In her 23 years at Grand Rapids-based tech firm Open Systems Technology Inc., Meredith Bronk has seen the company grow from seven employees to more than 300.
At the company’s annual event (held virtually) this month to kick off the new fiscal year, Bronk underscored to those hundreds of employees the company’s value to “bring your whole self to work.”
“When I talked about that: I’m standing here as a wife, a mother, a daughter whose dad has been in the ICU for 50 days,” Bronk said. “Here I am trying to inspire, and I’m looking for a little bit of grace, recognizing that we all have components outside of work that are important for who we are. We want to encourage those things to also be present in our work.”
Bronk, who’s been CEO of OST since 2014, says this is a key aspect to leading a multigenerational workplace, and a theme that’s grown more important during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With employees generally working longer into their lives, company executives must learn how to generate productivity from a multigenerational workforce. Additionally, research shows that the generations — spanning from the Silent Generation to Generation Z — have varying degrees of needs, wants and expectations from their employers.
Bronk says bringing one’s “whole self” is a way to support a level of comfort and acceptance across generations.
“We talk at OST about positivity and the requirement to bring your whole self to work,” Bronk said. “We want people to feel comfortable. We’re creating some shared expectations that say, ‘I’m encouraged to bring my whole self, and the way I bring my whole self might look different than others.’”
Still, the “whole self” concept tends to resonate more with younger workers than older ones, Bronk said.
According to a Gallup poll from 2018, the average American in the mid-1990s expected to retire at age 60. By 2018, the expectation climbed to age 66. That extended career span is leading to a more age-diverse workforce, researchers say.
For example, OST is trending younger as it hires more workers. However, Bronk says the nature of the tech industry naturally brings generations together in the workplace.
“There’s this co-creation that happens around software and digital transformation,” Bronk said. “There is this cross-functional, cross-collaborative nature to the work that we do that is natural.”
For other industries, the generational shift taking place is more noticeable.
Ada-based Erhardt Construction Co. President and CEO Ben Wickstrom said the past decade has brought a demographic shift in construction, particularly Baby Boomers aging out and retiring.
“It really puts us on notice to make sure we’re attracting younger generations and younger people to the construction industry and, once we attract them, make sure we have a good platform to develop and retain them,” said Wickstrom, who’s worked at Erhardt for nearly 23 years, including the past three as CEO. “It’s been a big part of my work and my leadership tenure over the last 10 to 12 years. It’s interesting to see that bell curve change.”
Wickstrom said Gen X is Erhardt’s largest age demographic, making up about 40 percent of the 64-person team, which is likely “typical across the industry.”
“What we do here is recognize how people and age demographics have different wants and expectations that, when realized, result in a rewarding work experience,” he said. “But it should also be recognizing what is the same through multiple generations. You’d start to see some common threads there, regardless of which generation you came up in. Everyone wants to provide for their family and improve themselves.”
Shaping that productive work culture across generations means “having consistency in our core values and our culture and making sure we have people that enjoy and thrive operating in those,” Wickstrom added.
Nate Koetje, CEO of Feyen Zylstra LLC, a Walker-based electrical services and industrial technology firm, agrees about finding common threads and supporting age diversity in the same way as racial, ethnic or gender diversity.
“When it comes to multi-generations, the issues may be unique, but they’re not,” he said. “It’s still about understanding and being willing and open. The key is to have a culture that’s open to multiple perspectives.”
While Baby Boomer and Gen Z employees may come with different perspectives on work or company ethics, “both should be built on a desire to learn from each other,” Koetje said.
Wickstrom said the biggest difference he sees among generations is that “young people are hungry to do more. That is an exciting thing.”
Moreover, it sets up a solid dynamic with older workers, he said.
“Couple that with the wisdom, experience and built-in knowledge that only comes with doing something well for a long period of time, that’s when you really see cool things happening in terms of growth for both people,” Wickstrom said.
Koetje said younger generations “seem to be moving the needle on what I might describe as business as a force for good in the world. The older generations perhaps follow work or a vocation simply as a way to generate income. In a healthy way, that younger generation has challenged all of us to do well while doing good. It’s been a really positive push in that direction.”
Koetje, Wickstrom and Bronk are part of the West Michigan CEO Council announced recently by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. Bronk, who also chairs the Grand Rapids Chamber’s board of directors, said the council is in addition to three recently announced advisory groups focused on diversity, equity and inclusion.
Pandemic shifts dynamic
Last May, Grand Rapids-based consultant Erica Curry Van Ee surveyed 74 local leaders in the nonprofit, for-profit and public sectors about about how they were managing their workplace two months into the COVID-19 pandemic. Van Ee, CEO of Urban Curry Consulting, is also an instructor at Grand Valley State University’s Seidman College of Business, where she has taught topics relating to multigenerational workplaces.
The COVID-19 survey ended up providing insights on leading multiple age groups, Curry Van Ee said.
“A lot of times, age and generation diversity is one of the most profound and most difficult to navigate through,” she said. “Pre-COVID, the work style preferences, values and motivations that define each generation are different enough that they would create some real chasms with relationships or around expectancy.”
The five questions she asked area leaders included the effects of COVID on the workplace, what gives them hope, and what advice they would have for students.
“What struck me so much was just the real awareness of the importance of emotional intelligence and leading with recognition that we have to lead not just with tasks but with relationships,” Curry Van Ee said. “What came out was this importance of recognizing the need to take care of one’s self as a leader but also to take care of the people they’re leading.”
Prior to the pandemic, younger generations’ desire for more flexible workspaces “was probably the biggest area of conflict” between employers and workers, she said.
Since then, the pandemic and working from home has begun to blur the categorization of generations. For example, Baby Boomers and Gen Z may both be working from home without children, either because they’re empty nesters or they haven’t yet had children.
“We’ve seen these dynamics emerge that may or may not be generational in that regard,” said OST’s Bronk. “On the flip side, when I think about what’s true in younger people: Purpose matters, priorities matter.”
Curry Van Ee’s research and teachings suggest that being adaptable and inclusive are key aspects of leading multigenerational workplaces.
Bronk said she applies the concept daily.
“When you create an environment where people are encouraged to be who they are,” Bronk said, “some of that inclusivity happens organically.”