How Has Your Generation Changed Workplace Communication?

Cartoon showing trends in workplace communication

Just as it is with fashion and food, workplace communication sees trends come and go. The field of finance and accounting has certainly been privy to some of the changing methods used to convey messages and data across a company.

Here’s an overview of how workplace communication has changed throughout the years, as well as the most effective communication styles for both employees and managers today.  

Traditionalists (born 1925 to 1945)

While fewer traditionalists are still active in the workforce, their generation was responsible for getting the workplace communication ball rolling.

Face to face​

There’s no better way to get a message across than in person. When you communicate face to face, you can observe body language and facial nuances, and hear verbal inflections. Although effective, this method is also the most time-intensive means of workplace communication.

Quick tips for face-to-face communication: Show interest, maintain eye contact (rather than multitasking), ask questions and listen, share your perspective.

Telephones

Phones allowed management to quickly contact an employee or client. Because phone lines were expensive, they were reserved for executives, who may have had several sets on their desk. Those lower on the totem pole, including the secretarial pool, may have had just an intercom at their disposal.

Quick tips for phone communication: Speak clearly with enthusiasm and attentiveness, use the other person’s name, stick to your timeline.

Typewriters

If managers wanted to send a memo to an employee, their secretary would take dictation and then tap it out on a typewriter — usually with a piece of carbon paper sandwiched between two sheets so as to make a copy. This is where we get the “cc” (carbon copy) notation.

Baby boomers (born 1946 to 1964)

This enormous demographic group had an outsized effect on all aspects of society, from economics and women’s rights to employee relations and how workplaces communicate. 

Telephones

Touchtone models started to replace rotary dials. As their cost went down, phones became ubiquitous, which made for even more efficient communication in the workplace. Digital wiring also made possible another way to transmit a message: the facsimile, or fax. No more need to send letters and memos by courier or the post office.

More telephone tips: Use oral cues — the verbal equivalent of a quick nod or smile — to show you hear and understand what’s being said.

Conference calls

Boomers gave this method of communication a popularity boost. An employee could connect several callers, expediting the decision-making process and saving money on travel. The downside is they aren’t the best means of effective communication. It can be difficult to remain engaged and to work collaboratively when you can’t see many of the participants.

Quick tip for conference calls: Be punctual, stay focused on the time and subject matter, don’t contribute distracting background noises.

Generation X (born 1965 to 1977)

By the time the Gen X employee came around, emailing was the preferred way to communicate. The mobile (just phones at first) movement also started around the same time.

Emails

The modern workplace and the way we communicate was revolutionized with email. Email allowed management to quickly disseminate messages to the entire company. And replies not only preserved the previous communication, but anyone was able to cc or bcc another employee — something a paper message or fax could not do. Email attachments made collaboration and remote work easier and less expensive for the company.

Quick tips for email communication: Begin with a compelling subject line, respond in a timely fashion, be thorough but concise, and proofread for errors.

Next-generation voice communication​

Gen Xers were dominating the workplace when several disruptive technologies reached critical mass in the market. Cell phones allowed an employee to be away from the office but never miss a call. Answering machines liberated the workplace even more when it came to communication, though they also led to the dreaded “phone tag,” the frustrating loop of returning a call but reaching voice mail instead.

More phone tips: Use oral cues — the verbal equivalent of a quick nod or smile — to show you hear and understand what’s being said.

Texting

With the rise in cell phone use came texting, an effective communication method. Emails required a computer and Ethernet cable — not exactly portable. By using the mobile’s alphanumeric keypad, an employee or member of management could tap out and receive a simple message to another mobile, anywhere and anytime.

Quick tips for texting: Keep texts short, limit their frequency, use correct punctuation and spelling, avoid texting outside of work hours, reply promptly.

Generation Y (born 1978 to 1989)

Millennials, also called Gens Y and Z, get a bad reputation for depending entirely on technology to communicate, but the advances communication has seen since Generation Y entered the workplace can’t be denied.

Smartphone

These game-changing portable devices came of age around the time this generation started working. With smartphones, finance professionals could respond to emails, stay informed about the latest business news, buy and sell stocks, and much more. However, by being so connected and able to do so much on a portable device, many an employee suffered from disruptions in work-life balance.

More tips for smartphone use: Introduce yourself, tell the other person if you use speaker phone, don’t leave long voicemails, don’t shout, don’t take calls in the restroom.

Use of cellphone in workplace communication

Web meetings

This generation increased the effectiveness of workplace communication in video calls by making sure everyone was on the same page — literally — via screen sharing and file sharing. Video interviews began to gain traction for screening job candidates.

Quick tips for video interviews: Test your technology ahead of time, check your interview space, and read our posts on video interviews for managers and job seekers.

Generation Z (born 1990 to 1999)

As this generation continues to become employed, you can expect many more changes in workplace communication.

Social media

Likes, tweets, regrams and snaps are normal ways to communicate for this generation, which has never known a world without broadband and Wi-Fi. Thanks in part to Gen Z, company executives have learned the value of social media in corporate communication, from Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to blogs, Instagram and Pinterest.

Quick tips for social media communications: Build engagement but make sure it’s not your only method of communication, and follow other tips for written communication.

Workplace instant messaging

This is a natural for the Gen Z employee, which is one reason management has added corporate IM apps such as Lync, Slack and Hangouts to its numerous methods for workplace communication. The drawback is IM’s ability to distract an employee and disrupt the flow of work, as such messages demand a reply almost immediately.

Quick tips for instant messaging: Be brief and to the point, use line breaks instead of one long paragraph, use proper grammar and spelling, don’t share confidential information.

Video conferencing

Visual communication has brought together people and their computer screens from near and far. There’s a crowded field of free video-calling services, including Skype, Facetime, Messenger, Appear.In, ooVoo, Viber, Talky and Google’s new Duo. This type of communication reduces travel costs and isn’t likely to go away.

Quick tips for web conferencing: Introduce yourself, speak clearly and in a normal tone of voice, don’t interrupt or carry on side conversations, don’t wear your pajamas.  

Back to face to face

Somewhat surprisingly, this tech-savvy generation is reviving a Traditionalist means of effective communication: in-person encounters. This preferred method of connecting with their finance coworkers and with management could stem from a need for immediate feedback along with visual cues that communicate how well another employee received a message.

In Robert Half's guide, Get Ready for Generation Z, the majority of the digital natives surveyed said they are apt to use more traditional forms of communication on the job. These professionals said they prefer face-to-face conversations versus text at work, as well as instant message, email or social media. They likely seek connectedness and context, because they thrive on genuine relationships, especially with authority figures, the report shows.

 

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Whether you’re a finance manager or employee, the shifts in communication seen with each new generation has an impact on your workplace. To remain relevant and successful, stay on top of each trend as it arises.

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Lisa AmstutzLiss Amstutz is the public relations manager for Robert Half Finance & Accounting, the world’s first and largest specialized financial recruitment service. In her role, she translates key business needs and messages into communications strategies and develops the company’s thought leadership. She’s a master collaborator, storyteller and former journalist. She is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives with her family.