Market musings

Saving Business Communication from the Generational Divide

by Sasha Viasasha
July 28, 2017

Have you ever had one of those nightmares where you’re trying to shout something but no words come out?

Have you ever realized that it wasn’t just a dream?

The nightmare of being unable to communicate something critical at an urgent moment is lived out daily in the workplace.

Channel Confusion

There is no shortage of business communication tools and channels, but the system breaks down when people don’t preference the same methods, and there isn’t a clear protocol on which methods to use. 

Over-reliance on asynchronous communication strategies like email and messaging apps can create information bottlenecks. They allow important details to get lost. A loss of cultural or social context can cause messages to be misconstrued. 

Multigenerational differences in communication styles compound the problem. For business communications to succeed, leaders must tackle these differences head-on, and mediate them in a way that is satisfactory to all stakeholders. This includes not just employers and employees, but also customers, suppliers, contractors and temporary workers. 

Asynchronous vs Real-Time Communication

Asynchronous communication is the fire-and-forget method of transmitting information. When information isn’t timely, doesn’t need an immediate response, or requires thought or research, asynchronous communication like email can be a great way to communicate and to also to keep detailed records.

However, even something that is non-critical in the moment may eventually become urgent. It’s easy to lose track of threads, and they can be hard to track down quickly.The lack of follow up in email can cause problems with project management. Marking conversations according to priority, scheduling follow ups, and tracking conversations as they move through the ranks is important.

Email will probably remain an essential tool for business, but without the right strategy in place, it can quickly overwhelm your resources. 

Problem Resolution in Real-Time

Some problems can only be solved in real time. Real-time communication like a phone call or face-to-face meeting can resolve difficulties quickly. It allows a great deal of information  to be processed with context and nuance, without the heavier cognitive load that comes with texting. 

Simple conversations reduce the number of disastrous misunderstandings that can wreck teams and projects. Live chat can also offer some of the strengths of real-time communication, especially when the information is relatively straightforward, unambiguous and direct, e.g. “the package is here,” or “I’m running ten minutes late,” and “I’ve completed such and such task.” 

Coordinating these different methodologies while balancing the unique needs of disparate groups with business needs requires an entirely new approach, at once both technological, social and organizational.

The Great Multigenerational Divide

From generation X on, we all pretty much grew up with phones, technology, games, computers, but, depending on when you were born and where you lived, you probably have a default communication mode. Generational demarcations are permeable, and people don’t necessarily fit neatly into the buckets statisticians use. Gender, social position and other demographic factors also play a big role in how comfortable people are using different tools. But generational differences do exist, especially when it comes to communication styles. 

Some of the biggest problems in communication occur because of differences in the default mode of communication.

For example:

  • Baby boomers tend to pick up the phone and call without any prelude, which is as strange to some millennials as arriving unannounced at your doorstep.
  •  Generation X is guilty of firing off long, wordy emails (TL;DR) that no one reads and no one cares about—baby boomers or millennials.
  •  Millennials tend to hide behind chat and text channels, and they are very visual: they use emoticons and images that are even less committal then text. These culturally significant chunks of media are a safe way for millennials to converse within the accepted limits of the social milieu. 

Each generation has their preferred go-to communication mode, but problems occur when people can’t or won’t adapt their methods to accommodate peers. This is why a business has to take a definite stand, and build a culture that allows for productive, collaborative, results-oriented communication.

Communication is Mutual

Communication is more than sending a message. Communication doesn’t occur when you hit send, it occurs when the recipient understands the message you intended—even if they disagree. Backchanneling or feedback is key to effective communication, and having a conversations is how you accomplish this. It has to be two-way. In fact, conversations are so integral to effective communication that without them, productivity begins to tank. 

Fostering Compromise

Creating a business communication platform that supports different communication styles while instituting best practices may mean that not everyone gets what they want all of the time.

Having definite guidelines about when to pick up the phone, send an email, or use chat can help eliminate confusion and encourage better communication. Employees should be trained to use technologies if they are inexperienced. Even workers experienced in the technology may need training in soft skills and the social aspects of communication.

For a baby boomer, this might mean social media training. For a millennial, it might be learning how to talk on the phone.

Depending on personality styles, some employees might need more encouragement. An introvert might not want to speak up at a meeting, but research shows that teams are stronger when there is greater equality in the amount of time each team member speaks. Giving everyone a voice has been shown again and again to create better outcomes. 

A Huge Challenge

Managing a multigenerational work community is one of the greatest challenge facing business leaders today. In addition to managing generational differences, leaders must develop new best practices for a highly mobile and diverse workplace. Communicating well in spite of differences will remain integral to that goal. The generational divide is really emblematic of a larger sea change that is radically altering the nature of work. 

The work community has spilled out beyond the traditional office, and links in employers, customers, employees, contractors, and open marketplaces. The lines between roles are increasingly blurred as the work community grows and the nature of work becomes more transactional. Today’s customer or employee might be tomorrows talent, or a future influencer and critical network link.

In addition to the increasingly dynamic, fungible nature of the workplace itself, people inhabit specific social and cultural spheres that share characteristics; for example, a unique lingo, and shared values. While generational differences may dissipate as the workforce gains more millennials, there will always be differences to mitigate. 

Businesses must bridge all of these differences to build a strong collaborative culture, using a mindful combination of technology and policy. 

A Simple Solution 

At Spoke, we have designed a simple but robust application that make it easy for you to turn your mobile phone infrastructure into a business phone system with enterprise level functionality and security. We're developing smart features to help your business grow, and to mediate the unique communication barriers of our digital age.

Call context prepares recipients for phone calls, while live presence allows people to signify their availability to speak. Each employee is assigned an extension number, so employees don’t have to share their private number to use their own device. Whether you want to integrate a remote team, answer customer queries, or build a strong internal culture, we've got you covered. 

The Pocket Communication Guide for Your Millennial Employees
The Pocket Communication Guide for Your Millennial Employees