Dear Sam: I have been working for more than thirty years and so many things that have changed during that time. One of the changes I have struggled with the most though is the evolution of communication in the workplace. Perhaps I am a bit old-fashioned, but everything seems to be done virtually now and I find myself confused at the communication differences between the generations. Any tips? – Terri

Dear Terri: I am so glad you asked this question! I was just discussing this exact topic with an associate on my team. In our office, we span three generations: Gen X, Millennial, and Gen Z. A study from The Ladders states, “the number of Millennial and Gen Z employees are expected to surpass Baby Boomers (individuals in their late 50s and older) by the end of 2019 and they will comprise nearly half of the total working population by 2020.” So certainly, it is an important topic to dig into as we aim to understand our colleagues and foster a genuine company culture!

As individuals, each of us possesses very unique communication patterns, some of which can be linked to our respected generations, but it is important to remember that there are a lot of stereotypes about each generation that do not always ring true to the individual.

Before we dive into some differences let me provide a guide to the generations I am referring to:

Traditionalists (born 1945 and before)
Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964)
Gen X (born between 1965 and 1976)
Millennials (born between 1977 and 1995)
Gen Z (born after 1996)

Let’s go over a few differences in generations in the workplace and some tips to remedy misunderstandings.

1. Preferred channel of communication
If there is information to be delivered do they drop by a coworker’s desk, send a Slack message, or write an email? There is no wrong choice, but each generation tends to lean towards a preferred method. For example, when something needs to be communicated among coworkers, an individual from the traditionalist generation might prefer an in-person chat or a call, a millennial might prefer a Slack or email, and Gen Z tends to prefer in-person communications. Again, it is different for each person so if you are unsure of how they prefer to be communicated with, the best solution is to simply ask the question.

2. Preferred style of communication
Diving a bit deeper into this topic let’s say you decide to write a message to your coworker, let’s consider the construction of a written message. Do you use formal language, informal, abbreviations, jokes, emojis, or even GIFS? When deciding how best to communicate with your coworker try examining their written communication patterns and mirroring them but, again, when in doubt, feel free to ask them their preference.

3. Preferred workplace attire
A smaller distinction I have observed is the preference of work attire. From slacks and dress shirts to jeans and a t-shirt, this tends to vary from generation to generation as the workplace becomes less formal. Usually with older generations erring on the more formal side and younger on the less formal side. This can depend on the culture of the company, but can be heavily influenced by the workplace preference and age of the employees.

What can we do to remedy workplace miscommunications spawning from generational differences?

1. Identify the root of generational behavior patterns
Often, we hear people say that generations have different values, but is this true? Jennifer J. Deal, a research scientist for the Center for Creative Leadership studied this topic and the results were surprising. Overall, generations tend to have the same values: family, honesty, trustworthiness, and integrity. Additionally, Deal found they desired the same things: structure, respect, feedback, and loyalty. The difference is, however, how generations express these values and desires.

2. Be willing to try new forms of communication
See what works best for you and your team and learn from each other. Consider intentionally spending time mixing employees from different generations when working on projects and teams to bring new perspectives and skills. This will help position these situations as a way to learn and grow professionally even if sometimes it can be frustrating or uncomfortable!

3. Set expectations for workplace communication
Define the rules so team members know what channels to turn to in different situations and what is expected. If your company doesn’t currently have this in place feel free to ask HR and let them know why you feel communication guidelines could help provide clarity for employees. The guidelines can be adapted as the company learns what works and doesn’t, but at least creating a foundation can be helpful.

I have of course only skimmed the surface of this topic, so, if you want to dig deeper I recommend Jennifer’s book ‘Retiring the Generation Gap: How Employees Young and Old Can Find Common Ground.‘ Understanding that generations might have more in common than most people believe, but are expressing their desires and values differently, is key to having healthy workplace communications. As the workplace becomes more diverse generationally, these conversations will become more prominent, and it will be even more important to embrace rather than ignore generational differences. I hope this sheds some light on the subject for you.