There are few leading indicators of a business’ likelihood of success than effective workplace communication. Numerous studies match what many have seen firsthand: organizations that focus on having good internal communication are more efficient, have more engaged employees, and reduce conflict.
But this isn’t always easy to achieve, especially when employees have varied expectations and communication styles. This is especially the case for multi-generational companies, which are becoming more and more common. Baby boomers, who once made up half of the workforce in the US, now make up about 25 percent, while millennials and Gen Xers now account for around 35 percent each.
As people start to retire later in life, age distribution in the workplace is shifting to become more diverse. Take Washington D.C., for example: the city is brimming with recent college grads eagerly getting their start in politics, working alongside subject matter experts deep in their careers.
The diversity of experience and thought that this provides is invaluable. However, if not correctly approached, it can lead to friction and conflict. Here are some examples of key generational differences that, if not addressed, can hinder communication:
- Millennials are comfortable with doing work from anywhere (for example, at home or at coffee shops), whereas older generations value being in the office
- Millennials expect more frequent, continuous feedback, as well as mentorship, while Boomers and Gen Xers want feedback, but don’t expect it as often
- Millennials expect to advance professionally much more quickly than older employees do
- Millennials leave jobs at much higher rates than other workers
One method to avoid this friction is to facilitate and organize team-building activities. The overarching goal should be to have employees across generations become less wary of their differences, and bond over their similarities. We’ve compiled a few exercises that will help build empathy and facilitate communication:
Goal: Arrive at a consensus on shared values.
Exercise: Have each team member take a few minutes to think about their top three workplace values. Do they include transparency? Accountability? Reliability? Once this is done, divide the team into groups of three to five (making sure that the age distribution in each group is varied) and have each member go around and share what they value most. Each member will have a clearer picture of where their values overlap with their colleagues’, and where they diverge.
Goal: Foster a better understanding of generational differences.
Exercise: Have employees write down what they believe to be two individual strengths, as well as two weaknesses. They should then break into teams (of a similar distribution and size as the above exercise) and discuss what they’ve come up with. This will promote self-awareness, as well as give employees insight into where their colleagues may be coming from in various situations.
Goal: Understand what kind of language and communication styles appeal to each colleague.
Exercise: Come up with an idea that each of your employees will have to pitch to a coworker. Give each employee five to ten minutes to jot down notes about how they would pitch this concept, emphasizing that it should be in the way that’s most intuitive to them. Pair them up with a colleague of a different generational background, and have them give their pitches to each other. Once each person is done, have them discuss how they could have adapted their pitch to make it more persuasive for the other person. What did the listener find appealing? What didn’t they? Some things they may want to go over are language, tone, and attitude. Certain styles may either repel or resonate with different generational groups—talking this out will teach employees how to better communicate with their colleagues.
With these exercises, you’ll help foster a working environment where generational differences don’t provoke animosity and disagreement, but rather are celebrated for the rich, diverse viewpoints they provide. Creating a dialogue around these dissimilarities and improving communication will set your employees up for collaborative success.
Graham Shorr is the Director of Growth at SquareFoot, a commercial real estate technology firm dedicated to finding the perfect office space for businesses as they evolve.