Encouraging multi-generational collaboration at work

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Given inter-generational friction is frequently evident in news coverage and online, how can accountancy firms enable good relationships within the workforce?

With as many as four – sometimes even five different generations – working together in the same workplace, employers have their work cut out in ensuring they’re continuing to meet the needs and expectations of a hugely age-varied workforce.

While it’s important never to stereotype based on age demographic, knowing what each generation may expect or need can sometimes be a helpful guide for employers from a recruitment and retention perspective. Much has been written about the characteristics of each generation based on economic situation, market trends and popular culture – here’s an overview.

  • Traditionalists/Silent generation (1928 – 1945): Although there are relatively few Traditionalists left in the workplace as most have retired, those that remain bring a huge amount of experience to their roles. They have a strong work ethic, value traditional hierarchical structures and are extremely loyal to their employers. They often have formal attitudes to work and relationships and can be less comfortable with new and flexible ways of working.
  • Baby Boomers (1946-1965): Now nearing retirement, Baby Boomers also bring a wealth of experience to their roles. Many of this generation grew up during a relatively stable economy and are likely to be the last generation to enjoy good pensions. They have a similar hard-working ethic to previous generations, though they’re generally more comfortable taking risks than Traditionalists.
  • Generation X (1965-1980): This generation are typically entrepreneurial and have a much more flexible attitude to their work environment. They value autonomy in the workplace and a focus on personal development and career ambition. Work-life balance can be extremely important to this generation, as many have caring responsibilities for children and/or elderly relatives.
  • Generation Y/Millennials (1981-1996): Now the largest generational workplace cohort, Millennials grew up during rapid technological advancements, hence tend to be tech-savvy. They are results-orientated and are not afraid to challenge authority in order to problem-solve or innovate. A creative generation, they value autonomy, independence and flexibility in their working environment.
  • Generation Z (1997-2015): Gen Z is the newest generation to enter the workforce and are true ‘digital natives’. They have a global mindset and are adaptive to change. They’re more cynical than previous generations, so place greater value on transparency along with diversity and social responsibility.
  • Generation Alpha (2010-2025): Although not due to enter the workforce for many years yet, the emerging Gen Alpha, which overlaps slightly with Gen Z, are the only generation to live entirely in the 21st century. Already, they’ve lived through several significant events – Brexit, Covid-19 pandemic, war in Ukraine, global recession and so on which will inevitably shape attitudes and behaviours as they mature.

A multi-generational workforce can bring diversity of thought as well as experience. How can accountancy firms bridge inherent differences to foster a culture of collaboration, encouraging colleagues of different generations to work together?  We spoke to several accountancy firms to find out how they’re doing it.

It’s a balance between experience and fresh input

Jess Middleton, Accountant and Founder, MPAS (Middleton Professional Account Services)

We have three generations working in our team, between the ages of 20 and 60. What’s been the most challenging is the gap between qualification and experience. When you are freshly qualified without any practical experience, there’s a tendency to think things should be done one way when actually there are a number of alternative ways to do things.

Equally difficult is making sure that experience doesn’t cloud the fresh input of a newly qualified individual. These are two aspects we’ve worked hard to battle, to make sure both the theory and the practical can reside happily side by side.

We hold monthly team meetings and ask each staff member to list their learning and how they can use it to move forward. Often, this means there is an open dialogue between generations.

We also have an anonymous ideas hub which encourages everyone to be involved in moving the practice forward. Staff are also sent on various CPD courses to level the playing field.

Viewpoints can be limited if you have just one generation in an office. Working across generations means everyone continually learns. There’s no stagnancy or rigidness. Practices have to be willing to invest time, money and resources into making sure their teams gel, and need to recognise that people of all ages bring something special to the table.

Verdict: We try to balance experience with fresh input, and encourage open dialogue between generations. We’ve also implemented an ideas hub to facilitate innovation.

Working together plugs skill gaps

Alex Beattie, Managing Director, KRW Accountants

We have three generations in our business, with staff ages ranging from 60 to 19. A large proportion of our team are between the ages of 25 and 40. We even have a mother and daughter working together.

We have a very open and cohesive culture here at KRW. We try to work to our strengths and help each other’s weaknesses. So when we roll out new software, typically, the younger generations embrace it quicker. Many of the younger generation are our ‘tech champions’ who are responsible for implementing and training everyone on new software.

Those in the older generations have a wealth of experience that we can lean on and apply to the modern world, so there’s mutual respect between the generations.

For example, sometimes there’s a tendency for the younger generations to rely heavily on software accuracy – but older generations will have the experience to critique the output and know whether something doesn’t look right.

Equally, younger generations have grown up in a tech-driven world and therefore operating new fast-moving tech is second nature to them. Older generations on the other hand have been through similar cycles and can draw on past experience to know what may work and what won’t, bringing different ideas to the table.

Verdict: We encourage collaboration between generations, working to our respective strengths and supplementing each other’s skill or knowledge gaps.

We take practical steps to encourage internal networking

Sophie Austin, HR Partner, Monahans

Having a mixed generational workforce is vital: it provides a range of views, perspectives and opinions which generates new ways of thinking and approaching things. Ensuring all generations are working together leads to personal growth and development for everyone, not just the younger ones. At Monahans, with employees spanning the ages from 18 to 60, we truly do have a multi-generational workforce.

It’s fair to say that those entering the workforce now have been adversely impacted by the covid pandemic. Their learning has suffered, as did the development of their social skills, at a critical time in their education. Organisations need to consider how to support these individuals and fill these gaps in order to develop much-needed communication and interpersonal skills.

How we encourage multi-generational collaboration: 

Through our structure and approach to resource planning, as all employees work together across different age groups.

Offering flexibility to work collaboratively across all our offices and teams. Our Associates (trainees) work with any manager, based anywhere. This not only helps the younger employees build relationships and improve communication skills, but it develops their breadth of experience and skills, learning from those who are further into their careers. 

Utilising tools such as employee forums, focus groups, suggestion schemes and engagement surveys to ensure we receive a different range of perspectives and opinions from each generation. Employee feedback is vital to us for understanding trends, identifying key issues and putting plans in place to solve them or make positive changes.

Verdict: Take practical steps to encourage internal networking. We offer flexibility for employees to work collaboratively across all offices, teams and people of different age groups to help build relationships and improve communication skills.

Discussions and mentorship bring different perspectives

Lauren Bilton, Business Development Administrator, UHY Hacker Young

A multi-generational workforce brings many benefits. Younger members tend to have enthusiasm and a new way of looking at things, whereas age and experience tends to bring a little bit more pragmatism. The two, if working well together, can help to get some good new initiatives off the ground in a workable way.

Our Nottingham team crosses four generations – from Baby Boomers to Gen Z – collaborating to deliver fantastic support to our client base.

The younger generation that has come through certainly arrives with different expectations. Having started their career in recent years, they see hybrid working and a positive work-life balance as higher priorities. As these school leavers and graduates have completed a large portion of their formal education online, we want to continue to provide this agency with their work.

Having a multi-generational workforce brings a net positive benefit to the workplace. It blends experience with the modern education experience of graduates who are more aware of the future of the industry. By encouraging collaborative discussions and mentorships, our team brings different perspectives and life experiences that perhaps wouldn’t be considered without that representation.

Verdict: We encourage collaborative discussions and mentorships to bring different perspectives and life experiences.

Socials help everyone bond

Claire Moloney, HR Manager, McBrides

As a training firm, we have four generations working at McBrides: Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z.

It can be very easy to generalise the needs and expectations of the different generations in the workplace and we guard against this.

We tend to find that it’s often one generation training together while working with other generations at manager, partner and client level. As a values-driven firm, we learn so much from each other and recognise that everyone brings different perspectives in meetings and when working together. 

We do find that employees work together naturally together anyway, without the need to actively encourage collaboration between the generations, especially as training is an intrinsic part of who we are and what we do.  However, we do hold staff socials, which is an opportunity for everyone to come together and get to know each other better.

Verdict: Different generations already work well together and often train together – but after-work socials can help get to know each other better.

Annie Makoff is a freelance journalist and editor.

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