Engineering workplaces were split between digitally native millennials and older employees more comfortable with face-to-face interactions. The pandemic forced everyone onto the same virtual page.
Finding Common Ground Across Generations
Nov 5, 2020
by Mary Pilotte
Since then, more than 72 percent of the world’s student population—according to UNESCO—has been affected by school closures, while results from a survey by the Main Street Network suggest that 25 percent of the 30 million small businesses in the United States are at risk of closing permanently. Unable to adapt quickly enough to the changes in regulations and the needs and fears of their customers and communities, even entire industry sectors like airline and entertainment face significant operational uncertainty. Meanwhile, many parents, students, instructors, employees, and administrators have pivoted to online communication and workflow platforms.
For most, the transition to video conference tools such as WebEx and Microsoft Teams was one of urgent need rather than thoughtful and purposeful intention. Even the development team of Zoom, an online videotelephony and chat service that’s been in operation under its current name since 2012, was caught flatfooted by a range of design challenges and security breaches due to unanticipated demand.
The sudden turn to online everything has forced many to learn on the fly and adapt with others left behind. Universities now face some parents who believe the tuition they’ve footed was for the inherent value of in-person instruction, rather than online coursework. But how might one identify and extract perceived value during a time of rapid response? What is it about face-to-face education that makes it more readily acceptable to some? And, would all learners agree? Further, how does one reach the conclusion that an experienced teacher or faculty in the classroom is not just as expert and effective virtually? In other words, who gets to decide how best to share knowledge?
With these questions, there is an underlying polarity to be managed and assumptions to be revealed. To suggest the notion that our current virtual work or educational state is either good or bad is a false choice. Likewise is the assumption that all learners or business associates fit nicely into some form of homogeneous blob under which all communication approaches, accepted practices or policies must naturally apply. Well established research by the likes of Waynne Blue James and Daniel L. Gardner of the University of South Florida, as well as Richard M. Felder of North Carolina State University shows we are very unequal in our preferences for communication and learning tools, habits that drive interaction and value driven motives that guide our actions at work or school.
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These differences in our preferences, always present in work places and learning institutions, are now emphasized in light of the current pandemic. In the engineering world, the trend has been unfolding before me for nearly two decades. This is in part because today we are operating at a historic point in time in which at least four unique generations—baby boomers, Gen Xers, millennials, and Gen Z—have come together in the workplace, even if only virtually. The oldest of these, baby boomers, continue retiring at a rate of 10,000 per day, while the millennial generation now represents the majority of workers and will make up 75 percent of the workforce by 2025. Each cohort has their own learning and communication norms.
The result, while exciting, is pulling professional spaces into different directions and causing managers (and educators) to reevaluate how to best provide a learning and informing landscape that represents their demographically diverse workforce. Examining this through the engineering lens can provide a road map for those in technical fields, as well as for anyone navigating today’s world, during and after the pandemic.
My engineering research on complex dynamics in educational institutions and the workplace began as far back as 2001. At the time, I’d spent 15 years in industry and realized some of the normative work practices, behaviors and professional expectations around communicating and operating in this setting were no longer uniformly understood or owned. I focused my research on examining shifts in industrial behaviors, in particular on engineering communication and work culture (or the implicit and explicit values, practices and norms espoused, expected and executed to perform engineering work).
To protect accumulated knowledge assets, firms must ensure those critical understandings that lead to a competitive advantage are shared fully and seamlessly among their engineering work groups. This isn’t easy, as each work group formulates its own unique value system, ways of harmoniously operating, also known as rules of racing, or more formally as their work culture. Because engineering knowledge sharing in the workplace is a social activity, it resides in a social context governed by the profession’s culture. My research involved a quantitative study using social psychologist Gerard Hendrik Hofstede’s organizational cultural values model to examine the various dimensions of engineering culture. Hofstede was an early believer that cultural differences acted as a barrier to communication and could affect one’s ability to connect and motivate people.
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He suggested a group’s normal work practices strongly influence the work culture, and differences observed across work cultures are mostly due to such things as type of industry sector, nationality or external environmental factors, and not generally influenced by work group demographics. While this made sense to me, I also felt that times were changing, so my work explored if demographic differentiators like birth generation, gender, race, industry sector and engineering discipline also played a role in forming engineering cultural practices. In particular, I wanted to know if generational birth order had an impact on the actions and definitions of what acceptable work boundaries and practices looked like for engineers.
When I first shared this research idea with academic colleagues, the enthusiasm for the topic was thin at best. What does one’s generation possibly have to do with how engineers see their work? But the Committee for the Study of Invention convened by MIT and the National Science Foundation reported that future global competitiveness would only be won by “those who develop talent, techniques and tools so advanced that there is no competition.”
While the concept of generational influence on work was still nascent, I started to accumulate anecdotal evidence, reflecting my own once effective but now waning methods of managing junior counterparts. One common example was when we hired a new associate; there was a prolonged need to coach, counsel, and onboard the engineer. This lengthened mentorship period seemed to grow with each new cohort. Instead of solving technical problems, managers were diverted into detailed discussions with young team members about why a given problem was important to the company or deserving of their focused attention.
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In the end, my study involved 335 engineering professionals who revealed statistically significant differences between generational cohorts—but only within what is known as the “normative versus pragmatic” cultural dimension. That dimension describes one’s need to have what is happening around them explained; the less normative a culture is, the more that explaining practices is necessary. Low normative orientation cultures also focus on achieving quick results. Alternatively, a high normative orientation demands truth and personal stability and respects tradition but may fail to consider the future, especially when saving money.
What generation might that sound like? Spoiler alert—not the millennials. Indeed, the data suggested both boomers and Generation Xers were more normative in orientation than their earliest predecessors (the Greatest Generation) or their youngest colleagues, the millennials.
Simply, our behaviors are different by generation and those behaviors can impact our work practices. To that effect, it didn’t take long for the broader society to begin to note differences in behaviors associated with millennials, and how their radically different values, practices and work habits, were having an impact on the workplace. I call this the great “millennial reset.”
The Great Generational Divide
The millennial generation is now very well known for their desire to operate in a more ideal environment. From flexible start times and perks, such as time off for philanthropic endeavors, millennials also covet more structured work processes and frequent feedback and a faster upward trajectory to leadership. As baby boomers retire and Gen Xers rise to executive leadership, the millennial generation faces the challenge of having to learn in warp time to make up for the knowledge loss of the next-to-largest generation, the boomers.
Perhaps it is also no surprise that millennials approach learning differently. Their tools and practices, such as hand-held devices and online platforms, are sometimes considered odd when compared to the traditions of their predecessors. However, it’s the boomers and Xers who are now leading strategic decisions related to how upward training for millennials is formulated and dispensed. Many millennials consider most workplace models of learning as overly rigid. Meanwhile, changes put in place specifically aimed to serve millennials leave other generation work associates suffering from “future shock”; a term futurist Alvin Toffler coined in 1970, predicting too much change, brought on too fast.
As an engineer, it is easy to see that this generational workplace cacophony of needs and desires is a complex system, with numerous inputs and outputs, competing interests and design constraints. And while the situation of having a workplace composed of more than one generation is not a new one, the convergence of rapid change and technology innovation does alter the viable solution space. The generations may have been feeling the discord and tension of communication and work habit differences amongst colleagues for some time. Now, however, with the mandate of communicating strictly by virtual means we can no longer simply ignore what may have been for some, uncomfortable, but avoidable, interactions.
Those of us in the Generation X and baby boom generations remember the transition from walkie-talkies and beepers—devices that made us reachable at work but which we turned off at night—to the ubiquitous and omnipresent cell phone. According to editor-in-chief of TD magazine Vanessa St. Gerard, this trend emerged in part, as a national desire to ensure more constant contact with loved ones following the tragedy of 9/11, a life altering and value setting event for the then youthful, pre-workplace millennial generation.
Employers were at first opposed to cell phones at work, but soon gave in to associates’ demands for keeping them close at hand. They later realized it would also allow them 24/7 access to their workers. This never-ending connectedness naturally and stealthily eliminated what had once been a normal eight- to 10-hour workday.
In a 2014, Kristopher J. Thomas, a senior human resources leader at Amazon, wrote about how this shift was uncovering early side effects of constant communication access, including the blurring of personal and work lives. Thomas asked his readers to reflect for a moment on just how significant this single workplace change was, simply by making cellular technology cheaper and more accessible to communication hungry consumers. Now consider all of the technological advances that have come to pass since that time. It is no wonder some of us are exhausted by this change, he wrote, while others see it as just another day in their lives.
Thomas recommended we pay special attention to work-life balance, especially when designing virtual learning, new technologies or associated workplace policies. But that so-called special attention never seemed able to keep pace with innovation or stakeholders’ concerns, including the often drowned-out voices of those differently abled regarding accessibility.
Meanwhile, we press forward, re-engineering communication, education, and work-life with more and more technology. Though warned to guard our work- life balance, the lines between our personal, educational, and professional lives have never been less clear. The social habits of the millennial majority have now fundamentally altered the work and learning environments forever.
As we prepare the next generation of workforce at colleges and universities world-wide, the biases of those institutions for—or against—technology and virtual engagement sets the tone for the enduring workplace practices of tomorrow. One could imagine the current situation, provisionally brought on by the novel coronavirus, may have sealed the next generation’s (and our own) destiny toward virtual and distanced modes of social, commercial, and educational endeavors forever—without intention or shared consent.
Although some reject the new virtual reality, the demand for virtual teamwork is not new or uncommon in business services such as product development, consulting, or information technology. The prevalence of virtual work in industry has been on the rise for some time now, seeking to outrun competitive pressures by compressing both time and space.
But researchers such as Petru L. Curşeu and his colleagues note virtual team experiences, just as virtual classrooms, are not all equal. These inequities, perhaps best described as differences, revolve around what becomes accepted as normative practices within the team of individuals (or classroom or professional discipline). Such norms take time to be negotiated, documented and institutionalized by both internal and external stakeholders. What could work for one team could be a catastrophe for another.
This notion of situational fit for the appropriateness of communication tools is complicated, and that is without exploring too deeply the complexities of modern diverse teams in the workplace. In what engineering education researcher Brent Jesiek of Purdue University refers to as “cross cultural competencies,” globally competent engineers should aspire to gain detailed knowledge of, and appreciation for, the cultural norms among team members who come from varied geographic cultures. This knowledge is then used to create responses and actions supportive of a more culturally sensitive and inclusive work environment and culturally appropriate engineered solutions. And University of California, Santa Barbara researcher Dorothy M. Chun has outlined how intercultural online learning environments can cause not only language and meaning mismatches, but also are often wrought with participants’ use of incorrect cultural assumptions.
Raising Virtual Awareness
To stay open and on some form of schedule, we have entered a time when best practices and rules for coaching, communicating, and conducting commerce are being rewritten by the minute. Who would have guessed that in less than 60 days, we would be reminding our co-workers the necessity to wear pants for work, and students that time away from school is not a vacation?
Indeed, we are living a strange, collective new world. Our challenge as engineers is not to stand still in this time, but rather to educate ourselves in order to effectively work the problem.
As more communication is facilitated by screens and devices, and preferred among millennials and Gen Z, professional relationships are prone to experiencing “virtual distance.” Karen Sobel-Lojeski, who is the founder and CEO of Virtual Distance International and coined the term, describes this as the detachment—physical and psychological—that builds up over time, as in-person contacts are replaced with those facilitated by technology, which has the negative impact of lowering interpersonal trust.
Her research, which is backed up by more than 1,400 studies, discovered that trust is the underpinning of work relationships and without it, positive relations between colleagues are drained. As a result, work effectiveness goes down dramatically as team members are less willing to collaborate with or help their colleagues.
“In corporations, success is measured by on time, on budget projects,” Sobel-Lojeski says. “When virtual distance is very high, those projects come in late and over budget with low customer satisfaction, and they [companies] can lose millions. So, there's a financial impact.”
In addition to corporations, high virtual distance also affects learning institutions, military operations, and even day-to-day relationships among friends and family members. Understanding our generational differences and facing an explosion of virtual distance, we must find new ways of building trust through communication practices to effectively share knowledge across expertise, be it in the workforce or in the now-virtual halls of higher learning.
The Knowledge Sharing Problem
Firms have long depended on their veteran employees—baby boomers and Gen Xers—who over the years have accumulated a plethora of knowledge and experience. As these generations began to retire, their information base was at risk of fading with them. Fortunately, according to a 2019 Harvard Business Review survey, millennials and Generation Z very much desire more training, particularly for leadership. However, they want their training to always be accessible, via online channels for examples, and self-directed in nature.
This is at odds with the one-on-one engagement the retiring generations would most prefer to share their expertise through. For a business enterprise, it becomes critically important to appreciate how the desires and preferences of one group may influence the tool choices, practices and policies exacted upon others in the workplace.
In a 2015 survey of nearly 400 practicing engineers in America published in Australasian Journal of Engineering Education, two colleagues and I compared engineering work tools and norms based on several communication sub-constructs to try and identify similarities and differences across the diverse technical disciplines. We noted “the knowledge that engineers must bring to their work includes knowing how to perform tasks, facts and understanding when and how to bring appropriate skills and facts to work on a particular problem.” These are all important considerations when understanding how to better transfer specialized knowhow.
The late Walter Vincenti, professor emeritus of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University, referred to this as an autonomous body of knowledge, recognizably different from scientific knowledge. Vincenti suggested that for engineers, the more knowledge we have, the more complex the knowledge becomes, and the greater the variations that can exist for its use, which leads to increased uncertainty–something engineers inherently dislike. This complexity is particularly problematic when communicating and sharing knowledge associated with complex equipment and engineering models or processes.
At the time of our survey, communication norms of specific engineering disciplines had limited research, yet a few key studies existed. Morten Hertzum and Annelise Pejtersen had found that mechanical engineers had a distinct preference for face-to-face communication, where trust around sources of information was key to their work interactions. Joanna Wolfe and Elizabeth Powell looked at interpersonal communication biases in the engineering disciplines—in particular, a masculine bias, which could influence and alter the tone of how interpersonal communications are perceived. Their work revealed how engineering disciplines, such as bioengineering and industrial engineering seemed to attract more female engineers, simply due to their cultural tolerance for “female speech,” which included such utterances as admitting vulnerabilities or conceding mistakes to help others save face.
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Our study probed for insights into topics on communication associated with the engineering culture, communication competency, communication comfort, and communication benefits—and ironically, we found no statistical differences across engineering disciplines.
But differences did appear across disciplines when it came to communication tool preferences. For example, chemical engineers expressed the greatest preference for face-to-face communication while packaging engineers expressed the least preference for in person contact. Biomedical engineers most preferred instant messaging and chat modalities, whereas industrial engineers preferred these tools least, also harboring a low preference for file sharing as a means for communication. We also discovered that manufacturing engineers appeared to be the most comfortable using a wide range of communication interfaces while systems engineers were the least comfortable, preferring a narrower band of communication tools.
In sum, looking at all the represented engineering disciplines, most preferred face-to-face communication and least preferred blogs, video chats, and electronic information posting sites—precisely how we are doing most of our work today.
All in all, as noted in my prior research, it seems there is far more that unifies the engineering profession than divides it, the sometimes-painful individual communication differences notwithstanding. Yet, the profession’s preference for face-to-face communication should give us all pause, given our current situation.
From Issues to Solutions
No matter our personal preferences, we have an obligation to adapt to accommodate the varied generational cultures and uncertain conditions taking over the workplace. That said, we also must not lose the value and efficacy of tried and true learning and sharing approaches, which have stood the test of time. It is, therefore, not a question of either one communication approach or another–but rather a solution likely resides in the messiness of this and that space.
Here are three areas to focus on:
Firms looking to improve inter-company communication of all varieties can start by realizing improvement begins with establishing a work culture that embraces diversity of all types, including those of communication styles, tools, and uses. A culture that fully values and encourages all forms of diversity—and which is open to taking suggestions from its new or junior associates—is better prepared for all change, not just the ones we are forced to make under fire.
One communication style doesn’t fit all
While the virtual workspace may be the air millennials breathe, other team members may be feeling overwhelmed and or left behind through these times of rapid technological advances in communication and team management. A flexible IT and communication infrastructure will support a better flow of information by permitting individuals to choose the right tool for the right communication need or team setting.
Develop communication supporting policies
In addition to offering a range of communication tools to accommodate the generational and individual diversity of the workforce, it’s also important to articulate best practices and establish etiquette and expectations for specific work settings. This will aid younger generations’ desire for greater professional guidance, and will embed cultural workplace values through established routines and norms.
If we have learned nothing more from our unique and challenging situation at hand, it is that change is a certainty. As engineers and citizens, this requires a disciplined scan of the horizon to watch for emergent trends, a nimbleness to pivot toward associate, customer, and societal demands, and a persistent openness to new ways of working and learning still yet to unfold.
Despite the many challenges of these times, there’s an opportunity to acknowledge and re-examine our organizational and work life frailties. Like the many technologies we innovate, we can engineer a corrective path that will better serve and benefit us all, not just now, but in the future when we are able to once again regain treasured in-person contact with our colleagues.
Mary Pilotte is the director of engineering education undergraduate degree programs and the associate professor of engineering practice at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. She is also the author of the 2018 book, Millennial Reset: Reimagining a Workplace that Works for Everyone.
James, W.B. and Gardner, D.L. (1995), “Learning styles: Implications for distance learning.” New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 1995: 19-31.
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Pilotte, Mary K., with Amber L. Cross. (2018) Millennial Reset: Reimagining a Workplace that Works for Everyone.
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Eden King , Lisa Finkelstein , Courtney Thomas and Abby Corrington. (2019) “Generational Differences At Work Are Small. Thinking They’re Big Affects Our Behavior.” Harvard Business Review. August 01, 2019.
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Wolfe, J. and Powell, E. (2009), “Biases in Interpersonal Communication: How Engineering Students Perceive Gender Typical Speech Acts in Teamwork.” Journal of Engineering Education, 98: 5-16.