CHICAGO -- There's a sense of urgency to the quest for workplace harmony, as baby boomers delay retirement and work side-by-side with people young enough to be their children -- or grandchildren.
Put people of widely different ages together -- and there are bound to be differences. Baby boomers, for example, are workaholics, while younger workers may demand more of a work-life balance.
The solution for a growing number of companies: generational awareness training to help foster understanding and more effective communication among its workers.
Employees are taught about the characteristics that define each generation, from their core values to their childhood and adolescent experiences to the type of figures they regard as heroes. Then workshop leaders typically drill down into how those attributes play into the strengths and weaknesses each age group offers on the job.
The goal is that by learning why people of different generations act the way they do, companies can better emphasize their employees' strengths and find ways to overcome challenges.
"The Boomers say, 'Now I understand a little bit more of why they're always on their phones,' " said Juergen Deutzer, who leads generational training at Scripps Health in San Diego for about 200 employees a year. "Gen Y says, 'Maybe I need to be a little bit more understanding if someone doesn't get a grasp on technology.' "
Gen Xers prefer to work individually. Boomers and Millennials thrive in groups. The oldest workers, from the Silent Generation, are known for loyalty and respect for authority; the youngest, from a yet-unnamed generation, are far more informal and global-minded. Language and cultural references, naturally, vary widely by age.
Ingrid Hassani, 58, a patient care manager at Scripps, said learning about generational differences helped explain why older nurses might hesitate to approach doctors, viewing them "almost like God," while younger nurses are "very comfortable to go right up and talk to them."
It also helped when she found her younger subordinates were cutting corners in the hospital's 18-step process for giving a patient medication as simple as Tylenol. Millennials tend to want explanations for everything they're told to do rather than just following orders, as older workers might. "They want to know the why behind everything," Hassani said. "But once their questions are answered, they are fine."
Chuck Underwood, an expert on generational differences, said he began getting a flood of calls from human resources departments in the mid-2000s as Millennials began their careers. "Something's going on in our workplace that we don't understand," he remembered being told. "What was going on was the next American generation was entering adulthood, bringing very different core values, very different skills and very different weaknesses."
Training to bridge the generational divide is becoming more commonplace.
Brad Karsh, of JB Training Solutions, said millennials take a bit of a good-humored bruising during sessions because of a perceived sense of entitlement, a constant desire for explanation and discontent with entry-level tasks.
"I Love Millennials" buttons were given away, perhaps to soften the blow, and Karsh acknowledged that pointing out the flaws of a younger generation is "a time-honored tradition."
He urged participants to see beyond the stereotypes and note that each generation brings a particular skill set to work.
"They're not better, not worse, just different," he said. "What's important is understanding what those differences are."