As Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials all work together, developing an understanding and appreciation of how the different generations think, work and value rewards is critical to the long-term success of today’s accounting firms.

With their different backgrounds, life experiences and value systems, the generations approach the workplace with different expectations and attitudes. It may be natural to assume that everyone will adapt to established ways of thinking and doing things, but the multiple generations need to respect their colleagues' perspectives. By doing so, accounting firms can take full advantage of the knowledge and experience of older generations while developing the talents and leadership skills of younger professionals.

Some in the leadership ranks who have already paid their dues may dismiss these generational differences. But firms that make a real effort to develop understanding between multiple generations can leverage the strengths of each group, increase productivity, retain valuable talent, develop strong career and succession planning, and improve business development.

There are some common issues that accounting firms face now as multiple generations share an office, a firm, a culture and clients.

DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES

One big difference between generations lies in the idea of the traditional work day. For older generations, it has long been accepted that everyone will show up at the office or the client site no later than 8 a.m., and that everyone will stay at their desks until the work is done. Time off is planned and scheduled. But many in the younger generations view this approach as unnecessarily rigid. For those who grew up in a completely wired world, being in the office isn't essential to ensure productivity. They may be able to get more done working from home or starting a bit later, and they may not see why this isn't obvious to everyone else.

Providing feedback is another area where up-and-coming professionals may have very different expectations from those in leadership positions. Gen Xers and Millennials thrive on regular feedback so they can calibrate their level of performance appropriately. Rather than only providing annual performance evaluations, firms should offer frequent formal and informal feedback opportunities.

Younger generations also tend to consult their parents to a degree that is incomprehensible to more experienced accountants. This generation's parents have been closely involved with their children's lives, and that won't change even as those children launch professional careers. More-senior members of a firm may be startled that Millennials may involve their parents when considering new positions. Firms would be wise to accept that reality as well. To set themselves apart during the recruiting process, firms should create informational sources geared towards Millennials as well as those who influence young accountants, including their parents and friends. Firms that use new media in their recruitment efforts, such as podcasts, Facebook and Twitter, can set themselves apart from other accounting firms.

Firms should be both cautious and sophisticated in using new technology and social media. Younger generations may take 24/7 access and instant communications for granted, so firms need to consider how to leverage technology appropriately and educate professionals about proper usage. It might never occur to a Baby Boomer partner to text a client, but that may seem logical to young professionals. This informal communication can lead to misinformation and misunderstandings. Firms should develop specific policies regarding technology and social media, and then implement them.

SUCCESSION AND RESPONSIBILITY

The recession has wreaked havoc with the retirement plans of many Baby Boomers. Unfortunately, the inability of more senior partners to retire or scale back work hours can thwart succession and advancement plans. Firm leaders must honestly acknowledge the situation and creatively think of ways to keep younger workers challenged and invested in the firm. By varying tasks and allowing younger professionals more flexibility to move laterally and geographically, firms can help keep them engaged.

At the other end of the spectrum, young accountants may think that they can take on responsibilities and tasks before they are ready. Many younger professionals grew up when the emphasis of extra-curricular activities was on participation, rather than winning and losing, and participants received trophies just for being on the team. Therefore, in the workplace, Boomers and Xers need to offer appropriate increasing tasks and set clear expectations for promotions to manage younger accountants' progression and careers.

REWARDS AND RECOGNITION

The multiple generations also value rewards and recognition differently. What is important to one generation may not matter as much to the next. A corner office may be a status symbol to Baby Boomers, while Millennials are likely more interested in flexible working hours. Individuals closer to retirement will probably be more motivated by financial rewards, while those with young children may be looking for more paid time off. Personal preferences must be considered as well. One person may be pleased with public praise, while another will prefer quiet acknowledgement. Firms need to take into consideration all generational perspectives on rewards and recognition and use them according to how they are valued by each generation.

More than ever, accounting professionals from different generations need to listen to and understand each other. All generations benefit from firms that know how to navigate the challenges of the multi-generational workplace by respecting different generations' perspectives and desires. While firm leaders can, and should, set expectations, every firm should strive to accommodate their people while effectively serving clients. Firms that fail to adapt will find that they cannot attract and retain the next generation of accountants or clients.

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