How the COVID-19 Pandemic Has Affected Generational Differences in the Workplace

Robin Gurien, Ph.D. is the Administrator of OCDE Academy, Orange County Department of Education’s In-house Professional and Organizational Development and Training Center Coordinator, as well as a part-time Human Communication Studies Professor at Cal State Fullerton.

Source: Glassdoor

When asked about her observations of how the changing dynamic of the workplace in the past year has affected the different age groups in her workplace, Dr. Gurien talked about the increase of employees needing to seek relief from the stressful workplace environment, and finding relief in messaging apps with their co-workers.

 “Working in the public sphere, our primary purpose is how we will serve our constituents. In light of that, what I see in terms of what is different in the workforce, is that there is a lot of venting and more use of direct messaging applications that we didn’t use in the past. Depending on the department, some of the apps are monitored and some aren’t.”

Dr. Gurien says that the past year has led to more work being done at home, by both herself and her co-workers. She admits the increase in remote work has meant that maintaining relationships among co-workers has been harder, and she has relied on the messaging apps to both vent about the stressful work and keep in touch with her co-workers. But she says her and her co-workers must be aware of their conversations, while using these apps on their company-computers. 

“If I have an app on my computer that I know is being monitored, how does that make me feel as an employee that the only way that I’m able to reach out and joke around with my co-workers and maintain that relationship is using an app that my boss has informed me that ‘can be’ monitored at any time.”

How do the different generations within Dr. Gurien’s workplace react to this information? She says,

“It’s created a lot of distrust and cynicism among the employees, which I don’t think is different across the ages. I do think that the different employees will respond to that in a different way. The older employees who have been here for a longer time would be more jaded in their long career, they feel like they have seen it all and this is nothing new. Whereas a new employee who may be suddenly managing in a crisis would think low of the organization. They may be desperate to find a new place to work, without realizing it’s going to be like this everywhere.”

The rise of employers monitoring the activity of their remote workers, comes after an increase in working from home in the past year.

In response to a question asked about the effect the COVID-19 pandemic has affected generational differences at the workplace, Dr. Gurien explained how there are several factors that contribute to the contrast between generations. 

“The theory behind generational differences in the workplace is that it’s not so much that I differ because of my age, it’s more so that I differ because of where I am in my life cycle. Entry level employees are interested in different things than mid-level employees,” claimed Gurien. 

She elaborated by pointing out the goals and interests for each generation: entry-level, mid-level, and those who are close to retirement. There are stark differences between the three groups, but they are similar in the fact that they are living similar life cycles.  

Gurien states that you could see these differences personified over the course of the pandemic when looking at the behaviors of each group. In her experience, Dr. Gurien found that many of the entry-level employees in her organization prefer more direction and monitoring while many of the more experienced employees prefer more autonomous tasks. 

“Entry level employees are willing to do whatever is asked, but they need specific instruction and guidance, like having a manager around them at all times. In a lot of cases, managers were not readily available during the pandemic. In addition, managers had a lot of trouble telling their employees what to do because things changed from day to day due to the circumstances of the pandemic,” Gurien explained.

Dr. Robin Gurien on the generational differences in the workplace.

When wrapping up our interview with Dr. Gurien, we asked her for her thoughts on the silver lining of the generational differences in an organization. She gave a compassionate response to reassure young professionals. 

“You’re going to experience every single piece of that life cycle. I think that for those of you just getting started or who may be mid-career, I’m probably more mid-career than close to retirement, I think that being aware of the fact that your attitude is going to change as you move along in your careers. I think that should provide a better approach to your relationships at work. It should help people understand, ‘Oh I really need to work with the people who have been here for a really long time, they are my mentors and they are the people who know everything.’ And I have this great opportunity to pull people up with me.”

Dr. Gurien’s consideration for others is clear as she seeks opportunities to help bring up her colleagues. In addition to this, to foster a healthy and helpful workplace environment, Dr. Gurien emphasized the importance of communication between colleagues despite their age gap. 

“Ask everybody in the workplace to think back to when you were new and remember you had a lot of questions also. When you were new and you figured something out for the first time you felt like you were ready to run the organization and that’s normal.”

Ending on an optimistic note, Dr. Gurien told us, “The silver lining is nobody is doing anything they’re not supposed to be doing. This is life.” 

Recognizing the trials and tribulations that have come with the COVID-19 pandemic, she is very appreciative of her team and their accomplishments. 

“I am incredibly proud of my organization. We have risen to the cause in ways that I never would have imagined possible. I know that there has been a great deal of politicizing your government authorities some of it completely justified and some of it not, but when I look at  the workers who are getting the job done, I am just in constant awe of the work that they do and the way they are getting the work done and the way they are serving the public in spite of all those barriers, in spite of all of the politics, in spite of the lack of funding … In spite of that we are still leading the charge and that is because we have people working here who are doing the work.”

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