Understanding Your Multigenerational Workforce

By Jamy J. Sullivan, J.D.

Many legal office managers oversee a team spanning several decades — from workers born in the late 1940s to those born in this century. That’s quite a range. The challenge is managing the diversity of communications styles, work habits and skills that come with it.

The trick is knowing how to take advantage of each generational group’s strengths. Here are some tips for bridging gaps and fostering collaboration in your law firm or legal department.

Understand generational differences

A Robert Half report on Generation Z analyzes not only the youngest members of today’s workforce — often defined as those born between 1990 and 2000 — but also millennials (1978–1989), Generation X (1965–1977) and baby boomers (1946–1964).

Responses from survey participants for the report suggest that boomers prefer a more reserved communication style and are more cautious regarding change compared to their counterparts. Generation X workers tend to have a control-and-command communication style, while millennials favor a more collaborative approach. Gen Zers enjoy face-to-face interactions above other methods of communication and are accustomed to change and anticipate it at work.

As for technical skills, workers from each generation expect employers to offer training and professional development to help them build their skill sets. The difference lies in their learning preferences: Boomers and Gen Xers prize more traditional methods, such as instructor-led courses and self-learning tools, while millennials and Gen Z are inclined toward video modules or other tech-centric learning experiences.

Any discussion of generational tendencies comes with a large caveat: Don’t stereotype. Our research is based on what we heard most often from survey respondents. It does not mean that all individuals in each group align in exactly the same way. Some boomers, for example, may express preferences closer to what a majority of millennials voiced, and vice versa.

How to manage diverse teams

Now that you have a better sense of each group’s preferences and tendencies, here are some tips for managing your intergenerational legal staff:

1. Broaden your communication repertoire. To effectively reach workers outside your own age group, consider adopting alternative communication methods. For example, while boomers may prefer emails and memos, Gen X and Z members tend to favor IMs, phone calls and in-person conversations because of these methods’ immediacy and informality. If you’re frustrated by a lack of response from some of your staff members, try customizing the form of communication you use with them.

2. Offer more training. Good managers understand the importance of upskilling their employees, so don’t assume your legal team will just pick up new technology on their own. All employees, regardless of their generation, need help to get the most out of recently adopted case management software or online legal databases. Whenever possible, give staff a choice of learning styles, from one-on-one instruction to collaborative tutorials.

3. Encourage intergenerational bonds. It’s only natural for employees to gravitate toward similar-aged colleagues, for both work projects and after-hour social events. While there’s nothing wrong with that, what you want to avoid are generation-specific cliques in your law office. Here are some suggestions for bringing various cohorts together:

  • Intentionally bring together workers from different generations when putting together teams for specific cases or projects.
  • Plan social events outside the office and ask staff from different demographic groups to head up the effort.
  • Add more fun and camaraderie to your group with team-building activities.

4. Foster traditional and reverse mentorships. Your boomer and Gen X employees have much to offer in terms of teaching younger cohorts about in-person networking, career pathing and navigating office politics. But the most effective mentoring goes both ways: Millennials and Gen Zers can enlighten older demographics on subjects ranging from legal trends to disruptive technologies. Exposure to new practices and perspectives helps strengthen employee relationships as well as overall productivity.

Ultimately, workers of all generations have the same desires: a chance to grow, have a fulfilling legal career and be part of a dynamic workplace. Your job as a legal manager is to foster a healthy office environment that allows professionals of all ages to work happier and more productively together.