Making workplace tech work for all ages

When equity partner David Jones recently led a management buy-in at Glaisyers Solicitors, he was acutely aware that the firm’s age profile, from 16-year apprentices through to septuagenarians, would impact his plans for the organisation.

He had decided to introduce a cloud-based customer relationship and case management system that would transform the way some people worked. “We couldn’t not do it. But for some of our older workers, the change probably hastened their retirement,” Jones concedes.

For many chief executives, the parallel emergence of five generations in the workplace, plus the need to implement technological change, will inevitably see stereotypical views about the age of workers and the way they respond to communication technology rise to the fore.

Debunking stereotypes about age and tech

And you don’t need to look hard to see the reams of data that purports to prove it: how a fifth of workers aged 25 to 34 regularly use WhatsApp and Skype at work, but just 5.6 and 6.8 per cent of those over 55 do, according to Maintel report Bringing order to communications chaos. While the Gen Z UK report by Nintex finds Generation Z are extremely familiar with artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, and 62 per cent believe it enhances the workplace. But only 18 per cent of baby boomers say they feel informed and confident about new communication technology, according to a YouGov report on multi-generational working.

Stereotypes like these would matter less if they didn’t then become self-fulfilling prophecies, but evidence seems to suggest they do. The same YouGov report finds half of companies do not have policies, particularly technology-based ones, that confront how different age groups collaborate.

There is still a lag in mindset. Older generations in the workforce tend to think tech is harder than it really is to deploy

Rufus Grig, chief strategy officer at Maintel, says: “Technologies are entering the workplace creating the potential for truly connected businesses. However, demographic differences can make it difficult for organisations to implement the most appropriate collaboration and communication.” So are businesses really at a crossroads?

“It’s naive to think younger people don’t consume technology differently,” says Jenny Perkins, former non-executive director at Investors in People, now head of engagement at transformation consultancy Cirrus. “But as a coach to older executives on how to have digital mindsets, the stereotype that older people can’t collaborate through technology often isn’t right. I poll them and find senior people often have more apps on their phones than younger people because they’re taking what they already do into the digital space.

“Where I think a problem does lie is in the fact there is still a lag in mindset. Older generations in the workplace tend to think tech is harder than it really is to deploy. It might have been in the past, but isn’t now. They also want it to be ‘perfect’, while younger people are more willing to run with imperfect technology and just get on with it.”

Training needed for all generations in the workplace

An often-ignored fact is younger people need just as much tutoring. Stephen Isherwood, chief executive at the Institute of Student Employers, which looks at how young people transition into workplaces, says: “The technology people find at work is often much different to the slick consumer tech they’ve been used to growing up. Where there’s sometimes a disconnect is that employers expect new – young – entrants to be more tech savvy than they actually are.” Communication statistics

For this reason, enlightened employers go for a more nuanced approach. Jones at Glaisyers Solicitors says: “What we actually found is that change, at any age, is difficult. We’ve realised that it’s only when technology is allowed to stagnate that it becomes an issue, because it requires greater adoption. Staff here in their 50s, who’ve witnessed incremental change, were much more able and willing to adapt when we brought new collaboration and communication technology in.”

Fear of technology, and fear bosses might show hesitancy towards them with it, is something older generations do genuinely seem to feel though. Jon Addison, vice president, Europe, Middle East and Africa enterprise sales, talent solutions at LinkedIn, says: “Our 2020 Opportunity Index finds age is considered the number-one barrier to job opportunity by UK adults. But, while the 50s are experiencing more change in the workplace than any other generation, 78 per cent say they are willing to embrace it, which is an attitude much greater than Gen Z and millennials, according to the data.”

Perhaps they do so because they feel pressure to prove their adaptability. “I think older people feel stigmatised that if you say they’re rubbish with tech, they will be,” says Jones.

How generations use communication technology

It’s a view shared by Helen Matthews, chief people officer at Ogilvy UK. “It’s perhaps pressure they might put on themselves, to show they’re not being left behind,” she says. “We’re going through a transition to Microsoft Teams because ultimately we do believe technology has the power to create connected businesses and connect the generations.”

Employers simply need to be more understanding. “Older generations will be more entrenched in their working styles. I still default to email when we are moving away from it. The key is providing information about why and not assuming everyone will find it easy,” says Matthews.

Steve Haworth, chief executive of new company 99&One, which helps businesses get the most from their technology, says tech can absolutely be the bridge between generations in the workplace. But firms too often take it for granted that learning and development is needed. “Thirty-five per cent of people we polled aged 55-plus do use cloud-based team collaboration tools, compared to almost half (49 per cent) of those aged 25 to 34. But when asked if they have received any additional training, 47 per cent of those aged 55-plus said not,” he reports.

There’s one crucial message many appear to be in agreement with. Brian Kropp, Gartner’s chief of human resources, says: “The key thing here is to think less about ‘how’ older generations in the workplace adapt to new technology, but ‘when’. It’s not that older folk won’t adapt, but that they do so at different times.

“The real issue is when different generations use different platforms, like young people using Slack and older people using Messenger and so on, that’s when people won’t respond to each other’s messages. There’s an argument here for rolling out a single platform all at once to nullify this.”

And whatever communication technology is introduced, it must be simple. As Simon Aldous, global head of channels at Dropbox, concludes: “The future of the intergenerational workspace must be one that adopts emerging technologies, such as AI and automation, but which gives us more time to focus on impactful work.”