Three employees

Unlocking the potential of multi-generational workforces

Sean Haley
About the author : Sean Haley

Regional Chair, UK & Ireland and CEO, Service Operations Worldwide

Published on : 4/22/22
Reading time : 5 min
  • Today, our economy has five generations in the workforce, which makes it the most age-diverse of our time. And yet, labour and skills shortages are widespread. With this in mind, it could be that businesses are focussing their recruitment and retention strategies on young people and failing to see the huge potential across the multiple generations that already exist in their workforce.

    A survey by Deloitte has found that less than 5% of employers have policies designed to support older workers, and only 6% strongly agree that their organisations have the tools to support a multi-generational workforce.1 And with the Office of National Statistics warning that people leaving the workforce between age 50 and state pension age costs the economy £88bn, many organisations will pay the price if they don’t take action to support a more diverse, inclusive and multi-generational workforce.

    Supporting our multi-generational workforce is an important area of focus within Sodexo’s DE&I strategy. Our approach was recently used as a case study in a report released by CBI earlier this year and I discussed the topic in further detail on a recent interview with Senior Policy Advisor at CBI, Poppy Bramford.

    By sharing our experiences and actions, we hope to lead the way for others looking to improve their progress in this area. 

    Sodexo's commitment to its multigenerational workforce

    In the UK and Ireland, Sodexo employs around 30,000 people across five generations. To enhance cross-generational working, there was a clear need to create an environment for people to better connect with each other and break down misperceptions.

    Truly understanding the diverse age groups working at Sodexo gives us some unique and valuable insights. For example, the services we deliver for our clients cater for a range of generations, from schools and universities, adults at work to our personal home services. Having a workforce that reflects this is critical to our success as we have the authentic insight and empathy to anticipate and adapt to client needs. 

    This understanding also allows us to support our people as they go through different life stages, whether that be starting their first job, having a family, going through the menopause, becoming a carer or preparing for retirement. Our support is something that we believe to be vital if we want to be an employer of choice. In turn, it helps us to attract the best talent, improve retention, and reduce sickness and absence. 

    As an employer of currently over 1,000 apprentices, we are proud that we attract a diverse range of people from different backgrounds and age groups. In fact, 70% of our apprentices are aged over 31, with our oldest apprentice being 67. 

    Being empathetic to the different generations in your business, and their experiences at different points of their career and time in the organisation, is very important and helps you decide on what actions you can take to support them.

    Connecting across generations

    To help bring our employees together and break down any barriers, Sodexo’s Generations employee network developed a board game called GenMatch. 

    Players match statements about work motivation, style, technology and lifestyle to the relevant generations. This helps educate employees on biases vs reality, and overcome any misbeliefs that people hold about others in different age groups. It also helps managers understand their multi-generational teams and why people from different generations may approach things differently.

    “The game has proved to be a fantastic team building exercise allowing our employees to explore generational differences in a safe space. This has led to greater learning and understanding amongst teams of preferred styles and approaches," says Raj Jones, Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Sodexo UK & Ireland.

    Sodexo employees have said that GenMatch has encouraged them to think and interact with customers and colleagues in a different, more positive way. For example, in one team, younger Sodexo colleagues recognised that co-workers older than themselves didn’t know how to use online banking, making managing their finances more difficult. So, to help them feel more comfortable with, and confident in using it, they set up lunchtime workshops. Seeing colleagues come together to help and support one another on issues outside of the workplace even, is testament to Sodexo’s efforts to connect generations.

    Retaining talent long-term 

    Our people are at the centre of our business, and we know the importance of creating a stable work environment for them to thrive and develop their careers.  We are proud to have so many colleagues who have long service with us, it is their loyalty and commitment that has helped our business grow. 

    In 2022, we have 224 colleagues in the UK and Ireland who are celebrating working for us for more than 20 years, over 50 celebrating 30 or more years at Sodexo, and one colleague who’s been with us for more than 50 years. It’s also not unusual to find two to three generations of one family working together. We consider this length of time served quite special, and this generational diversity to be a real strength to our business.

    As well as appreciating that retaining long-serving colleagues makes us more resilient to skill and labour shortages that many industries are facing right now, we recognise that long-standing team members develop industry-specific knowledge and networks which new hires simply don’t have. 

    So many people are leaving the industry early and they're probably not passing on their skills, experience and knowledge to the future generations. Leaders need to make sure they can pass on those skills and experience across generations.

    It’s the job of employers to ensure that older workers stay and thrive in work for longer, and enable effective collaboration between other generations. If they don’t, the consequences will be more costly than ever to the business. 

    Baking it in, not bolting it on

    It’s time for organisations to shift their attitude towards their DE&I strategies from being a ‘nice-to-have’ to a ‘must-have’. 

    We have a saying within Sodexo, which is about baking it in, not bolting it on. What we mean by this is that it's very much our responsibility as leaders to make sure our DE&I initiatives are embedded into the business and that all colleagues in the organisation buy in to what we’re doing and also act upon it themselves.  

    It’s a real leadership challenge. Leaders genuinely need to believe and understand the risk and opportunities around the DE&I agenda and take accountability. Change needs to come from within and if you empower your colleagues and provide them with the right support then they will drive change. I chose to lead on this particular area of DE&I because not only did I think it was critical to our future, but I really thought it needed to be led from the top and I need to ensure the leadership team is fully engaged in the subject.

    In short, if employers aren’t prepared to actually embed DE&I within the day-to-day managerial behaviours then they risk being an unsustainable business.

    Change today for a better tomorrow

    Diversity equity and inclusion is strategically imperative for any organisation needing to tackle critical issues like improving retention and overcoming labour shortages, or for those looking to attract investment and unlock greater productivity.

    The first steps towards capitalising on a multi-generational workforce is to really understand it. Consider what is the age profile? Do you potentially have an ageing workforce and therefore is workforce planning a key priority? Or are you struggling to recruit the next generation, why is that? Through data and insight, you can begin to understand employee experiences from different age groups. 

    Complemented by education and awareness, it is then the job of the leadership team to build a culture of conscious inclusion, and to foster cross generational collaboration.

    1. Deloitte, 2020, The Postgenerational Workforce

    Find out more about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Sodexo