Reaching Across the Generational Divide During COVID-19

In the face of the pandemic, taking your training into living rooms, kitchens, and bookcase-lined studies calls for a radically different approach—one that requires keeping top of mind the differing needs and levels of tech savvy of an intergenerational audience.

It’s Friday morning, and you’re furiously catching up with a week’s worth of e-mails when an older relative calls you. You answer and it quickly becomes apparent they need your help with connecting to their 10 a.m. coffee date over Zoom/Skype/Teams. Being that little bit younger, you’ll know exactly what to do, right? As we step into this brave new world of teleconference Friday Night Dinners, Zoom Bingo, and Skype suppers, we’ve all heard the confused “Is it on yet?” or seen the close-up of our grandmother’s forehead.

But what is laughing at dad’s “Zoom fail” really saying? Is it reinforcing the assumption that anyone older is a “technophobe,” possessing a tenth of the skills of their “tech-savvy” offspring? And do all younger people possess innate TikTok capabilities that bemuse anyone over the age of 35? These stereotypes are probably not new to you—young people (Millennials) typically being seen as job-hoppers, overly entitled, and with little time for experience. Baby Boomers—the older ones—seen as having it easy, they’ve bought their own homes but they can’t form coherent text messages. As for Generation Zthe ones born with a smartphone in their handswell, they see more of their screens than their families. Right?

These are labels we can be quick to latch on to, reducing entire generations to stereotypes that are continually reinforced. But like most stereotypes, these blanket assumptions are often wrong and can create a divide in how we view and behave toward those across it. This raises key considerations for any training workshop being delivered across this divide: How do you cater to everyone while acknowledging the nuanced intergenerational needs?

Learner Preferences

We’re living through changing times, where the Baby Boomers gradually are being outnumbered by the next generation across many of our workplaces. While the passing of the baton from one generation to the next is gradual, it’s a shift that’s already emerging. According to global staffing firm Manpower, Millennials now make up 35 percent of the global workforce, with Gen Z (anyone born after the mid-1990s) representing a further 24 percent. That’s more than half the total working population, and it will continue to rise. As the youthful tidal wave rises, it can be tempting to throw all your resources at catering to their every need—but it might be a mistake. Your more experienced colleagues have depth of experience, knowledge, and competence that continue to be invaluable. The task we have now is how to effectively harness the growing pain of one generation and the status quo of another.

This year, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the way we’re all training has changed overnight beyond all expectations. No more flying around the world for conferences or traditional classroom-based sessions. There’s a brave new world out there where technology is powering and facilitating how we take knowledge to the masses. Taking your training into living rooms, kitchens, and bookcase-lined studies requires a radically different approach, keeping top of mind the differing needs of an intergenerational audience—many of whom will have never imagined attending sessions in this format. This audience will be coming with competing expectations, learning styles, and needs of an online training experience; being shaped by the workplace cultures, technological awareness, and educational experiences they have moved through. You may find your online training experience needs to lean into various competing preferences, such as:

  • The format and length of your training session
  • Using alternative communication channels, such as emoticons, chat, or whiteboards
  • Differing ideas of dress code when you turn on your camera
  • The immediacy and relevance of facilitator feedback and signposting

While these can be sources of conflict in your next online training session, they may be more trivial or cosmetic than you think. The different generations may have more in common than you realize, helping you to bridge the supposed divide. While we’re laughing at dad headbutting the Webcam, he’s educating himself to use Zoom confidently. Obviously, anyone can build the repertoire of skills needed to successfully engage in and embrace the new world of online training, not just the “digital natives.”

Delivery Methods

Ultimately, the Baby Boomers and the Millennials are likely to be seeking similar things from their online training, especially now when social isolation and separation are a reality. Yes, it’s about professional and personal development , but the need for interaction and connection is just as big a priority. Essentially, both share similar hopes for their working lives—they all value collaboration, innovation, and accessible working tools to make life easier. The difference is the methods you use to harness these shared values and expectations:

  • Microlearning. Why not package your online sessions into succinct and direct nuggets of learning? These are flexible learning methods, where you can adapt the content to meet varying attention spans, learning styles, and diary commitments—catering for learning preferences across the generations.
  • Breakouts. You can still split participants into groups in an online session. Use breakouts to achieve focused reflection and action in smaller teams. However, be mindful of the people you team up. Facilitate intergenerational collisions by deliberately placing diverse ages in your breakouts, helping them to better engage with and understand each other’s viewpoints. 
  • Flex your training times. Not everyone can make that 9 a.m. session; many of us have to care for elderly relatives or get the kids set up with home schooling. Be mindful of times when all generations have time and headspace to engage with your learning.
  • Feedback. While Millennials enjoy in-the-moment and timely feedback, many Boomers really don’t need to know how they’re getting on quite so frequently. Pepper in moments of feedback during your online session by using polls, whiteboards, or follow-up calls. Invite everyone to participate but don’t make it a pre-requisite.
  • Turn on the camera. It seems obvious, but make sure everyone’s cameras are on. Human beings thrive on connection and being able to see other people will help create a sense of a community. Encourage the generations to see and connect with each other.

Alasdair James Scott is a senior consultant at worldwide diversity and inclusion training consultancy PDT Global.

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