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How to Improve Communication Across Generations at Work

by Erin Sevitz on February 15, 2022
 

Maintaining strong communication between different generations in the workplace has always required some effort, but the hybrid workplace has made it more challenging in some ways. 

While Baby Boomers came of age amid the turmoil of the 1960sincluding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam War- Millennials remember coming of age with the dawn of the internet, Sept. 11, and the Great Recession. These experiences, both personally and nationally, shape who we are as individuals. They also impact our behavior, communication preferences, and the way we interact with others in the workplace. To make matters even more complicated, a new generation- Gen Z- is now entering the workforce.

Here’s a closer look at the differences in communication styles and how different generations communicate in the workplace.

How Each Generation Prefers to Communicate

While it’s important to treat everyone as an individual and not stereotype them based on their generation, there are some general differences to keep in mind. For instance:

Baby Boomers (ages 55-73) 

This generation has embraced digital technology, including smartphones and social media, and they are also embracing new opportunities that remote work brings. A recent study showed they are 15% more likely to apply to remote work positions than other generations. Many are choosing to take up remote work past retirement. Baby Boomers may be more concerned about the risks of in-person work during a pandemic, or they’re just more likely to be in roles that can be done remotely.

In general, Baby Boomers are used to strict, stable, and centralized hierarchies. The egalitarian, open-office trends of Silicon Valley did not yet exist when they entered the workforce. They tend to expect loyalty, respect, and obedience, but to younger generations, those values need to be earned. They also want to maintain opportunities for face-to-face communication whenever possible.

Generation X (ages 39-54) 

While not digital natives, Gen X employees are just as likely to be comfortable using technology in the workplace. More than half (54%) say they are tech-savvy, according to research by global research firm DDI. Although this generation tends to be overlooked for promotions, they play a critical role in leadership, managing more direct reports, staying at their company longer and taking on heavier workloads. They tend to stay at the same positions longer than Millennials, with only 37% considering leaving to advance their career. They want technology that supports their professional development.

They also prefer coaching from an outside consultant or trainer rather than their own manager. 

Millennials (ages 23-38) 

Millennials want to work for a company that embraces technology more so than the generations before them. In a recent CompTia report, 71% said technology influences where they decide to work. In general, Millennials want mobile technology that facilitates collaboration and teamwork. Not surprisingly, they are leading the charge to embrace cloud-based technology in the workplace.

Millennials came of age in an unstable time in the economy, so they are used to frequently shifting jobs and even careers. Their workplace expectations are often tentative and flexible. They place more emphasis on mental health than previous generations. Loyalty and obedience to a company is not a given, but rather contingent on the company’s continued support. According to the 2021 Deloitte Millennial Survey, 43% of Millennials expect to change jobs within 2 years, and only 28% plan to stay more than 5 years.

Generation Z (ages 22 and younger) 

This generation is just beginning to enter the workplace. They have never known a world without technology and expect the tech they use in the workplace to be just as frictionless as the apps they use at home. They prefer a workplace that allows them to use their own devices if possible. They also expect communication between generations in the workplace to be instantaneous and tech-enabled. Like Millennials, Gen Z is coming of age at an uncertain time, and they will likely see flexibility and frequent career shifts as the norm.

Challenges and opportunities for each generation in the workplace

While many offices have reopened, most employees expect to be able to work remotely at least part of the time. It’s clear the hybrid workplace is here to stay. This offers challenges and opportunities for each generation.

Baby Boomers are adjusting but miss the lack of face-to-face collaboration. 

Gen X, the “middle child” generation, fears being left invisible. Since the 2008 financial crisis, they have struggled to move into upper management positions, because older employees decided to hold on to their jobs for longer before retiring. Now, this is changing. Retiring older employees are driving the “Great Resignation.” Gen X may find itself finally moving into those coveted high-ranking roles. In any case, they are flexible and expect to adopt new communications technologies.

As digital natives, Millennials and Gen Z have had the easiest time adjusting to the new technology. They are comfortable communicating online, and many prefer the independence and flexibility that remote work brings.

However, the isolation of remote work has created problems. Younger generations benefit from mentorship since they are less internally motivated than earlier generations. Remote work has made mentorship opportunities more difficult. It can also be more difficult for managers to express empathy in an entirely remote environment.

How to improve communication between generations in the workplace

Understanding how each generation views technology and prefers to use it can help you decide which tools to implement and ensure you account for everyone's needs. Following these tips can help you appreciate generational differences and even use them to improve communication between generations in your workplace. 

  • Set expectations regarding workplace culture and behavior
  • Use different types of communication
  • Personalize your approach
  • Understand differences in values and motivations
  • Ask, don’t assume
  • Remove barriers to communication
  • Be willing to teach and be taught
  • Acknowledge the differences

Set expectations regarding workplace culture and behavior

When Baby Boomers were entering the workforce, suits and ties were worn everyday and computers didn't exist, much less emails. Times have changed a lot since then. Not only do we have computers, but we have smartphones that allow us to communicate from virtually anywhere. While it might be second nature for a Millennial employee to have their smartphone on their desk and respond to notifications, other generations might consider it disrespectful. And one generation's definition of business casual might be drastically different from that of another generation.

As their leader, it's important for you to clearly communicate expectations for workplace etiquette and attire. If everyone knows what is expected of them, there is less room for disagreement and finger-pointing, and more room for collaboration and productivity. 

Use different types of communication between generations 

Baby Boomers grew up during the time of rotary phones, while Millennials had their own cell phone by the time they entered their teenage years. Baby Boomers prefer face-to-face conversation, while Generation Xers prefer to speak via phone, email or text. While you may be hard-pressed to find a rotary phone nowadays, you can (and should) provide multiple communication options for your employees. Employees should have the option to use video conferencing, standard conference calls and collaboration tools like Google Hangouts or Slack. 

While you want to give your employees options, you should set expectations for when it's appropriate to use different communication channels. For instance, disciplinary conversations should always be face-to-face, whether it's in person or via video for remote employees. And employees should avoid scheduling team meetings for simple project updates that can be covered in a short email. 

Social media is another form of communication between generations in the workforce.  This is another area where different generations may have vastly different ideas about what is acceptable. To avoid any confusion, consider implementing a social media policy

Understand differences in values and motivations

Work ethic varies tremendously from generation to generation. Older generations tend to stay with a company longer, while younger generations may have greater expectations of their employer and are more likely to leave if their work isn't personally fulfilling. While members of the older generations are used to coming in and getting the job done, no matter what, younger generations are more motivated by praise and guidance. Since we are all products of our environment, these viewpoints aren't right or wrong; just different. A healthy balance between each viewpoint is the best answer. Always remember the power of praise, as it is a key motivator no matter the person.

Ask, don’t assume

Miscommunication causes dissension in the ranks. And you know what they say about assuming. So encourage your team to communicate. Rather than assuming the worst about their co-workers, they should engage them in conversation and ask questions. They are, after all, each working towards the same goals. Lead your team by example, breaking down the typical stereotypes along the way.

Remove barriers to communication between generations

You may not realize it, but your workplace design plays an important role in supporting or hindering communication between generations. An outdated workplace where employees sit in cubicles with physical barriers isn't as likely to foster the kind of casual conversation that builds strong relationships. At the same time, a completely open office design can be distracting to employees who are accustomed to more traditional environments (and introverts who need a quieter place to be productive.) Make sure your office has the right mix of space—including large meeting rooms, huddle areas designed for collaboration and quiet areas employees can reserve at a moment's notice.  

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Be willing to teach and be taught

Regardless of how much you have experienced or how much schooling you have, there is always more we can learn. Millennials and Gen Z can learn some great lessons from older generations that they can apply to every aspect of their lives. Gen Xers and Baby Boomers can learn from the younger generations as well—and not just about technology. Always encourage learning and growth within your team. 

Acknowledge differences

While it may be tempting to bury your head in the sand regarding generational differences in the workforce, it's better to acknowledge and embrace them. Use them as tools and encourage your team to use these variances as a chance to learn and grow. You did, after all, hire each for their strengths and what they have to offer.

Personalize your approach to communication in the workplace

One of your primary duties as a facilities manager is to ensure your employees have what they need, when they need it. A happy employee is a productive employee. One of the best ways to ensure this gets done is to know your team as individuals. Never make assumptions based on their age, sex, or position. Make an effort to discover what works best for each and adjust your efforts accordingly. Remember, just because you are in charge does not mean your way is always the right way- you may even learn something you hadn’t considered before.

There have been massive changes in our world since the first Baby Boomers were born in the mid 1940’s. These changes have led to significant differences between generations and in how each generation communicates in their workplace. A great leader strives to understand their workforce, with a willingness to learn along the way. By making an effort to better understand each generation and support them, you will empower everyone to do their best work.

How iOFFICE+ SpaceIQ can help

In today's hybrid, multi-generational workplace, it's important to give everyone options so they can choose how they want to connect and communicate. That means making it easy for people to find their colleagues, reserve rooms or desks when they need them, request services like tech support or catering, and receive important announcements that keep them connected to their workplace. 

iOFFICE + SpaceIQ offers a full suite of solutions to help you manage space, reservations, and the employee experience. That includes employee apps like iOFFICE Hummingbird and Serraview Engage. 

These apps give each generation the resources they need to collaborate and communicate at their fingertips. To learn more, request a demo today. 

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