How to Expertly Manage 4 Different Generations in Your Water Lab

With Generation Z now entering the workforce, your water testing lab has the unique opportunity to employ four different generations at once. But hiring is one thing, getting each of these groups to work in harmony is another entirely.

So how do you expertly manage four generations in the workplace? Start by understanding each demographic — common characteristics, typical challenges, and motivators — but don't rely on stereotypes. Your employees are individuals, each with unique strengths and weaknesses, and should always be treated as such.

Getting to Know the Generations on Your Team

Because of culture shifts over time, each generation possesses a unique viewpoint. It can be helpful to understand common themes among them. Purdue University offers a handy overview of each generation in the workplace. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Baby boomers (born 1946-1964) are optimistic, team-oriented, competitive, and prone to workaholic tendencies. They're motivated by company loyalty, teamwork, and duty. They feel that workers should pay their dues and sacrifice for success.
  • Generation X employees (born 1965-1980) are flexible, informal, independent, and skeptical. They're motivated by work-life balance, diversity, and their personal-professional interests. They can be resistant to change at work if it affects their personal lives.
  • Millennials (born 1981-2000) are achievement-oriented, civic- and open-minded, and competitive. They're motivated by responsibility, quality management, and unique work experiences. They're looking for growth and development at work and a fun work-life balance.
  • Generation Z employees (born 2001 and later) are progressive, global, and entrepreneurial. They're motivated by diversity, personalization, individuality, and creativity. While they tend to be less focused, they thrive in multitasking scenarios and are highly independent.

How to Manage Four Different Generations

Each of these four groups may have a different work style, so in order to keep workflows humming along, you may need to tweak your management style to ensure each employee gets the support they need.

Here are five ways you can consider each generation when managing your water lab staff.

1. Adapt Your Feedback Method

Provide baby boomers with specific goals and deadlines to appeal to their sense of loyalty and accomplishment. Give Gen X employees immediate feedback that explains how their actions benefit the lab's overall mission. For example, if a technician administered a test that revealed positive Legionella results, let them know that by carefully following procedures, they helped ensure safe water.

Evaluate millennials based on results and focus on what they accomplished. Millennials thrive with flexible work arrangements and positive reinforcement. Think of millennial lab employees when there's work that can be done from home, such as entering data into your LIMS. Give Gen Zers room for independent, self-directed projects, such as troubleshooting an incorrect test result. Praise them for their creative solutions to lab problems.

Each generation wants to thrive at work, but they might need different methods of feedback in order to grow. When a conflict arises, Gen Xers and baby boomers might appreciate you pulling them aside for a one-on-one conversation. Millennials and Gen Zers, however, might consider that approach to be confrontational. In that case, try providing feedback through an email or instant message.

2. Use Multiple Communication Channels

Different generations tend to communicate in different ways. To avoid potential confusion, make sure you're clear and specific when assigning tasks.

U.S. News recommends avoiding trendy abbreviations and ensuring that each person's role in a project is clearly defined. Give an overview of the project in person at a team meeting, but also email the details and print out hard copies.

Important company news should be communicated across all platforms, including a piece of paper on a bulletin board. While printing an email might seem redundant to young lab workers, it's an easy way to ensure that every generation gets the message.

3. Make Sure Your Lab's Purpose Is Understood

Employees across all generations are motivated by work that matters. Make sure that your lab has a clear mission statement and use it as an underlying theme in everyday operations. For example, Lab Manager suggests incorporating the mission statement into huddles, shift changes, staff meetings, orientation, and training.

Explaining your lab's broader goals should be a priority, not an afterthought. If you need to change a standard operating procedure, for example, make sure to distribute a memo and mention it in your team meeting. And don't just describe the change — explain why it matters.

4. Pair Different Generations Together

Create teams representing different generations whenever possible, whether through formal mentorships, group projects, or even by assigning workspaces. They can all learn something new from each other, and through collaboration, they're likely to have a higher respect for each other, too.

Baby boomers and Gen Xers possess valuable wisdom from real-world experience. When small problems with equipment arise in the lab, these employees might be tempted to immediately fix the problem and move on. Encourage them to explain to other employees how they did so. This exchange of knowledge helps your entire staff become more efficient and keeps any silos from developing between generations.

Similarly, Millennials and Gen Zers are so intuitive with technology that they might not realize when they're alienating coworkers. Consider having these employees explain upgrades to your lab's software and why they matter in the long run.

5. Get to Know Each Employee as an Individual

You should never confuse generational traits with personal characteristics. Each of your employees will have unique needs and preferences, and it's your job as a manager to understand these.

U.S. News advises getting to know your employees by dropping by during their lunch breaks or chatting with them after meetings. You may also want to consider setting up monthly meetings where you split the time talking about work and any common interests.

Understanding the individual needs and preferences of your employees won't happen overnight. But if you start by considering these generational trends and continue to tweak your management style over time, you can have a multigenerational staff that learns, grows, and, most importantly, works well together.

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Kelly McSweeney
Science and Technology Writer
Armed with a master's degree in writing and a decade of professional work in scientific publishing, Kelly McSweeney writes about science and technology innovations. She translates complicated topics into stories that capture the curiosity of everyone from casual readers to technical experts. Kelly has degrees from Emerson College and the University of Vermont, and has worked on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics publications at Wiley, In Compliance magazine, and Pearson. Her articles about the latest research are published by ZDNet, Northrop Grumman, and Wiley.