Skip to Content

How to Build a Thriving Multi-Generational Workforce

This isn’t your grandfather’s workforce. Once dominated by a single generation (not to mention gender), today’s spans many, with employees working away sometimes into their eighties and nineties. Beyond old-fashioned employees, there are contractors and gig workers, and they tend to be tethered to work at all times. (There’s no punching out on your company’s smartphone). With millennials leading the charge, workers today tend to be more outspoken and demanding about certain things—particularly when it comes to the values of the companies they work for.

Given the new status quo, does the old-fashioned employer-employee contract hold? What can management do to attract and retain the talent, and build a thriving workforce? Top executives gathered at the Fortune CEO Initiative on Tuesday to discuss how companies can best to engage employees given these new realities.

The business leaders agreed purpose and values have become increasingly important to workers in recent years—and that they’re a key factor in attracting talent. Many noted the importance for companies and corporate leaders to consistently apply and model these values; few things can be as disillusioning to employees as seeing gaps between the values preached externally and values practiced internally, said experts. Many of the CEOs also spoke of the benefits of engaging employees at all levels in the creation and discussion of corporate values, which they noted was more effective than simply dictating those values top down.

Also essential, the CEO participants agreed, is being transparent and “brutally honest” about employee expectations and corporate culture from the first moment a company representative makes contact with a prospective hire. They noted many firms try to win talent through the rosier lens of the recruitment process—which leads to distrust once those employees start working in the actual environment.

Given the multi-generational nature of the workforce, the CEOs advocated for more personally tailored benefit plans that better serve the needs of individual workers. The needs of a millennial employee are often very different than from individuals who are many decades into their career. One firm, for example, had noticed that millennial employees weren’t taking advantage of their 401K match; it turned out that was because those employees were using the money to pay off their student loans. The company offered to extend the same match to student loan repayment.

The leaders also argued that workplaces need to embrace the broad demographics of their employee bases by developing and encouraging multi-generational and multi-ethnic teams. There is evidence that bringing together diverse perspectives in this way leads to greater innovation and performance.

Experts at the session also noted that employees today crave—more than trendy perks like free snacks and foosball tables—development opportunities, in which they’re given a chance to learn new skills and be exposed to new challenges, whether that be a job in a different part of the world or company. For that reason, rotational programs are coming back in fashion, said one expert attending the session.

Key to all of this is good management. The participant executives and experts agreed that companies often do too little to train their middle managers to develop and nurture talent, and critically, they often don’t hold them accountable for this important element of the business. The group agreed that CEOs need to model such mentoring relationships and that much of the success of the workforce depends on a a group of middle managers that embody the values of the company and dedicate time to developing their employees.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

Fortune CEO Initiative 2019: Watch the livestream

—These communication tools can radically improve workplaces

—Four ways algorithms can boost diversity in hiring

—Find out which Fortune 500 CEOs are most admired by their peers

—Uber’s CEO has absorbed the COO role for more control

Get up to speed on your morning commute with Fortune’s CEO Daily newsletter.