To build a workplace where three generations of colleagues can work not only harmoniously but also in a highly engaged fashion takes some work.

There is probably no one formula organisations can adopt for this, and what seems to work for some may not work for others.

This article describes some practices that worked for Vital, a shared services centre of the Singapore Government.

The department has about 480 staff members, of whom  the youngest is 19 years old and the oldest, 68.

About 30 per cent — or about 140 persons — is above 50.

About 6 per cent or 30 persons are over 62, and about 34 per cent or roughly 160 persons are under 30.

A compelling vision

To achieve a goal, it is probably best to start off with a compelling vision.

Two years ago, Vital started with an employee engagement value proposition titled “family at work”.

These three words had many positive associations for Vital’s employees, who are mothers and grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers, sons and daughters.

One of the reasons the department chose these three words was that in dialogues with management, more than one employee referred to an older colleague as a “second mother” at work.

As Ms Nur Bari’ah Abdul Malek, 26, an officer from human resource service who has been at Vital for five years, says: “I like the team spirit here. It feels like a second home here with seniors I look up to and one whom I call my second mother.”

While there are mentoring and coaching programmes at work, these informal adoption programmes are perhaps the real glue in the workplace.

Build memories

It is reasonable to suppose that a highly engaged workforce will lead to better business results, whether it is the quality of work or improved customer service.

To build engagement, Vital tried to think of itself less as an organisation but as a community. Practically, this meant that it should build community memories and community traditions.

The department has gradually built up over a dozen of these traditions.

For example, the organisation’s retirement gift to staff turning 62 is an electronic photo frame that is loaded with memories — pictures of people and department events — courtesy of their colleagues.

There is also a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programme that takes Vital’s staff to Cambodia to build household water filters for poor villages.

Colleagues of different ages bond while wading through knee-high floodwaters and spending time together for a good cause.

The department also held a Pioneers Day to recognise the officers who had been with it from the start in 2006/07.

Among the 19 employees whom Vital currently sponsors for diplomas and degrees are three aged 43, 49 and 55 who have been applauded for their spirit of lifelong learning.

Ms Chim Geok Ping, 33, deputy head of finance services, has contributed to the store of community memories too.

She says: “We are a very close-knit team. I once spent 14 hours making 50 meat dumplings to share with my colleagues.

“As a supervisor, I’m age-blind. What matters to me is having a can-do attitude at work.”

Debunking generalisations

There are some myths about the older or younger members of the workforce that relate to productivity, work attitude or complacency.

It is Vital’s belief that these myths (or prejudices, as referred to by a department manager) need to be debunked.

For example, it was formerly assumed that the older colleagues would achieve lower scores than the younger ones in the department’s annual proficiency exams.

Vital ran an analysis on the results  — they showed that older colleagues, as a group, scored just as well as the younger, more book-smart generation.

Experience matters just as much as book knowledge, and sometimes there are new, better ways to do things.

It is worthwhile to test these generalisations to reveal the truth so that staff from every generation in the department can work better together.

Mrs Soh Fong Chun, 64, a re-employed officer from finance services, sums up the office environment: “The younger generation is driven, creative and focused on what they want to achieve. There is also mutual respect for different experiences and new ideas.”