There is a gap in the workplace that just keeps getting wider.
You know that mid-level manager who always puts waaaaay too much detail in his emails? He’s part of the gap. What about the veteran team member who still doesn’t share files on Google Drive? She’s fallen into the same gap.
Have you ever had a student intern who won’t even acknowledge emails? Yep, yet another example.
“It’s not a generational gap. It’s a technology gap. It’s a gap in how we use technology to communicate,” said Dr. Mary Donohue, an adjunct professor at Dalhousie University’s Graduate School of Management in Halifax.
According to Donohue, technology has changed so quickly in such a short amount of time that communication gaps between different generations in the workplace have become more pronounced than ever. At the recent QuickBooks Connect conference in Toronto, Donohue talked about why these tech-based communication gaps exist today, and how managers can bridge them successfully.
Before outlining the various generations within the workplace, Donohue said one technology has widened the communication gap between them more than any other: the smartphone.
Since smartphones were introduced in 2007, “people are connecting with technology but they’re not connecting with each other,” she said. “They’re disengaged. We were a culture of words. Now we’re a culture of typing. It’s a huge shift in communication.”
Although smartphones have also enabled remote work and mobile communication, Donohue said the devices have broken down “the sense of surrogate family that was the workplace.”
Within the somewhat fractured workplace family, here’s how each generation uses technology to communicate today.
Boomers (born 1945-1960)
According to Donohue, radio was the dominant technology when Boomers were born, so talking is their preferred mode of communication and they have an auditory (listening-based) learning style. Since they were forced to use computers and the Internet for work purposes, they see them primarily as information tools.
Boomers often lament the loss of old-fashioned dialogue at work, both over the phone and face to face. They retain a traditional view of the workplace as one cohesive team unit. They also prefer voicemail, but if you have to send them an email, craft it in the style of a well-written letter with complete sentences.
Gen X (born 1960-1980)
As children who were reared with TVs and flashcards, Gen Xers are visual learners who do well on the job when it comes to videos, diagrams, charts, etc. They first used TVs and pre-Internet computers at home in isolation, so in work situations, they like to use technology independently.
Still, Gen Xers lament the loss of what Donohue called “human association” in the workplace. They remember those little connections that used to add up to a more cohesive office experience. This means they love to brainstorm in groups before reporting their findings to the boss.
When it comes to email, this generation responds best if you send them a concise overview laid out in bullet points with deadlines and required actions — kind of like a to-do list.
Millennials (born 1980-2000)
There’s plenty of angst about millennials in a lot of workplaces, including Walmart. An executive from Walmart, which is a client of Donohue’s consulting firm, Donohue Learning, once asked her a question about these workers: “Why aren’t we connecting with millennials? Why aren’t they staying in their jobs long enough?”
As Donohue explained at the Toronto conference, many millennials have shorter tenures at each job because they put less trust in corporations. During the 2008 financial crisis, she recalled, all of the big banks, brokerages and carmakers were bailed out and none of their executives went to jail. After witnessing that, said Donohue, millennials concluded that big business cannot be trusted or relied upon.
In addition, she pointed out that millennials “designed the sharing economy.” Since they came of age on social media, they communicate more often with family and friends — their literal social network — than they do with their bosses or coworkers. As a result, they use a very casual style of communication in professional situations, addressing emails to “Hey (first name)” instead of using a more formal greeting.
On the plus side, millennials see technology as a way to share, which makes them adept at group work and team-based collaboration tools.
Bridging the generation gaps
To bridge the communication gaps between all generations at work, she said, managers must try to understand the role technology and demographics play in the workplace digital divide. Donohue encouraged the conference audience not to discount millennial workers but to decode them instead.
She closed her presentation by reminding us that we’ve been at this disruptive crossroads before — and conquered it.
“In the 1930s people didn’t want telephones in the workplace because people were afraid wives would call their husbands and interrupt their work.”
Inside the conference venue, we all laughed. Then, we all instinctively checked our smartphones before getting up to leave.