A balanced age distribution is a key component of diverse teams – the more diverse, the better. A good mixture in a team means bringing together employees with different levels of experience.
Employees of different ages facilitate productive knowledge transfer, because younger employees benefit from the experience of their older colleagues, while older employees can, in turn, learn a lot from the younger generation.
However, demographic mixing also poses challenges for employees. It is especially important to overcome these challenges when a team is freshly put together, so that potential and inspiration can be gained from the different levels of expertise.
Employees tell about their personal experiences with demographic diversity
Tim Niemann has been working at Roche for around ten years now. When 36-year-old Tim Niemann took on a young team, he occupied himself with the topic of demographic diversity. In an interview, he gives an account of his experiences. Tim Niemann's example shows that once you overcome initial obstacles, you can only benefit from different generations in a team.
When and how did you first notice differences between the approaches and methods employed by you and by your young team?
“I had been a manager for around three and a half years when a colleague retired and our departments were merged. The team that I took on at the time was very young and I noticed that something was different straight away. By chance, I happened upon a flyer for a seminar – "Generation Y". While I was reading it, I immediately thought: this is exactly the challenge I'm facing. This seminar made it clear to me that young employees have other needs and methods of action than the employees that I had managed before.
What I noticed straight away is that the younger generation prefers to concentrate on software, even though we work a lot with hardware, too. In general, young employees are simply much more practised with social media, smartphones, and new technologies. They have absolutely no reservation and are open to new IT systems. However, this also sometimes causes them to prioritise speed over accuracy. What surprised and somewhat disappointed me at the start was that my young colleagues were not very keen to travel. This is a pity, because our job involves the occasional business trip and we can give machine suppliers important suggestions and also learn a lot from them. Then I realised that the employees' situation is not easy. Many of them are working shifts and on Saturdays, which means they often already don't have enough time for their families and hobbies. Of course, given these circumstances, I understand their limited willingness to travel."
How did you handle the new situation?
“I think the most important thing was that we sat down and thought about how we could solve the situation together. The young employees are very responsible. Of course, they don't have the same professional experience as employees that have been at the company for a long time – but there are other things at which they are much better. They know how to get information quickly, use the internet perfectly and are well-connected. Now, experienced employees can learn something from younger ones, which, of course, increases their value.”
How does this situation affect the functioning of the team?
“This is particularly noticeable in the team hierarchy. The young generation does not want rigid hierarchical structures, three or four stops on the way to Head of Department. As a result, we no longer have any team leaders, but only group leaders. These groups consist of a maximum of 15 people, but generally only ten.
Another point that stands out with regard to the young employees is that it is even more important to them to be seen as people and not just as a "workforce". They don't just join a company to work – they also pay attention to the climate and environment in which they work.”
If you could assemble a team that would be perfect in your opinion, what would the age distribution be like?
“If I could assemble the perfect team, it would be a very varied mix, from newly graduated students to employees with 20 to 30 years of experience. This would create a versatile working environment full of ideas.”
Christa Damm und Tara Oleksik
62-year-old Christa Damm and 23-year-old Tara Oleksik maintain a good working relationship. They have been working together for three years. After almost 47 years at the company, Christa Damm went into retirement at the end of June 2016. Tara Oleksik has completed her three-year training at Roche and is staying on at the company. The teamwork at their department was very good. They each learned a lot from the other, as they recount in the interview.
How was your collaboration?
“We got on well from the start, which had a positive effect on our teamwork. Our birthdays are on the same day and we share the same middle name, which also made us connect from the start. We never actively discussed our age difference, because it was never a problem for us.”
What do you value in each other?
Tara Oleksik: “What I really admire about Christa – and am trying to learn myself – is her calmness during everyday work. She can blank out everything around her and fully concentrate on her work.”
Christa Damm: “I think Tara is open to new things, especially new projects under her care. I was always open to everything as well, but for new systems and projects, young employees are often at the forefront.”
Ms Damm, what advice would you give your young colleague?
Christa Damm: “She should continue to actively work on her network. It's simply a huge advantage to know who to contact when you have a question.”
With their good teamwork, Christa Damm and Tara Oleksik demonstrate how employees with big age gaps can learn from one another. They complement each other excellently – through experience and calmness on the one hand and openness and energy on the other.