Millennials, Gen X-Ers, and Boomers, Oh My: A Guide to Intergenerational Communication in the Office

In fifth grade, my family got our first home computer. From Ask Jeeves to Google, the way I found and consumed new information was never the same.

This continued to evolve from my first email address to creating an Instagram account, and the list could go on and on. Being a millennial means most of us grew up in an age where rapidly progressing technology was just another part of our daily lives and adopting it is often a no-brainer.

While I’ve never held a full-time job that didn’t come with a laptop, email address, and almost 24/7 connectivity, many of my esteemed colleagues began their careers with a typewriter and carbon copy forms.

Our connection to technology can be both a blessing and a curse, especially when it comes to communication in the workplace. While millennials have been the largest generation in the U.S. workforce for more than two years, we’re in the great company of many Gen X-ers and baby boomers. It’s important for us to remember that not everyone is as comfortable relying on technology for communication as we typically are.

As you find the best way to navigate cross-generational communication in your own work life, here are some tips to keep in mind.

Know your colleagues’ preferred communication style

Try not to pigeonhole colleagues based on their age. You may find a rare millennial who likes to talk on the phone or a boomer who’s comfortable zipping emails out to your team all day rather than huddling in a conference room.

When determining the most effective way to touch base with your colleagues, the best thing you can do is ask and follow through. A straightforward approach shows that you’re willing to adapt to the needs of those around you.  

Be aware of your company’s requirements

Our generation is known for being a bit more casual in the workplace. But be careful how you let this spill over into your communication habits. Before you start texting your boss to let them know you’ll be out sick, find out if there’s a more formal process, such as calling or using an online system to ask for the day off.

Reading through the employee handbook when you start a new position is well worth the time, and you’re often required to sign off saying that you’ve done so. Knowing your company’s policies upfront can save you from making a workplace faux pas or running into trouble down the line. For instance, your company may restrict personal cell phone use or checking personal social media accounts on the company computer. But, even if they don’t, you’ll want to limit your personal screen time to show that you’re committed to getting the job done.

For some things, there may not be an official policy in place. Some of your questions may be answered by observing the office culture, but if you’re feeling unsure, it’s always a good idea to ask your boss or supervisor to avoid any major gaffes.

Think twice about your word choice

Whether it’s an email to a coworker or a presentation to the board, it’s always a good idea to review the contents before you share. Don’t just check for typos, also make sure you’re communicating clearly for your intended audience. Even a lighthearted exchange can be confusing if you use words or turns of phrase that others, especially those in different generations, aren’t as familiar with. For instance, the confusion caused by my quick email to a coworker about having a “facepalm” moment could have been avoided if I had just said I had made a mistake and was writing to correct it.

Confusion between generations can go both ways, though, especially when it comes to communicating with acronyms, abbreviations, or cultural references. So in text or email, where we’re sometimes more conscious of length, be sure to take the space you need to clarify what you mean, especially if it’s an acronym or content that’s new to your colleague.

Mix it up

If you have a coworker that insists on having a call when you know it could be handled via email, consider it an opportunity for growth instead of a drag on your energy. Use phone or in person meetings as ways to hone your skills. I’ve found that watching my colleagues’ reactions to someone presenting or leading a meeting has helped me improve the way that I organize agendas and streamline presentations to keep my own audiences engaged and, as a result, has made me a better public speaker.

Embrace the give-and-take

Successful intergenerational communication in the workplace is really a give-and-take and an opportunity for professional growth. Pushing myself to adapt to the communication needs of others has not only made me a better communicator overall and challenged me to step out of my own comfort zone, but has also positioned me as a resource for my colleagues, as well. When they have questions about communicating with a millennial audience, or even the upcoming Gen Z, I’ve positioned myself as someone who is open to learn and willing to work through any challenges or confusion.

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