For the first time in history, as many as five generations are working alongside one another (source). Between them, they’ve experienced wars, major cultural shifts and a massive technological boom. Some workers have grown up knowing only screens, while others spent the majority of their lives without access to cell phones.
It should come as no surprise, then, that communication barriers abound between generations. Generation Z, which is just entering the workforce, has certain communication preferences that do not tend to match up with those of the Baby Boomers.
It is well worth your time to explore the preferences of various generations and of your own team members and try to understand generational divides that might cause unnecessary tension or stress in your workplace.
Spoken communication vs. written communication
The advent of email—and fast Wi-Fi—brought a shift in the way workers communicated with one another. Before email was widely available in the office, employees relied on in-person interactions and phone calls to contact clients, customers and their own team members. Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y all tend to prefer this type of communication.
Email was hailed as a tool that would improve workplace efficiency, and offices quickly shifted to primarily written word communications when it was affordable enough to do so. Individuals that grew up with email, like Millennials and Generation Z, typically prefer to do business via email, text message or DM.
This divide can lead to some differences in the way certain types of communications are interpreted.
You say tom-ay-to, I say tom-ah-to
A perfect example is the use of ellipsis in written communications. You may have even experienced it yourself—someone sends you an email and finishes it with a lingering ellipsis. Boomers and Gen X were taught that ellipsis can be used as a playful piece of punctuation. It’s meant to evoke mystery. On the other hand, Millennials and Gen Z experience the addition of an ellipsis as a passive-aggressive statement (source).
Across the board, different words and phrases can be interpreted in different tones. This phenomenon is exacerbated by the addition of graphics to written communications. For example, the crying emoji can be used to indicate something is sad, funny, cute…the list goes on.
Need for speed
Different generations also have different expectations for response times. Often, Boomers will send a note without any expectation of a response that day. On the other hand, Gen Z is looking for lightning-fast responses to all types of communications.
This can likely be traced back to how different generations communicated growing up. Some called their friends and waited hours or days for a response, while others have had texting capabilities at their fingertips since childhood. Increasing internet speeds may also have played a factor.
Think about what motivates you to produce great work. Is it loyalty to your company or its cause? Excellent job benefits and pay? Or is it that you crave positive feedback?
Generally speaking, Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y typically feel greater loyalty to their companies and are motivated to work hard for them each day to prove this loyalty. Millennials and Gen Z are looking for deeper fulfillment from their work (many cite wanting to make the world a better place through their work), so they tend to desire personal fulfillment and praise to stay motivated. This is, of course, a sweeping generalization, but it is worth taking into consideration as you learn about motivating factors for each of your team members.
Tips & Tricks for Success
We won’t leave you hanging—there are several ways you can navigate generational communication challenges in your workplace.
- Distribute internal and team communications through multiple channels. Send a memo via email, then link to it in your internal messaging system. Or share news in person during your weekly team meeting and reiterate it via email. Do your best to meet your team members where they already are.
- If you lead a team, set very clear expectations for how your employees should communicate with you and others. Consider holding some form of regular in-person meeting to keep everyone connected face-to-face. This will help team members read each other’s body language, hear sarcasm or pick up on other tones.
- Provide multiple methods of communication for your employees to use. Don’t tether everyone to a text chain or email. Provide at least two ways for employees to get in touch with each other at all times.
- Consider a two-way mentorship program in which older and younger employees can learn from each other (source). Younger folks can help teach technological literacy, while older employees can share their tips for in-person networking.
- Finally, get into the habit of just asking people their communication preferences. Generalizations will only get you so far, so get to know each of your team members and personalize the way you get in touch with each individual.