‘We all benefit from the same things.’ Different generations are building the workplaces they want.

There has always been tension between colleagues from different generations, researchers say. But they have more in common than not.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Logan Mallory, vice president of marketing for Motivosity, in Lehi, on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023.

Logan Mallory began his career in what he called the “worst place in the world.”

The 39-year-old professional speaker and marketing professional got his start at a small startup, in an age when startups were “supposed to be really cool,” he said. The reality, Mallory said, was that he worked more than 10 hours a day and was expected to work weekends.

“The scariest thing in the world was going to the dentist twice a year,” Mallory said, because he didn’t think he could ask for the time off.

The boss at his second job went to jail for wire fraud, Mallory said. (He didn’t offer details.)

But Mallory, now the vice president of marketing for Motivosity, an employee recognition software company based in Lehi, said he is grateful for his career’s rocky start. Each negative experience was a lesson in workplace culture and taught him what he wanted — and didn’t want — out of a job.

“Ever since then, [culture] has become my No. 1 priority when looking for new work or changing jobs,” Mallory said. “I think people that get to experience [bad workplace culture] are lucky. Then you know what you have when you find something good.”

Mallory is on the “older end” of the millennial generation, or people born between 1981 and 1996. His understanding of workplace culture is, in part, shaped by his belonging in this age-specific demographic, he said. Millennials have different expectations of their jobs than, say, baby boomers or Generation X, he said.

But, really, he said, his early experiences of workplace culture had less to do with him being a millennial, and more to do with him being young.

Social scientists study different generations to understand changing attitudes and emerging trends in culture and society. Generation Z — people born between 1996 and 2010 — are the newest workers on the scene, and are broadcasting their immersion on social media. Workplace trends like “quiet quitting,” “lazy girl jobs” and “acting your wage” have been used to paint Gen Z as work-averse or “difficult to work with.

But scientists who specifically study workplace culture, like the ones at the O.C. Tanner Institute, have found that while each generation does make its own contributions to workplace culture, members of different generations are actually more alike than different.

“People often think there’s such a profound generational impact on the workplace, and there’s really not,” said Alexander Lovell, director of research for the O.C. Tanner Institute.

According to O.C. Tanner research, workers today want to feel recognized and appreciated; they want to feel like their work is valuable; they want flexibility in their work schedules.

Workplace culture is, perhaps, more important than ever, and that push is being driven by younger employees. But it’s not always the expectations that differ, Lovell said. It’s the ability to advocate for them.

“It kept coming forward that different generations are actually quite similar in what they wanted,” Lovell said. “The differences are often in terms of employee voice.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Employees in a meeting at Motivosity, in Lehi, on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023.

Generational shifts

That’s not to say different generations haven’t shaped their workplaces in specific ways.

Mallory’s mentors, many of them Gen Xers, were subtle in their leadership, he said. The culture they created was more implicit; there was little heavy-handedness or micromanaging.

“They’ve never said, ‘Here’s what you should expect from this workplace culture,’” Mallory said. “What they’ve done is, they’ve lived it.”

Mallory said he remembers his boss shrugging at a request to take time off — a nonverbal sign of approval. When Mallory made mistakes, his mentors have not berated him or threatened his job.

“Their actions teach me what culture is,” Mallory said.

Now a leader himself, Mallory said he is more explicit about his leadership style. He sets clear expectations of his team members and his working hours. He works best late at night, he said — 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. is his extended “power hour,” but he does not expect employees to work or respond during those hours, and he tells them as much.

O.C. Tanner researchers said leadership style has, indeed, changed over the generations. Baby boomers learned to lead with an iron fist, Lovell said. They are often more authoritative and less personal.

Younger leaders, meanwhile, are more focused on mentorship and collaboration, said O.C. Tanner researcher Cristen Dalessandro.

Those style differences lead to a “common misconception” that leadership styles are rigid, Dalessandro said, and that people respond best to what they know. In fact, O.C. Tanner’s research found that more “modern” approaches to leadership benefit everyone — including baby boomers. Older employees reported higher job satisfaction when their leaders were more collaborative and inclusive.

“We all benefit from leaders with a more modern approach,” Dalessandro said.

Young people also explicitly seek stronger connections in their workplaces, O.C. Tanner’s research found. Millennials and Gen Zers don’t associate as strongly with churches or associations. Instead, they turn to their coworkers for community.

Perhaps the most distinct cultural shift, researchers said, is in younger peoples’ expectations not of their workplace, but of the work itself. Older generations “showed up, did their job, and left,” Lovell said.

Millennials and Gen Zers, meanwhile, more frequently want to feel a sense of purpose and identity in their work. They are generally less trusting of big institutions such as government, but more trusting of businesses that claim to affect change, said O.C. Tanner Senior Researcher Daniel Patterson.

“Gen Z, especially, has seen the instability that can be out there,” Patterson said. “Finding balance and purpose is really important.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Employees in the offices of Motivosity, in Lehi, on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023.

Work-life balance

Mallory just calls it “flexibility” — the ability to work when, and from where, it’s most convenient and efficient.

It’s a big factor in workplace culture, Mallory said, and its importance is being bolstered by younger, more technologically savvy workers.

Mallory said he values flexibility, but does not always relate to the boundaries he sees younger employees enforcing.

“This is where, generationally, I’m more like a Gen X or a boomer,” he said. “I work late; I volunteer for projects that aren’t mine. I would never say, ‘That’s not mine.’”

Mallory said work-life balance can sometimes come at the cost of upward mobility, and it’s a trade young people are increasingly happy to make. Millennials and Gen Zers generally are more content to stay in lower-level roles, he said, if it means they can clock out at the end of the day and leave work at work.

Patterson at O.C. Tanner sees it differently.

“Gen Z has a strong work ethic,” he said. “They’re not slackers, or afraid of work … but they’ve seen their parents, and previous generations … live for work, fight to climb the ladder sort of thing, and they’ve seen them burn out.”

Technology has made younger employees perhaps even more efficient, Patterson said — just not in a way older generations recognize.

“This is a generation that has grown up [with] and never not known the immersive technologies that we have,” he said. “There are smarter, better ways to be productive, to accomplish goals … in a way that allows for better work-life balance.”

And younger generations are willing to go the distance, Patterson said — as long as their work is recognized.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The entrance to Motivosity, in Lehi, on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023.

Everyone benefits from recognition

Motivosity and O.C. Tanner are both in the business of employee recognition, specifically recognition software. Their technologies help automate or streamline things like work awards, anniversary celebrations or peer-to-peer recognition.

Because with software or without it, representatives agree, recognition is one of the biggest indicators of a healthy workplace. It’s what employees say they want most often, across generations.

“Companies that focus on gratitude throughout the organization have a 36% lower turnover rate,” Mallory said, referring to a study that specifically measured Motivosity users against a control group.

O.C. Tanner’s research supports these claims.

Patterson said younger employees are more vocal about their desire to work for a company “where people are respected, seen, heard and valued.” And they’re less likely to respond to recognition they feel is superficial, if it’s not backed by a “broader culture that is healthy.”

“If you ask employees to work overtime and, as an afterthought, throw a pizza party,” he said, “it’s not meaningful. Actually, it has a negative effect.”

But the desire to feel recognized and included isn’t a new one. “Culture” broadly was the biggest priority employees consider in assessing their workplace, across all generations, by upwards of 20%

“Purpose, opportunity and well-being are things that matter to all generations,” Dalessanro said.

Younger generations are just better at identifying and asking for it.

“Gen Zers don’t care; they say what they want,” Lovell said. “It’s actually kind of refreshing.”

And perhaps, Lovell said, members of Gen Z learned how to speak their minds from millennials, who “felt more empowered” to raise concerns than previous generations. And millennials learned what they wanted from Gen X, who reflected the leadership they learned from baby boomers.

At the end of the day, the research shows, boomers benefit from, and want, the same things from their workplace as their Gen Z colleagues.

“Fundamentally, all of us in the workforce right now, regardless of age, are kind of benefitting from the same things, right?” Dalessandro said. “We benefit from organizations that try to create a community and a sense of belonging.”

Shannon Sollitt is a Report for America corps member covering business accountability and sustainability for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.