Practical tips for engaging young feds

Monday - 7/25/2011, 6:00am EDT

Dr. Bonni Yordi, co-author, "Engaging a Multi-generational Workforce"

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(This story is part of a Federal News Radio special report, "The New Face of Government.")

By Jolie Lee
Federal News Radio

The multi-generational workforce - with its differences in work styles, job expectations and technology use - requires federal managers to rethink their relationships with employees.

According to an IBM Center for the Business of Government study, federal managers are confronting unprecedented challenges in the workplace - and the first hurdle is simply trying to understand younger employees.

"The biggest disconnect is that managers seem to think that Gen X, Gen Y and Millenials are really outrageous, that what they want is just off the wall," said Bonni Yordi, director of surveys and business research at the Management Association and co-author of the IBM report. "I really don't agree with that. I see most of what the Millenials want is what most of us wanted in work and it's a different work culture."

Young feds generally want to use more technology, to continue to grow on the job and to feel like they are connected to a greater mission, according to the report, which was published in February.

Newcomers believe "work is part and parcel of their life," Yordi said.

The report outlines successful techniques for federal managers to capitalize on their young employees' skills and expectations. Yordi points out that these techniques apply to employees of all ages. What's more, as most agencies face budget cutbacks, many of these tips can be executed without financial consequences.

Tip 1: Feedback in real-time

The younger generation wants praise and feedback - a lot of it and in real-time.

Tim McManus, vice president of education and outreach at the Partnership for Public Service, said young feds are not satisfied with a yearly or half-year review. He said managers can pull an employee aside after a meeting or presentation and offer suggestions to improve.

"A little bit of time goes really a long way," he said.

Tip 2: Mentorship goes both ways

Older generations went to training classes to learn on-the-job skills, but younger workers expect to learn these skills while on the job, according to the report.

Longer-term feds can teach newer hires about office procedures specific to working for government. In turn, younger employees can "mentor up" in social network and other technology use.

According to a Federal News Radio survey, 40 percent of feds 35 and older said they believed they could learn from their younger coworkers. Meanwhile, 76 percent of young feds said they could "learn a lot" from their coworkers who had more than a decade of work experience.

Tip 3: Recognition and rewards

Yordi asked employees at a private sector organization what kind of recognition they most appreciated. For employees of all ages, the top choice was verbal praise, a simple "thank you." The second choice was a handwritten note.

"What was most surprising in this was the Millenials valued the handwritten note even more than any other generation, and I think it's because they're so used to technology, having something handwritten really stood out," Yordi said.

The third choice was a gift certificate of the employee's choice, such as for restaurants, movie passes or bookstores. The revamped reward system replaced the traditional plaques and other organization merchandise.

"If you ask your employees, often you can find out that you can spend much less money and actually give employees what matters to them," Yordi said.

Tip 4: Welcome new ideas, innovation

Yordi encourages federal agencies to create multi-generational teams to work on projects and solve problems.

"I think it's really important for senior leaders to look at and interact with younger workers and spot those a-ha moments when the younger workers' knowledge and skills with technology can create new paradigms for operating," Yordi said.

She said older feds will have to adjust the way they view their younger counterparts, to "not treat the Millenials as foot soldiers who have to put in their time before they have good ideas. We want to listen to their suggestions as we would to someone who has 30 years of experience."

McManus offers another suggestion for managers: Give them responsibility over projects that may be on a to-do list but have lower priority.

"That might actually be a great way to engage some of your new entry-level employees, [to say to them], ‘Here's something we're looking at a little bit. You take a little of your time to figure it out,'" McManus said.

Check out more from the Federal News Radio special report, "The New Face of Government."

Part 1 - Introduction: New Face of Government

Part 2 - Survey reveals both opportunities, rift between generations

Part 3 - Practical tips for engaging young feds

Part 4 - Young feds share what they really think (Read the profiles of six young feds)