For the first time, in-house facility managers are faced with the challenge of overseeing four generations of employees in the workplace: Traditionalists (born before 1946), Baby Boomers (born from 1946 to 1964), Generation X (born from 1965 to 1980), and Millennials (born after 1980). Understanding the differences between the generations is critical if custodial executives want to build a successful, multigenerational department.

Although older generations are reaching retirement age, a significant number of employees continue to work past retirement or return to work part time out of necessity. As a result, it is not uncommon for custodial departments to witness 70-year-olds working alongside 17-year-old newcomers.

According to industry consultants, this new work dynamic can lead to friction when the attitudes and work ethics of different generations clash.

“They don’t know how to treat each other, and there’s often a lack of respect from both sides,” says Ralph Peterson, training manager for Healthcare Services Group Inc. in Charlotte, North Carolina. “But the good news about these generations is they really can work together well. They understand the mission, and they have no problem working hard. You just have to understand, they all have different triggers.”

These “triggers” can be identified by first defining each generation’s strengths, characteristics, preferences, expectations, beliefs and work style. Then, leveraging the strengths of the staff and creating a work environment that values those differences.

The challenge for many custodial executives is that they try to fit an increasingly nontraditional workforce into an overly traditional department. To overcome this, Sandra Christensen, an organizational development consultant in Milwaukee, urges managers to avoid focusing solely on age.

“You have to be careful not to use age as the one descriptor,” she says. “Generational differences influence our attitudes and work ethics. Other things come into play, like family background or world events people have lived through. Considering how these have affected their view of the world can help us be more compassionate and understanding about why people are the way they are.”  

Traits And Triggers

When it comes to characterizing Traditionalists and Baby Boomers, industry pundits concur: Older generations tend to be loyal to their employers and have a strong work ethic.

“Traditionalists were raised by parents that survived the Great Depression,” says Sharon Cowan, CBSE, industry consultant for Cleaning Business Consulting Group, Vero Beach, Florida. “They tend to have a lot of structure in their lives. They’re rule followers and conformists, and they have respect for authority.”

Both Traditionalists and Baby Boomers are no stranger to long work hours either. Many are comfortable working 50 to 60 hours a week.

“That work proves their value, and that’s where they get their self worth from,” says Cowan.

These older generations also have a strong sense of job security. Many have worked in the same job since graduating high school, and will stay on board until they retire. By contrast, today’s economic uncertainty and lack of job security has fostered an entrepreneurial spirit in the younger generation.

“Younger generations are looking out for themselves and want to manage their own careers because they don’t know if their job will be there for them in five years,” says Christensen. “So opportunities to grow and develop are very important to them.”

Peterson agrees and stresses that Generation X and Millennial workers are looking for the fast track to success.

“They want to learn everything they can so they can do everything themselves,” he says. “They want to know how to run their own housekeeping company or department.”

In addition to their desire for independence, younger generations — particularly Millennials (sometimes referred to as Generation Y) — are driven by technology.

“Millennials are the first group raised entirely in the digital world, and that’s taught them to expect instant gratification,” says Cowan. “They are accustomed to very busy schedules and they were typically doted on by their parents. They’re the ‘all-about-me’ group and they like to be the center of attention.”

This need for attention and desire for growth can be challenging in custodial departments, says Peterson.

“Millennials are so smart and passionate, and they’re brimming with energy and ideas. It’s hard to slow them down,” he says. “They also have the attitude that they can do more than just housekeeping, so they’re the hardest to hold on to.”

Fortunately, despite these generational differences, managers can take steps to encourage staff engagement and enhance productivity among varying age groups.

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Getting The Most Out of Workers Of All Ages