.

Not only does an effective workplace support business strategies, but research clearly indicates that a physical work environment plays a significant role in attracting and retaining quality workers and ultimately has a major impact on the success of an organization. Therefore, understanding which elements of an office environment have the most powerful effects on their organization enables a credit union to target their planning, design and facility management investments, and ultimately enhance performance and worker satisfaction. While certainly not a simple challenge, by appreciating and embracing the intricacies of its workforce and designing strategies around them, a credit union will improve all facets of its business. As a result, the workplace truly becomes a strategic business tool.

For more information, contact Michael Downs at Momentum.


Check out the 2011 Convention & Annual Business Meeting smartphone application for more information on Convention, or you can contact the Anthem Editor:

Posted in MAXX Annual Convention.