Communicating in a Multi-Generational Workforce

“In some of our locations, we could have four or five generations working alongside each other,” says Anne Ferrara, Regional Manager of Human Resources at Anixter. The same is true throughout the utilities industry as the newest generation in the workforce—commonly called Generation Z— joins Millennials, Gen Xers, Baby Boomers and Traditionalists on the job. With more generations at work together than ever before, what can go wrong?

“One of the biggest differences between the youngest and oldest generations is communication style and, specifically, their level of reliance on technology to communicate,” Ferrara explains. “If a young worker is ill, he’ll likely text his manager. If an older worker is ill, he’ll pick up the phone and call. These differences in communication style may seem insignificant but they can make a surprising impact on team dynamics.”

Contributing to this impact is the risk of miscommunication. It’s widely reported that more than 90 percent of communication is nonverbal.“So when you have team members that communicate primarily through texts and emails, the meaning behind the message may not be getting through,” Ferrara adds.

She recommends educating managers about different communication styles and how to mitigate the challenges that come with managing people whose styles may be vastly different from each other. This is especially important because of a shift happening right now in leadership roles within utilities.

“There’s a role reversal happening in which many young managers are finding themselves managing workers who are several decades older than they are,” Ferrara says. “The communication style of the manager may not be best for the overall group dynamics. Managers need to recognize and learn how to overcome the assumption that what’s best for the boss is best for everyone.”

Communicating in a Multi-Generational Workforce

Performance reviews can help set expectations and reinforce desirable interpersonal skills, as long as managers are appropriately coaching workers and expecting realistic results. “Don’t start a battle between the generations in your workforce. You may need to be open to multiple communication styles,” Ferrara says.

Don’t assume, however, that certain generations will want to communicate in stereotypical ways. While Generation Z seems to be hopelessly tethered to their mobile devices, their attitudes about communication at work may surprise you. According to staffing agency Robert Half, 77 percent prefer to communicate face-to-face with colleagues when given the choice.2 Perhaps in some ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same.