How to Manage a Multi-Generational Federal Workforce

Get ready for Generation Z—managing four generations in the same organization will be tricky.

This year, Generation Z will account for nearly a quarter of the global workforce and while a good portion are still in elementary school, at 61 million strong (1 million more than Millennials), organizations are preparing now for the impending impact. Between the focus on developing a “workforce of the future” in the president’s management agenda and the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey driving increased engagement, agencies are doing more to transition the workforce from what the administration calls  the “relic of an earlier era” to one suited for the 21st century. 

As this younger generation enters the federal and private sector, we can expect a few things: 1) greater pressure on supervisors to integrate a new generation of workers; 2) increased tension and intergenerational divide between colleagues (e.g. #OKBoomer); and 3) an emphasis on management programs, like coaching, to empower and up-level generations in their specific capacities. 

For those supervisors looking to prepare, here are three things you can do now to successfully manage a multi-generational workforce: 

1. Understand each generation and their expectations at work.

Millennials have been the most studied generation of our time, allowing organizations to develop Millennial-friendly workplaces prioritized by money, security, time off and flexible work arrangements. And while it’s easy to assume that Gen Z will be similar to millenials, that would be a mistake. 

My company recently surveyed 1,000 Gen Z workers (ages 18-23) to understand what their expectations were for the workplace, and we found that 75% believe they should get a promotion within a year of working, 60% aspire to management positions of their own, and more than 75% say a boss’s ability to coach is important.

But it’s important for supervisors to understand how every generation of workers perform best. From our research, we’ve found that Baby Boomers prefer face-to-face communication while Generation X opts for email, and Millennials and Gen Zers want quick, brief communication through the latest technology. Baby boomers see recognition as motivation, while Gen X needs a variety of stimulating projects to stay motivated. Gen Z thrives when their competitive spirit is engaged and Millennials work best in a team setting. It’s worth taking the time to understand each cohort’s needs, preferences and expectations to help each group thrive. 

2. Manage the intergenerational divide by emphasizing strengths. 

With the influx of Gen Z comes a new challenge of managing four generations in the workplace. While this intergenerational divide is happening in society, online (#OKBoomer) and at work, the 2-million strong federal civilian workforce might be the group dealing with this great divide the most once Gen Z enters its workforce.  According to the Federal Employment Viewpoint Survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), most federal employees, about 43%, come from Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980). They are followed by the Baby Boomer generation (born between 1946 and 1964). Traditionalists, born in 1945 or earlier, make up 1% of the federal population, and Millennials born in 1981 or later comprise 21% of the total federal workforce.

While that number doesn’t account for Gen Z yet, the same survey found that 25% of federal government employees plan on retiring in the next five years, paving the way for a fourth generation of workers to join the ranks. 

More than 75% of happy employees believe their manager focuses on their strengths, so when you’re trying to assimilate multiple generations, start by seeing the good. For instance, our research found that each generation has a core work value that motivates them (and should be celebrated). Baby boomers value success and loyalty, Gen X values time and productivity, for Millennials it’s individuality and contribution and for Gen Z the core work values are inclusion and opportunity. No matter which generation you work with, empowering them with freedom and feedback is crucial. 

3. Unify generations through coaching practices.

While 75% of managers agree that managing different generations is difficult, it’s doable through coaching. 

One way to implement coaching is with the GROW®️ model—Goal, Reality, Options and Way Forward. First, employees establish a clear goal they want to accomplish. Next, they work with managers to understand what reality they are working within—whether there are restraints due to deadlines, budgets, or personnel, and any other limitations they should be aware of. Then, employees look at all their options within that reality, and finally, they come up with a way forward.

This model helps prevent micromanagement, which will cause certain generations to push back, and instead helps employees come up with their own solutions to problems. 

As federal agency supervisors prepare for the influx of Gen Z, the greatest piece of advice might be to start developing yourself as a coach. That way, when you’re dealing with four generations of workers in one room, your instinct will be to give them the freedom and support they need to excel individually, and in turn, as a whole. 

Bill Bennett is the CEO of InsideOut Development, a workplace coaching company that provides management training programs for Fortune 500 companies.