Speaking across generations: Better communications in an age-diverse office

Written by: Shana Bagley
Published on: Nov 16, 2018

comms across generations

At a professional development session for YNPN Atlanta members geared toward helping our members improve their communications with different generations within the workplace, we learned that communication requires a good deal more than listening to each other – including considerations like technology and work-life balance.

Representatives from three different generations were present:

  • Brandon Fleming, founder of Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project, representing the Millennial voice (1980 – 1995)
  • Julie Rhoad, President and CEO of The NAMES Project/AIDS Memorial Quilt, representing the Baby Boomers (1946 – 1964)
  • Dr. Lois Ricci, instructor in Gerontology at Kennesaw State University, representing the Silent Generation (1925 – 1945)

Here are some of the top-line takeaways:

Face-to-face is necessary.
In a world where technology is quickly taking over, it’s important for Millennials and Generation X to understand that older generations are willing to adapt and adopt, but that there is value face-to-face conversation.

People from different generations use different language and communicate in different ways. People also interpret the same information differently. We cannot easily read tone in a text message or a concise email, but we also tend to balk at long emails with flowery language. In some instances, a quick text or email will suffice, but in others, there is value in a face-to-face conversation where one can read body language and tone, ask questions, and get immediate answers.

People value time differently.
Fleming noted that he prefers to spend time increasing his effectiveness and profit, while Ricci said she values the journey over the outcome. Understanding others’ priorities and values will aid you in knowing how and what to communicate. For the Millennials in the room, a phone call is seen as a signal of urgency, but for the others, a phone call isn’t perceived as such.

Ricci wanted to make it clear that, while she has a smartphone, no one should expect it to be in her hand 24/7; likewise, she will sometimes take several hours to answer emails or text messages. In direct opposition, Fleming said that he once dismissed a job applicant because they did not respond to an emailed job offer within his expected time frame. Figuring out the difference in how generations value time can improve the way we interact with them.

Share your expectations.
No one in the workplace, regardless of their generation, wants to operate based on a set of assumptions. If you have certain expectations, share them. If you’re an employer with policies that must be adhered to, make sure that employees understand those policies – but also make space for open dialogue, where everyone in the company can share their expectations, thereby mitigating assumptions.

The biggest takeaway: talk to each other. Don’t shy away from conversations that may be uncomfortable, as those are often the most necessary. Generations aren’t as different as we’re led to believe: Each panelist shared the same wish to be understood, and confirmed that the best way to understand each other is to ask questions, listen actively to the answers, and take the time to find common ground, rather than dwell on differences.

Shana Bagley is former membership co-chair for YNPN Atlanta and manager, graduate communications for the Georgia State University College of Arts & Sciences.