The Benefits and Challenges of Cross-Generational Laboratory Teams

By Jordan Rosenfeld - June 21, 2022

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Clinical laboratories are at a unique crossroads, with significant numbers of Baby Boomers retiring or about to retire in what is being called “The Silver Tsunami,” 1 and an entirely new, younger group, Generation Z (Gen Z), born after 1996,2 entering the workforce for the first time. Now, more than ever, many laboratories will be comprised of laboratory professionals of multiple generations including Generation X (Gen X) and Millennials (Gen Y) as well. These intergenerational teams present both challenges and benefits that may change the way laboratories hire, train, and function, in the future. 

Gen Z values flexibility and work/life balance 

Perhaps the biggest distinction between Gen Z and their predecessors is their focus on striving for work/life balance and job flexibility, according to Christina Nickel, Director for the Clinical Laboratory at Bryan Medical Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

Not only has this led Ms. Nickel’s laboratory leadership team to investigate opportunities for remote work for frontline staff, such as short shifts for MLS to support onsite staff by reviewing slides and performing CBC differentials using remote access, they’ve also allowed laboratory employees to work split and unconventional shifts for MLS/MLTs so they can attend school or spend time with family. “We never used to do that. We couldn’t afford to have three people fill one MLS/MLT FTE. Now we are,” Ms. Nickel says. 

Allison Vusich, a 24-year-old medical laboratory scientist at Bryan Medical Center said that balance “between work life and family life” is very important to her. The married mother of a 4-month-old was clear that family comes first. “Especially in a job in the lab where the hours might be different from normal working hours,” she says. 

Ms. Nickel notes that older generations are more accustomed to working for work’s sake. And while the difference in approaches to work can, at times, make it hard for the generations to understand one another, Ms. Nickel believes that the focus on more balance is ultimately a good thing for laboratory professionals of all ages. “There are a lot of people that wouldn’t have been burned out or unhappy with their jobs if they’d had some flexibility,” she says. 

Gen Z prioritizes safety, security, and resources 

Because Gen Z has grown up witnessing economic and social instability, from the Great Resignation to the pandemic, they are security-minded, according to Glenna Hecht, human resources (HR) consultant, senior professional in human resources (SPHR) and Founder of Humanistic Consulting. 

Ms. Hecht has conducted “grassroots” discussions with Gen Z employees and has found they are putting off such milestones as marriage and parenthood because they are concerned about the environment and already calculating the costs of having children. They are focused on getting competitive wages so they can survive economic and world challenges. 

Ms. Vusich has certainly re-evaluated her work and future goals due to the pandemic alone. “Definitely entering the workforce in the middle of a pandemic shaped me,” she says. “There have been constant changes, and it required me to be more adaptable and look at things through new eyes. It also made me rethink how laboratory professionals are getting paid, what sort of benefits and compensation should we be getting, especially when retail jobs have increased their wages a lot.” 

Value and purpose driven 

Perhaps because of their constant access to information through social media, Gen Z places high priority on doing work that offers values, services, and is meaningful to the planet, community, customers, and themselves, Ms. Hecht explains. “They have seen more in a short period of time than most other generations have in a lifetime. They want their work to stand for something.” 

It is important to help younger employees understand the skills they can gain from their jobs or projects. “They are interested in working with groups and teams. It is extremely important to them to learn from each other and develop relationships. Offer them a mentor.” Ms. Hecht says. 

Ms. Vusich agreed that she learns a lot from her older colleagues. “Take advantage of your team and the people you work with. You’re really going to enjoy your job most when you’re relying on your team members and helping each other out.” 

Ms. Nickel says that Gen Z prefers face-to-face time, engagement, and mentorship but they may need help getting up to speed, since many of them have never had jobs before. “So, we’re teaching them how to have a job, what’s the etiquette and the culture and the responsibilities,” she says.  

She is, however, impressed with their adaptability and speed. “They learn very, very quickly. They pick up so fast, and it’s been such a benefit to have them during the pandemic because they’re also very flexible,” Ms. Nickel says. 

Challenges 

The biggest challenge of multigenerational teams is helping people with different mindsets and approaches get to know one another’s styles and be patient, Ms. Nickel says. “A big part of it is just not taking things personally, understanding that [Gen Z] view things differently and for [Baby Boomers] not to take it as though they’re judging.” 

Communication styles are also different for Gen Z than they are for Baby Boomers. The younger workers want to communicate through apps or text, not emails or spreadsheets, so laboratories have to adapt.  “We have to be more considerate of how we are going to get a point across,” Ms. Nickel says. 

An emphasis on technology 

Ms. Hecht adds that Gen Z “sees the world differently.” They have a unique understanding of technology. They were born into it and have “no fear around it.” They expect technology in the workplace and need to understand why the company may not have the most up-to-date options available. 

Since Ms. Vusich’s generation has grown up steeped in technology, her older coworkers may often come to her first for tech support, though she sees some downsides, too. 

“There’s a tendency to want to just rely on that automation, instead of really critically looking at things and having procedures in place to catch onto things the automation might not,” Ms. Vusich says. 

The learning goes both ways, however, Ms. Vusich says. “I’ve learned a lot from my peers who’ve worked in the lab for years. They’ve seen so much more than I have, so I ask their opinion.”  

Ultimately, the future of work includes more Gen Z (and Gen Y) employees. This means “productivity, teamwork, and training have to change,” Ms. Hecht says. When organizations are open to reinvention and idea exchange, the outcome is creativity, invention, and growth. 

Having multiple generations in a laboratory is ultimately great for innovation and diversity of viewpoints. “It makes you think differently,” Ms. Nickel says.  

 

Jordan Rosenfeld

Contributing Writer