How to Improve Communication Between Generations in the Workplace
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Diverse teams carry diverse work and communication styles. As a generational speaker and trainer for over a decade, I have experienced first-hand how wide the communication gap can be on multi-generational teams.
In fact, 83 percent of Generation Z workers prefer to engage with managers in person, yet 82 percent of managers believe their Gen Z employees prefer to communicate via instant message. Further, 57 percent of Gen Z want to receive feedback several times a week, but only 50 percent of their managers provide feedback to them that frequently.
The proliferation of mobile technology and ubiquitous connectivity has created an abundance of new communication channels. Email, text, chat, video call and social collaboration are relatively new forms of communication that didn’t exist for most of the 20th century.
The complexity of communication intensifies when multiple channels are combined with the varying communication preferences and expectations of each generation in the workforce. Communicating between generations is challenging, but leaders want to get it right. The following five strategies should help.
1. Gain generational awareness
A general awareness of how each generation approaches communication is key to closing the communication gap. Keep in mind generational traits are clues — not absolutes — but they can help you connect and influence.
- Baby Boomers appreciate formal and direct communications with a preference for using face-to-face, phone and email; they value background information and details.
- Generation X appreciate informal and flexible communications with a preference for using email, phone, text and Facebook; they value a professional etiquette.
- Millennials appreciate authentic and fast communications with a preference for using text, chat, email and Instagram; they value efficiency and a digital-first approach.
- Generation Z appreciate transparent and visual communications with a preference for using face-to-face, Snapchat, YouTube, TikTok and FaceTime; they value video, voice-command and a mobile-only approach.
Surprisingly, over 70 percent of Gen Z want to communicate face-to-face at work. They will continue to weave in and out of the digital channels they are accustomed to while seeking more face-to-face encounters.
The communication gap is also exposed by how each generation uses emojis. Eighty-three percent of Gen Z emoji users are more comfortable expressing their emotions through emojis than a phone call, compared to Millennials (71 percent), Gen X (61 percent), and Baby Boomers (53 percent).
2. Defer to the person you're communicating with
Use generations as clues and defer to the communication preference most widely used by that generation. For example, Baby Boomers who want to connect with Gen Z should not call and leave a voicemail. Instead, defer to texting or instant message. Conversely, Gen Zers who want to connect with Baby Boomers should not FaceTime or DM them on social media. Instead, defer to a phone call or face-to-face meeting.
It’s no longer about how the communicator wants to deliver the intended message but how the other person is most likely to consume the message.
It’s also important to match the right channel with the type of information.
- Phone call is for detailed, long, difficult or emotional conversations.
- Email is for brief, informative and/or instructional information.
- Chat is for general announcements, news, informal messages, team collaborating and socializing.
- Video (Zoom, FaceTime, Teams, etc.) is for long, feedback-rich, focused, emotional or difficult conversations.
3. Mirror the communication
Respond to communications using the same channel in which it was received. For example, if a Gen Xer receives a text from a Millennial colleague, the Gen Xer should not call the Millennial but rather mirror the communication by sending back a text.
If alternating the communication channel is a must, then take the time to recap the previous correspondence in the new communication channel.
4. Set communication expectations
If a team or individual hasn’t been explicit about their communication preferences, others are left guessing which of the myriad communication channels to use and will usually default to their personal preference.
Instead, be proactive about informing others of how they can best connect with you. For example, a Gen Z employee could mention they prefer a text over a phone call in their email signature or Slack profile. Or a Baby Boomer could mention they prefer an email over a voicemail in their voicemail recording.
5. Create a team communication agreement
The purpose of establishing a communication agreement is to create official guidelines that highlight the rules of how a team is to communicate with one another.
Clearly communicating about how to communicate is essential in today’s high-tech and digital work environments. A communication agreement helps to set expectations, create team buy-in, establish boundaries to protect crucial work and streamline communication.
Ask the following questions of your multi-generational team to gain consensus.
- What communication challenges currently exist among the team?
- Ex: Too much time-sensitive information is being sent via email instead of chat.
- What is the team's most-used communication channel? Is this the most efficient channel?
- Ex: Email is the most prevalent, but a reduction in the daily number of emails would be welcomed.
- Are there communications that need to be prioritized?
- Ex: Any communications from current or potential customers should be prioritized.
- What type of communications are non-negotiable?
- Ex: Monthly all-hands, face-to-face or video meetings are non-negotiable in order to maintain team connections.
- What are the expectations (said and unsaid) for response times to email, phone, text, chat, etc.? Are these expectations necessary or suitable for success?
- Ex: Email response time expectations are 24 to 48 hours. If communication is needed sooner, use text or chat as the response time expectations are 15 to 30 minutes.
- How should “do not disturb” times such as vacation, evenings, deep work, etc. be handled?
- Ex: On workdays, employees are not expected to respond after 6 p.m.
- Do work schedules need to be synced to allow for tighter collaboration? If so, what are the guidelines?
- Ex: Every Tuesday all team members are expected to be online working between 3 and 4 p.m.
- What communication channel should be used for “emergency only?"
- Ex: Unprompted phone calls are for emergencies only and should be treated as high-priority by all team members.
- How are meetings to be conducted to maximize participation and efficiency?
- Ex: More frequent but shorter meetings (15 minutes or less) led by rotating team members.
- What other actions are needed to improve communication efficiency and quality?
- Ex: Out of office responders are required for any off days or times of uninterrupted work.
Consider creating a separate agreement for any external communications with clients, customers and vendors. Once you're clear on how to communicate, you'll be able to effectively lead your employees — no matter what generation they're from.