How employers can break down generational echo chambers at work

Generational cliques are hampering productivity in the workplace. Employers must take an active role in order to bridge the divide

Many generations in the workplace

Today’s workplaces are more generationally diverse than ever before, with five distinct cohorts represented. But the emergence of generational echo chambers is preventing businesses from capitalising on the diversity of thought that is present within their workforces.

Recent research from LinkedIn found that only one in five members of generation Z (those aged under 27) have spoken to someone over the age of 50 at work in the past year, while 44% of over-55s have avoided conversations with the youngest generation.

This lack of intergenerational interaction poses a risk for businesses, according to LinkedIn’s UK country manager Janine Chamberlin. “It shows there isn’t enough collaboration and sharing of skills between different generations,” she says. “This will result in a loss of knowledge that exists among the eldest workers and reduces the number of opportunities for the youngest to learn.”

While this issue is most acute between gen X and gen Z, the same patterns can be seen in other age groups, with 17% of people admitting that they did not know how to approach colleagues who were not of a similar age to themselves.

By limiting their interactions with people outside of their own age group, workers are restricting their exposure to different perspectives, exacerbating skills gaps and hampering productivity. “If you can have those skills cross-pollinated between generations, it will deliver much better outcomes for organisations,” Chamberlain adds.

Communication breakdown

The reasons for these so-called echo chambers are less clear and attempts to explain them often resort to painting broad stereotypes. 

Bobby Duffy is director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London and author of The Generation Myth. He is sceptical of whether this development is new. One of the common problems with generational analysis, he says, is that age effects and generational effects are often confused – particularly when looking at workplace trends.

However, there is a growing physical separation between generations that could be contributing to the decline in their interactions. “Cities and large towns have gotten younger and small towns, villages and rural areas have gotten older – to quite extraordinary extents – over just the last 30 years,” he explains. “This is a massive change, which some academics have described as a dangerous experiment in age segregation, as humans have never lived this separately by age in our history.” 

With fewer people of different ages living alongside each other, the workplace is an increasingly important place for promoting intergenerational conversations, Duffy continues. “There is a lot of evidence that shows both the old and the young benefit from more interaction with each other, both directly as individuals and in fighting age-based stereotypes,” he adds.

Tobba Vigfusdottir, CEO of employee wellbeing platform Kara Connect and a former advisor to the Icelandic Minister of Education, believes that technology and the pandemic have also played a role. “The two things that change with every generation are technology and the sense of individualism,” she says. “Technology has taken away many interactions. This was amplified by Covid and employers are now having to deal with the consequences of this.” 

The shift to remote working during the pandemic has removed many opportunities for people of different age groups to make meaningful connections at work. With interactions between colleagues outside of the workplace also declining, it is the moments of connection within a work setting that are most likely to help break down these echo chambers. 

Bridging the generational gap

Although the causes of these intergenerational gulfs vary, it is imperative that employers help reestablish lines of communication. “There are real issues that can be created if you allow age-based divisions in the workplace, including miscommunication and loss of team effectiveness, as well as tensions between colleagues,” Duffy explains.

Research from The Inclusion Initiative at the London School of Economics, conducted in collaboration with Protiviti, bears this out. In companies that exhibit bad intergenerational inclusion, it was found that employees with managers more than 12 years their senior report lower productivity and are more likely to be dissatisfied with their job. 

Dr Daniel Jolles, research assistant at the institute, says: “This shows that the generations aren’t working together as well as they could be. But when companies can establish good connections, they are able to bridge this gap between managers and employees, and see higher productivity as a result. This means there’s a good business case for having generationally diverse teams across most organisations, provided it’s in an industry which requires thought and creativity.”

Jolles defines organisations with good intergenerational inclusion as those that are free from stereotypes and where there are high-quality relationships between people of different ages. One of the biggest contributors to improving inclusion is management.

“These companies have managers that are really effective at bringing together teams that are diverse in age and develop people based on merit, rather than experience,” Jolles says. “All too often this isn’t happening within businesses.”

Recruitment practices and company structure can also limit intergenerational interactions. Businesses that focus on hiring for cultural fit often end up creating a homogenous workforce. It’s also common for each management layer within an organisation to be composed of people of similar ages – with the youngest filling the most junior roles and the eldest occupying senior positions. 

“If there is no existing diversity within the organisation, or older people are only present in the most senior levels, then naturally people will not have spoken to someone who is not of a similar age,” adds Jolles. “It’s really important that people are hired, trained and developed in a way that allows for intergenerational inclusion to take place.”

Encouraging intergenerational working

Employers also need to establish a culture that encourages connection across the age divide. Duffy acknowledges that such exercises can easily become “gimmicky”. “That’s not to say that more social or fun ways to connect are not useful, but making it part of the core way of working can be powerful,” he adds.

Instead, he recommends businesses create situations where mixed teams can “work towards a common goal” and where different groups have “equal status and are encouraged by those setting the tasks to cooperate”. 

Companies have also found success with reverse mentoring. These schemes encourage the sharing of skills in both directions – rather than just the more experienced imparting knowledge to the less experienced. LinkedIn’s career expert Charlotte Davies claims that mentorship schemes can help businesses nurture new relationships between staff, build employee confidence and improve collaboration.

Other simple solutions include creating space for informal discussions in a hybrid working environment, such as virtual coffee breaks. “It’s important that companies make it easier for people from different generations to chat informally, both in person and when working remotely,” she adds. 

Although Davies says it will take time for companies to find what works best for their teams, it’s important they start laying the groundwork now. If businesses are to capitalise on the diverse perspectives, insights and skills that a multigenerational workforce can bring, they need to create a culture that allows everyone to thrive, irrespective of age.