The spread of ages across the workforce – now often covering up to four generations as older workers retire later – has been cited by many companies as an increasing source of workplace tension according to new research.

The recent ‘Future Chemistry’ report on workplace issues, compiled by Burness Paull in conjunction with clients across the UK, found that companies with longer-serving employees were “rolling their eyes” at the rights being given to staff such as the opportunity to take shared parental leave.

Younger workers expected a better work-life balance and faster career progression, so some organisations were offering them management training at a much earlier stage in order to keep them engaged and to prepare them for future roles within an organisation. Other organisations that had questioned their younger staff found they just wanted higher pay and not other benefits, such as healthcare or pension contributions.

It was noted that part of the explanation for so-called ‘millennials’ being less interested in additional benefits – such as shared paternity leave or pension entitlement – was the fact that they were reaching important milestones later in life than previous generations, such as leaving home or starting a family. This was attributed to the higher cost of living, especially in cities such as London.

While at present millennials were understood to be interested in the social contribution being made by their companies, including charity work, some participants identified this as being linked to them making major decisions later in life. Millennials were then expected to revert to more traditional behaviours as their lives changed.

Yet discussion about millennials revealed that the blanket term was being used to cover at least two distinct groups: one that wanted to know what a company could do for them and who would move on within, say, nine months if they weren’t satisfied; but also a second – younger – group that had returned to a more traditional outlook of demonstrating what they could offer to a company in order to be recruited or retained.

For both groups, making information available online to job applicants was judged to be essential, especially with millennials seeking wider information about a company’s ethics and environmental policies before applying for roles. Posting such information was also seen as important for increasing the diversity of the workforce within a company.

So how can businesses bridge the generation gap?

Many companies said they were bringing younger and older staff together to pass on skills and knowledge. An interesting example to break down the barriers between generations was the use of “upward mentoring”, with younger people mentoring older people on how to use technology and, in the process, getting to better know and understand each other.

“To foster an environment where all generations feel engaged, more opportunities must be created for interactions amongst colleagues who may have complementary or indeed conflicting views and experiences,” explains Jennifer Skeoch, employment partner at Burness Paull LLP.

“Employers must balance the need to ensure all workers feel respected with the clear need to create an honest forum in which questions can be asked and challenges to stereotypical views can be made, without fear of repercussions.

“Within that process, employers could seek to ensure that the “banter” – which many employees view as being a crucially important aspect of their working life – can be retained, without alienating other colleagues. Employers who have a clinical and sanitised culture will no doubt find that engagement levels decrease, so a balance must be struck, and an open and honest atmosphere will go far in achieving that.”

She added, “Employers trying to second-guess what the so-called millennials want now, or may want in the future, should be mindful that a fluid approach will be required: it may be that flexible working and few benefits are attractive for those of the younger generation, but as they progress and reach more traditional milestones the traditional concepts of job security and family friendly benefits will likely become important again.”