The face of the industry’s front line certainly has changed. The work jeans are baggier and definitely have more pockets than they used to. The fresh-faced, young techno-savvy men and women have more tattoos and piercings than they used to, as well. They often wear their attitudes on their sleeves – good, bad or otherwise. As far as workforce diversity goes, however, one area that tends to get overlooked is that involving age and experience.
The world that today’s 20-year-olds grew up in is vastly different from the world out of which cable’s 40-year-olds emerged. And the personality and style of that workforce has been greatly influenced by a fast-changing and dynamic social environment. Today’s workforce has more diversity than ever before, and the management challenges presented are just as diverse. The following will provide some hints into the opportunities to bridge these generations. Two groups While there are myriad different age groups throughout the front line of the cable industry, two major groupings tend to emerge throughout the business. The 20-somethings usually cluster together, and those in their 30s, 40s and older tend to cluster together.
The latest additions to the team are the late-teen and early 20s group. We have to remember that these aren’t even Generation X constituents. They are Gen Y. They are fast on the heels of cable’s Gen X and have the advantage of learning from the mistakes that their Gen X counterparts made as they came of age in a fresh digital world. These youth only know of Vietnam, the Berlin Wall, or Tiananmen Square as distant history lessons. Their entire adult lives have never known a world without the World Wide Web.
Bear in mind also that many of today’s front-line supervisors and even managers may come from this generation. They have risen to the top of their class because of their drive to stand out from their more experienced peers in many cases. This new generation of leaders may be better equipped to intuitively deal with their young front line counterparts in high-tension situations because they can so easily identify with them.
The standard bearers for cable are the 30-, 40- and 50-somethings. These ladies and gentlemen are the elder statesmen (and women) for the front line of the cable industry. Many of them still remember 12-channel systems and even vacuum tube amplifiers. (Watch them glow!) They have watched their business change dramatically in the 10-25 years since they began to climb poles. They have also survived countless mergers and acquisitions and have seen an endless stream of managers, directors and VPs cross the threshold of the business.
What they also possess is an unmatched practical expertise in the business. A well-managed operation will find ways to embrace their offerings, give that generation a forum to disseminate their knowledge and build a culture that venerates their sometimes legendary contributions to the business.
Generally speaking, older employees have had longevity based on their sustained usefulness to the industry in spite of the ever-tumultuous and changing environment around them. They usually aren’t sticking around because they are mediocre employees. They have demonstrated the ability to get the job done time and time again. Very often, they are the unspoken leaders of their respective work groups. Diverse talent How does one manage such a diverse collection of talent? How do you get the best of both worlds that meets business and industry needs? More than that, how do you build a team based on so much diversity?
Both groups have a great deal to offer. Some of the best situations arise when each group finds ways to share what they know in an environment friendly to information exchange. People in low-stress working situations have a tendency to share over time. If the environment is highly charged, often times the result will be a lack of exchange and even resentment between the groups. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that productivity will then take a hit.
Team-building exercises, even the silly ones, can often encourage information exchange. Leadership and team-building training can help foster this communication. Management should frequently express that every person on the payroll has something positive to offer. Management also needs to push the natural leaders of each department to bring the best out of employees who might be viewed as having little to contribute. Each supervisor also has that responsibility, and sometimes fellow technicians can fill that role even more effectively.
Understanding the personality behind each individual is also key. No matter what generation, each individual employee has a personality type that is well-suited to some tasks and not to others. Take the time to learn the true personality of the individuals working for you, and make sure that they are able to work in a situation that increases their odds of success.
Some employees are very well-suited to a steady, stable (even boring) environment every day. These individuals could work a route of disconnects every day for 25 years. If that is what suits them, then there is a definite need for them in the business. But you should be very careful to not assume that such an environment is where an individual is happiest. Communicate openly with these individuals; if their personality type is such that they suffer quietly, then one day after 10 years of quiet suffering, they will probably snap.
There are also individuals who prefer fast-paced working environments. They want change as often as possible. They won’t be happy grinding out a trouble call route year after year. They may want upward mobility as soon as possible. They may just have a need to work in a different line of business on a regular basis. One should take care to learn these personalities as well, since someone who is not suited to high-stress environments may eventually go off the deep end. Social interaction One of the mainstays of our industry has long been the 8 a.m. gathering of technicians. Coffee time, shoot the bull time, kick the tires, etc. That time is being more efficiently used in some areas by asking the technician to go straight from home to the first job of the day. Email or some electronic form of workforce management gives the technician the route for the day. So a major team-building portion of a technician’s daily routine is disappearing.
Even the human interaction with dispatch is beginning to disappear as we begin to automate our operations support processes. That’s not necessarily a problem for the younger technician, who has been "texting" regularly since biology class in the 10th grade. But the veterans have an adjustment to make. In the past, dispatch sometimes served the purpose of letting a technician vent about a difficult customer. Dispatchers, when they have good relationships with their field staff, make great sounding boards. But yesterday’s solutions to meet customer needs are being replaced with new ones. How to manage? So the real challenge here is not just dealing with different personalities or age groups. Rather, it lies in how to hold onto the legacy – all of the great stuff – from yesterday’s workforce and pass it on to the new generation. Our business has traditionally embraced innovative thinkers. So allowing yesterday’s innovators to tutor tomorrow’s only makes sense. It’s having to overcome the new challenges that requires a solution.
First, take a look at how the social aspect of your front line functions. Is there time for peer-to-peer interaction on your teams? If not, think of creative ways to invest that time. If your technicians commonly head straight to their first call of the day from home, then maybe schedule a morning conference call. Intentionally create opportunities for your technicians to interact face-to-face. Set up a hot-dog lunch at a common meeting location. Take advantage of the opportunity to turn these field experts into mentors. Present opportunities to your team for impromptu training sessions, and watch the younger generation share their improvements on old processes. For certain, use the weekly or monthly safety meeting as an opportunity to build your team. Don’t cover safety and then send the team into the field; take the time for a team-building exercise as well.
For those departments that have technicians reporting to their first job right from home, the supervisor should make sure to show up at someone’s first job each day. This is not just to greet them at the beginning of the day, but also to be there as often as possible in support of their efforts. I know, you’re laughing now. First thing in the morning has historically been the wrong time to be out of the office, but there are ways of making it happen.
It is important to remember that individuals, to some degree or another, treat the workday in many of the same ways that they treated the job interview when they were hired. People generally desire to put their best foot forward, and they often want to demonstrate the personality that they believe their managers find suited to the job. Probing individuals over time to find out what best suits them presents a challenge.
This requires an education for the managers and supervisors that best allows them to meet this challenge. But it is a challenge worth engaging, since creating quality production and grooming highly engaged and vested employees benefits all stakeholders in the organization: the company, the employee and the customer. Patrick Hunter is a technical operations supervisor for Charter Communications. Reach him at Patrick.Hunter@chartercom.com.