The Multigenerational Workforce: How Communication Styles Impact Office Culture
Workplaces across the country are adjusting to a new reality. Baby Boomers and those who came before them, frequently called Traditionalists, are remaining active workforce participants for longer. Meanwhile, the first members of Generation Z, roughly defined as those born since the mid-nineties, are beginning their careers and will make up a large share of the labor market soon. Now that four generations, and in many cases five, are working together in offices across the country, how will workplace customs change when it comes to communication?
The answers don’t come easily, and existing research gives us a glimpse into how some common assumptions about different generations are just wrong. For instance, a recent Nielsen survey indicated that members of Generation X might actually be the heaviest users of social media, not Millennials or Generation Z. Let’s look past the assumptions and think about how the shifting values and priorities of different generations could shape workplace communication in the coming years.
Generational cohorts have different overarching values.
Of course, members of the same generation will also have different beliefs from one another. But because generations come into their own during different historical moments, there are some key touchstones that seem to give each group some common overarching values.
When you look at it that way, it’s not surprising that people born before World War II tend to value loyalty quite highly while those who were born into the economic boom that followed the war are typically highly optimistic and expect personal recognition. Members of Generation X experienced hands-off parenting and rising divorce rates, which seems to have led many to be self-reliant and sometimes skeptical. Millennials experienced the consequences of 9/11 and the Great Recession as well as a more tightly networked world – they value connection, sincerity and flexibility.
How do these differing values affect communication? Look beyond the platform. Because of their varied backgrounds, members of different generations may value formal or informal approaches. Some will desire more or less praise. And some will have varying perspectives when it comes to divergent thinking and conformity.
Our #1 tip: Put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. While you can’t assume that you’ll know what another person is feeling or what they think, trying to empathize with somebody from a different background could help you figure out what makes them tick and what motivates them.
Younger workers are requesting coaching.
Studies are starting to show that Millennials want more feedback from their managers and that they want to receive it more frequently. It’s also becoming clear that Millennials appreciate authenticity in their interactions with supervisors. That means opening up about successes, struggles and failures. This could be challenging for managers from different generational backgrounds, but maintaining an approachable demeanor will become increasingly important. In certain situations, forthright communication can be more beneficial than a controlled message.
Our #1 tip: Give more feedback – while Millennials might be leading the charge here, workers of all generations can benefit from receiving more frequent feedback. Rather than waiting for scheduled performance reviews, provide coaching in real time.
Generations collaborate differently.
Interestingly enough, Millennials and Traditionalists tend to have similar attitudes toward their current job. In a recent study, the overwhelming majority of both groups reported positive outlooks about their engagement at work and about their morale. This could indicate that many organizations are ripe to reap the rewards of cross-generational collaboration. But how do you make sure that everybody feels included?
In a multigenerational environment, it is wise to mix and match strategies like the team-building events favored by younger workers and the opinion-sharing practices promoted by their older counterparts. Younger generations might feel more comfortable communicating their thoughts when they feel like they know their coworkers, while older generations might need a structured forum in order to weigh in on key decisions.
Our #1 tip: Diversify the methods you use to engage your employees and boost morale. While younger workers might appreciate informal time to bond outside the office and older workers could gravitate toward a structured brainstorming session around a specific task, encourage everybody to attend both types of events.
Technology is efficient, but face-to-face is ideal.
Contrary to what we might assume, the majority of Millennials and Generation Z have reported a preference for in-person contact over IMs and email. While they value the ability of technological advancements to increase productivity and help them complete tasks, workers in younger generations still see the value in human contact when it comes to collaboration and management. An effective communication strategy will take into account that, while a quick IM could be a good way to check in about a specific detail, a private in-person setting is the best way to have a longer conversation.
Our #1 tip: Don’t jump the gun on overusing technology; members of all generations still see the value in more personal contact. While you may want your organization to be on the cutting edge, employees who aren’t yet trained on new applications might feel left out while others could miss the personal touch of an in-person conversation.
The ever-emerging multigenerational workforce demands a shift in the way we interact and relate to each other, but it won’t always be in the ways that we expect. In order to effectively work together, everybody from Generation Z to experienced Baby Boomers will have to understand each other’s values.
When we try to understand where individuals from different generations are coming from, we get a better sense of how we can best communicate our ideas to each other, express opinions about how work performance can be improved and share our thoughts in a more effective manner.
The way we work together isn’t the only thing we need to rethink. Leading organizations are adjusting to new realities by retooling their hiring practices.