Can Older And Younger Colleagues Work Really Together Effectively?

The short answer is yes, but not without effort. An age-diverse workforce has definite advantages, but it can also lead to conflicts and cliques.

Together with my fellow researchers, Prof. Fabiola Gerpott of VU Amsterdam, Prof. Andreas Hirschi of the University of Bern, Prof. Susanne Scheibe at University of Groningen, Dr Karen Pak at Radboud University and Prof. Dorien Kooij at Tilburg University, we have clear advice for leaders to make the most of an age-diverse workforce.

After all, there is little doubt that diversity and inclusion in the workplace enhance engagement, innovation, decision-making and performance. It’s widely thought that when we mix the different strengths and perspectives of younger and older workers, we gain the benefits of diversity.

However, what many don’t know is that organisations often need help to effectively manage the age-diverse workforce. But thankfully, our research has demonstrated that with training, employees can work effectively together.

The reality is with demographic changes and people working for much longer, age diversity is increasing in many organisations. And although organisations tend to emphasize the benefits of an age-diverse workforce in their marketing campaigns, the reality is often different. Age-diverse co-workers do not automatically work effectively together. Because of this, the starting point of our research was to paint a more realistic picture of age diversity and help organisations to effectively manage it.

This means we took the notion seriously that increasing age diversity is associated with both challenges and opportunities. Organisations often face issues like clique building, stereotypes and conflicts. And to deal with this, we developed training interventions and demonstrated that these programmes contribute to solving unique challenges of age-diverse workforces.

We conducted a randomised controlled field experiment with co-workers of different ages who voluntarily signed up for the study. The co-worker pairs were assigned to one of three groups: the identity-oriented training group (Group 1), the knowledge-oriented training group (Group 2), and the control group that did not receive training (Group 3).

The age-diverse co-worker pairs in Groups 1 and 2 participated in a specific half-day classroom training, in which they either reflected and learned about the identity-related challenges of age diversity and how to overcome them (Group 1) or the knowledge-related opportunities of age diversity and how to accomplish them (Group 2). All participants filled in questionnaires before the training, directly after the training, and four weeks after the training. In our analysis, we could compare the three groups and see whether our training was responsible for facilitating either contact quality (identity-oriented training) or knowledge transfer (knowledge-oriented training).

We found that the identity-oriented training meant that age-diverse co-workers felt more similar to each other and less threatened by interacting with co-workers from a different age group. The training helps organisations to overcome the challenges of age diversity by effectively speaking to employees’ hearts- this means essentially being able to relate to co-workers of different ages.

We found that the knowledge-oriented training meant that age-diverse co-workers were more aware and appreciative of the value of each other’s knowledge. The training helps organisations to realize the opportunities of age diversity by speaking to employees’ minds, which means having the knowledge about the expertise of age-diverse co-workers.

Business professionals can use these diversity training programmes to improve the relationships and knowledge exchange between their age-diverse co-workers.

When we mix the different strengths and perspectives of younger and older workers, we gain the benefits of diversity of thought, bringing new ideas and increased innovation and creativity. This makes training like this so vital.

It’s even more important today because Covid-19 has increased the risk of older workers exiting the workforce for health reasons, because of pressure to retire or redundancies. If they leave, we should consider all they’ll take with them in terms of experience, knowledge and social connections.

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