How to handle generational differences at work? One family offers a blueprint

Three generations of Hickmans, ranging in age from 37 to 86 years old, run a flooring and lumber company in Western Pennsylvania. The youngest manages social media and works remotely. The oldest still uses flip phones and remembers the days when employees stayed with a single employer for their entire lives.

As the country’s populace ages, and as people work well into their older years, workplaces of all sizes are becoming more like those of the Hickmans. It’s not uncommon to find four or five generations working together at one place of work. This is because the number of older workers has increased by nearly two-thirds in 30 years.

The wide range of attitudes towards work, and skill sets, can offer opportunities for older workers to provide experience while younger workers bring in new approaches. This can create tension, as attitudes and norms about working hours change. A 30-year old may go to the supermarket at 2 pm and then work after dinner while their 60 year-old coworker would never dream of running an errand in the middle of the afternoon.Dennis Hickman has a portrait of his family in his office, which is located at the flooring showroom.

Both have a strong ethic of work. However, one may define this as working 24 hours a day and the other might be working eight hours per day.

We can learn from the Hickmans. The Hickmans’ approach has lessons for us all. They have different working styles and management styles, but they avoid conflict by sticking to their own path.

Larry Hickman began collecting scraps of wood at his father’s sawmill around the age of 12; his son Dennis joined him in 1980.

“Work was hard”

Larry Hickman is 86 years old and comes from an era that worked long hours. He says, “Work was tough but you did it.”

Larry began collecting wood scraps in his father’s sawmill near Emlenton, Pennsylvania, at the age of 12. He eventually purchased it. Hickman employees were mostly locals who joined the company after high school and received benefits like medical care and retirement savings. They stayed in their jobs until they retired.

He says that today’s story is different. He says that people don’t stay around for very long.

He rebuilt the sawmills after two fires five years apart destroyed them. He was passionate about his work and the forest. Larry Hickmanwoods, together with his son Dennis, is the owner of Hickmanwoods Family of Companies.The family has also set up a flooring business that specializes in high-end flooring for homes, museums and performing arts centers.

New ideas, new generation

Dennis Hickman’s 63 years of experience in the cyclical business has taught him new skills and an ability to adapt.

In 1980, he joined his father at a time when rates of mortgage had soared into double figures and were crushing the lumber-intensive market. Many family-run business fold after the third generation. “That’s me and I was not going to allow that happen,” says he.

After the furniture market slowed down in the 1990s he put hardwood samples in his vehicle and drove to Dallas in 2000 for a flooring show. Six months later, a call came in asking him to make a wood floor with alternating herringbone patterns.

Dennis says, “I said yes and then I figured out the how-to.” In the same year, Dennis launched a company to specialize on premium flooring used in museums and performing arts centers.Jessica Hickman Fresch is a remote worker who visits the office and sawmill once a week. She often brings her two daughters, aged 4 and 5, with her.

Dennis told me he was confident in his product but he needed help with marketing and social media.

Jessica Hickman Fresch was living in Atlanta at the time. He asked her to come back and manage marketing and sales.

He recalled telling her, “We have an interesting story.” Make us sound like the Waltons here.

New Ways of Working

Jessica accepted the job, but only for three years. She would work remotely from Pittsburgh (1.5 hours away from Emlenton), a town of 600 people.

Jessica says, “I was in my 20s and single.” When Jessica started working in 2012, the sawmill was still sending faxes. She stayed and has said she is not interested in leaving.

Jessica, 37, now works from home and manages the website and social networks, but she still comes to Emlenton every week, usually with her children. She gives tours to architects who are environmentally conscious, explaining how trees are harvested and replanted and how wood floor stores carbon.

Dennis is not concerned about the productivity of remote workers. Jessica would send him website ideas at night on her laptop, says Dennis. He remembers her saying, “How about we do this?” It’s nine o’clock at night. The game is about to begin.”

Hickman employs around 70 people across the company, including in sawmills, sales, and dry kilns.

Jessica, a sister who isn’t in the family’s business, says that her family’s business employs about 70 people. When she suggested that speakers come to speak to employees about personal finance and healthy diets, they said: “Nobody will listen.”

Motivating the new generation of workers

Jake, her brother who runs the mill, is a very different manager than his father. This reflects the challenges in finding and keeping employees.

Jake’s work is physically demanding. He works at the sawmill between 6 am and 4:30 pm, as well as checking the kilns over the weekends. The most stressful aspect of the job is not having enough workers. One employee quit, and the next one did not show up.Jake Hickman will often bring doughnuts to his workers in appreciation.

To make his workers feel appreciated, he grills hotdogs and brings them doughnuts for lunch. He says, “I always try to make them happy.” It’s not easy. With three children of his own he tries accommodating young dads. He told one that he could attend a special breakfast at a school. When workers don’t arrive, he gives them another chance.

It’s not like his father. Dennis says, “I had a stack of applications and guys, and if anyone screwed up they were out.”

Larry, the oldest, has officially retired, but he still remains active in the timber management side. He calls his current job “general nuisance”, and will call Jake and ask what type of lumber is being logged and offer advice.

Dennis Hickman could consult his father when purchasing timber to ensure that a particular grove of trees is of high-quality.

Dennis consults his father before buying timber. Larry can tell intuitively if a particular grove of wood will be defect-free or high quality based on local factors such as the soil.

Larry says, “It is just what you learn through the years.”

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