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Bridging the Generation Gap in Workplace Communication

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 — September 9th, 2021

Bridging the Generation Gap in Workplace Communication

I recently discovered my use of emojis was uncool (or “cheugy” as Gen Y would say).

There I was, thinking I’m a reasonably tech savvy Gen X, happily littering my messages with “Rolling on the Floor Laughing” and “Face with Tears of Joy”, meanwhile younger people had moved on.

It seems they are less literal in their emoji use. Apparently, the “skull” emoji has become more popular for conveying laughter - it's visual slang for "I'm dead" or "I'm dying," which means something is very funny.

Generational differences are shaped by the significant events of the time – in politics, the economy, technological developments for example. It’s the lens through which we see the world.

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These days, not only are people working well beyond the traditional retirement age, Gen Z have now entered the workforce. So it’s possible to have five generations working together, creating a huge variety of communication styles.

Say what?!

In the digital age, we send and receive a lot of written communication, especially in the workplace.

However, different generations tend to interpret written communication differently, and this can lead to conflict.

Consider full stops and capital letters. An older worker may be annoyed by a colleague who doesn’t use punctuation in messages on a social platform, but younger generations can consider them rude or curt.

Similarly, ellipses (the … at the end of a sentence), mean a continuation of thought to a Gen X+, however, they can be seen as passive-aggressive to younger generations.

Learning how to navigate these differences can go a long way toward easing communication tensions between generations in the workplace.

But it’s not quite as simple as that

We also need to consider that a generation of people do not all communicate in one way. Factors such as gender, race, upbringing, personality traits, and the environment all have an impact.

Take Covid for example; with many of us working from home, entire workforces are suddenly having to learn to use digital collaboration platforms like Teams.

Covid has accelerated learning and helped narrow the gap between generations. It has also helped leaders realize the importance of connecting through digital channels in a more human way.

So while there are some broad observations that I’m going to make, it is dangerous to make assumptions about individuals.

It’s up to the leader, with support from communication professionals, to really understand how to communicate effectively with the people in their organizations. I’ll also make some suggestions on how to do that.

Gen Z (Born 1997 – 2012)

Generation Z is also referred to as the “phigital” generation i.e. they don’t make a distinction between the physical and digital world.

When I showed my niece, Eva, a hard copy print of a family photo, she pinched her fingers and tried to zoom in on it!

A Forbes magazine article says about a quarter of Gen Z’ers are online ‘all the time.’ They send and receive over 67 texts every day (and that’s excluding texts and other IM services, such as Snapchat or Facebook Messenger). 

They are used to lightning-fast internet connections and they also expect a fast response to their messages. But despite being digital natives, 84% of Gen Z still prefer face to face communication (which includes Zoom meetings etc).

Gen Y/Millennials (Born 1981 – 1996)

Gen Y (or millennials) are considered the first “digitally native” generation. They grew up texting rather than calling, which they consider inefficient.

With smart phones and messaging aps fully integrated into their lives, they expect a constant flow of information and to have their opinions heard.

Zoe is a millennial working in financial services. She has faced resistance to the way she works for years because she’s immunocompromised.

Some of her managers struggled to believe that she could work just as effectively remotely. She’s never once met her team members face to face, but two promotions in the last year say she’s proved her naysayers wrong.

In Zoe’s experience, older people are far more reliant on face-to-face communication but she believes this is not as efficient as other ways of working.

“You can communicate to a much broader audience though digital channels and with less hierarchy to step through,” she said. “Not every business interaction requires the social bonding that may occur in person”.

A further consequence of digital meetings is a flattening of hierarchy. “When everyone is just a head on a screen it changes the power dynamic. You don’t know how tall people are, or how they dress” (from the waist down at least!).

Gen X (Born 1965 – 1980)

Gen X didn’t grow up with digital communication but were the first to embrace email in the workplace (1990s). As a result they became comfortable with the written word as their primary method of communication at work.

Pete (Gen X/Y cusp) works in HR for a motoring services business. He believes workplace culture can be a barrier to using digital tools unrelated to someone’s birthday. 

“For example,” said Pete, “If a workplace is heavily unionized you may not feel safe in putting something in writing vs saying it in a meeting. You might have a lower level of confidence in communicating appropriately with the written word. If you just base [your communication approach] on age you are making an incorrect judgment.”

Their road patrol staff are mostly men over 50. Pete gets annoyed if colleagues suggest these team members are not engaging with social platforms like Yammer due to their age or digital capability.

“This is not a generational thing. And it’s not about the digital channel either as they happily use apps that are genuinely helpful (like YouTube),” he said. “If they’re not engaging, it’s because they don’t see value in what you’re giving them to engage with.

The channel is a small part of the equation; it’s actually about ensuring what we are communicating to them is relevant and valuable – not just sending messages from the ivory tower.”

Baby Boomers (Born 1955 – 1964)

Boomers are said to place a high value on face-to-face communication and are more likely to call or walk up to someone’s desk if they need something quickly. They also tend to want messages aggregated, complaining it’s too hard to look across multiple platforms.

My Boomer colleague Marie says, “You ring somebody if you want to get something quickly.” She is amused that people can message each other while they are sitting next to each other. Marie is an adaptable person and has seen a lot of change.

She recalls that when email was first introduced that some teams only had one email account, “So you’d get your slot and wait your turn to access the account.”

“Communication was much slower,” she said. “There was a lot more face to face.”

This is in stark contrast to the information fire hose we’re exposed to today. But “Not everything is in Google,” Marie says. I agree that’s an excellent point.

Could all this rapid consumption and digital engagement be at the expense of deeper, more nuanced relationship building and a stronger understanding of business needs?

The phrase “Ok Boomer” has recently entered vernacular as a derogatory term – judgment for being seen as out of touch by younger generations.

This was likely in response to Boomers accusing Gen Y of being too demanding of their employers and too eager to climb the ladder.

This kind of language only serves to divide and doesn’t appreciate the wisdom that comes from experience or the fresh ideas that come from youth.

Top tips for narrowing the gap

To be seen as strong and relatable, leaders will need to accommodate differences in communication styles and communication professionals need to support these efforts.

Lana and Wendy are corporate communication professionals in a large telecommunications provider and agree there is no one size fits all approach. “Even different business units can respond to communication in different ways,” said Wendy.

They find an omnichannel strategy is the best solution. “We have to make sure there is something for everyone,” said Lana.

Here are my top 7 tips on how to bridge the gap in your teams:

  1. Be aware of how generational differences can impact communication styles, but don’t rely on stereotypes. Treat everyone as an individual
  2. Age diversity is just as important as other types of diversity. Building a team with diverse perspectives, insights, and strengths can only be a positive
  3. Ask thoughtful questions of your team – what do you value, what communication style works for you? Run team-building sessions so everyone gets to know each other
  4. Make use of a variety of communication channels and give everyone the opportunity to have their voice heard
  5. Encourage reverse mentoring – have younger team members coach older ones to help shift both their perceptions
  6. When communicating a difficult message, face to face is still the best approach - body language, tone and visual cues all play a significant role in getting messages across
  7. Constantly ask for feedback on the effectiveness of your comms and then act on that feedback or at least respond to it.

It’s up to all of us to communicate in a way that brings people closer together. Meanwhile, I still use the rolling around laughing emoji – but I might try a skull the next time I text my niece! ☠️ 🤣

Main image by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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