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Executive Pulse seeks input from Canadian leaders on vital issues that affect our business and economy.

For many businesses across Canada, the challenge of utilizing workers and talent at both ends of the age spectrum can present very different challenges. Two people who run Canadian businesses discuss their experiences in this area.

Jodi Glover is chief executive officer and co-founder of Real Tech Inc., a Whitby, Ont.-based company that aims to improve water quality through the use of sensors, analyzers and other technology in water treatment, manufacturing and other industries. Anthony Cheung is president and CEO enGene Inc., a Montreal biotechnology company.

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How do Canadian businesses engage and retain the next generation of workers?

Jodi Glover: For us, it is open communication. Millennials, or the next generation of workers, are still young in their careers and they're still trying to get experience, so I think one of the theories of them jumping ship is they're trying to get to the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. I've seen in our work force people who are just entering the work force, they just graduated from school with an idea of what they think they want to be doing, they start doing that, they're enjoying it. But as time goes by, they learn and grow in that position, they're ready to learn more and and incorporate something else into their jobs. They're looking for challenges and, from our perspective, we need to keep an open communication about what motivates them, what are their passions, what they find best about their jobs. So every week we ask: What was the highlight of your week and what were the obstacles of your week? This makes sure we're growing and helping them to be able to gain those experiences that they can keep gaining here rather than going to another work environment.

Are there stereotypes about millennials that are true or untrue?

Anthony Cheung: There are lots of stereotypes, which I think are mostly generalizations. One of them is that they are hard to motivate, that they are more focused on lifestyle experience than work reward or work outcome. I think that's not true, and it's just that they have a different reward system than older generations. But I think that if they are motivated appropriately, they will show great performance as well.

Are there technologies and techniques to boost productivity, given younger workers' interest in flexible work?

JG: The work-life balance and having the flexibility to not only adjust hours but also where I work and having a laptop and creating that culture internally has allowed me to have my job. I've had three children while growing our business and that flexibility allowed me to keep working even when my children were just days old or I was in the hospital. I think that really helps us be able to retain our employees. We've had other people who have joined us that are of an older generation and have come from more traditional work environments and they're surprised that people are showing up at 7, 7:30 a.m. and then some people are staying until 8, 9 or 10 o'clock at night. We have a very open atmosphere for when you want to work and I think we get way more out of our employees. I think we have a happier work force and a more productive work force by creating that culture and allowing everyone to have laptops.

Is there a potential productivity issue with older employees?

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JG: I think if you're of an older generation and you've stayed in the workplace, you're going to have adopted some of the new technologies as they have been coming up. If you've been out of the work force and you're trying to get back in after a decade, so much has changed that it's going to be a lot harder for you to get involved. However, the stereotypes that the older generation is not tech savvy are not necessarily true for those in the work force because they've been growing with the change. They had the computers on their desks when they started to come out so they are right alongside it. They might not be as intuitive as some of the younger generation but I know senior citizens that are way more tech savvy than I am because they've been in the workplace and they've evolved their roles with the times and kept that adaptability to maintain their jobs.

Are there potential upsides with older employees, such as a return to focus on work after children are grown?

AC: Usually when they come back, it's not necessarily because of money, it's not necessarily because of a certain kind of work environment. A lot of them come back because the project is exciting and I have experienced many of those kinds of people. They have that flexibility. At least for what we do here in biotech in particular, grey hair is very important. I don't know about high tech, I heard high tech is brutal to anybody over a certain age, but in our case, because it's such a regulated environment, it will prevent you from falling into the same traps. Personally I pay a lot of respect to grey hair and as long as we maintain the right culture, these people come back with a lot of experience.

Is there a risk of loss of motivation, given an aging worker's sense that there's nowhere to go but out the door (or potentially a sense of being valued less)?

JG: I think that goes whether or not you're retiring or whether or not you're young and disengaged with the work that you are doing. I think it's important for any organization or work force to make sure that their hiring process incorporates what the true interests are of the candidate and making sure they are aligned with the visions and the culture and the job function that they're going to be doing. If you look at life, you're going to have highs and you're going to have lows, and if you actually enjoy your work and you find something that you're interested in when tougher times and challenges are there, you have the perseverance to keep going through and problem solve and get to the solution and keep going. So I think the engagement really comes from making sure your entire work force, regardless of their age, is doing a job function that they enjoy and, if they're not, then working with them as they continue to grow.

Is ageism an issue?

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AC: When it comes to ageism – any -ism: racism, ageism – there are a lot of assumptions and generalizations so we try to break those barriers and not let those become an issue. I think when you go deeply into it, a lot of times it's because communication is not well worked out. If the assumptions are true, you've got to deal with the problem itself and not because of the age of the person. I think any age you are, if you're motivated and communicated with correctly then the person can perform. So just like with any ageism, it's more stereotypes. If we can break down those barriers and promote communication and collaboration, those issues can be substantially minimized.

Responses have been edited and condensed.

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