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The Internal Comms Review: How to communicate to multi-generational workforces

In my twenties I worked in investment banking at one of the big US firms. Communication on the trading floor was brash and sometimes brutal. My managers taught me to never let the phone ring more than once and never to say, “I don’t know” but rather “I’ll get you the answer by close of play”.

Journalism in my thirties had a similar feel but without the big banking budgets. Perfunctory emails were the norm and time poor, news-worn editors did not tolerate waffle. It was a privilege to be invited to the 8am editorial meeting and if you did not sell your story in a max of three sentences you probably wouldn’t get invited back to pitch.

The world of communications in my forties is a whole other ball game. There are no landlines, no shouting, no sneers. Over on the sell-side so to speak, I notice how polite colleagues are. But there are still things to navigate. I am flummoxed when I receive an email with kisses (how to reply?) and there are many different platforms to communicate rightly or wrongly on from WhatsApp to email to Teams.

In the workforce of 2023, we have become delineated by generational segmentation, and some may argue that different generations need to be approached differently. That said, everyone needs to develop new skills to maintain their value and employability. Therefore considering what others need from managers and from their colleagues is a useful exercise which as internal comms professionals we need to be across.

The shape of the workforce today

According to 2020 data from John Hopkins University, 40% of the current workforce is made up of Millennials, more than a third (35.5%) is Generation X and 19% are Baby Boomers. But the demographic is shifting.

Workforce numbers in the U.S. (%)

There are several factors including people living longer; inadequate pension savings; cost of living squeeze and people wanting more fulfilment from later life.

Many companies are actively engaging with older workers as an ageing population and shrinking workforce creates a perfect storm. Martha Lane Fox recently extolled the work that Nomura is doing with its “Career Encore” initiative and many other firms are actively engaging the over 50s.

In the next ten years we will consistently see four generations working side by side and perhaps even five. To keep ahead of this mega trend communication remains a key element to ensuring businesses are productive, profitable and places people want to be.

Communicating across different age segments

Today’s hybrid workplace is a whirlwind of communication interactions cross platform. Quantity has increased, but quality is declining.

Kim Arnold is a communications expert and one of the world’s leading authorities on email writing. She believes email is one of the biggest culprits for misunderstanding in companies and ultimately poor performance:

“‘Email etiquette’ should have died along with pagers, fax machines and double denim,” Kim tells me.

“Now we need to understand our audience and get off autopilot. We have to do things differently otherwise miscommunication will damage team morale and lead to a lack of productivity.”

Ineffective communication increases costs according to 38% of business leaders and productivity decreases by 15%, according to Grammarly’s 2023 State of Business Communication report. It reveals that poor communication at work makes workers feel more stressed.

On the flip side strong communication leads to 33% more new deals and 60% of leaders notice more employee confidence when it is done right.

“There has been a shift with COVID for far more written communications,” says Kim, “but very few of us have been given formal training and there needs to be a shift from etiquette to emotional intelligence to chime with a multi-generational workforce.”

Kim adds that empathy is most important in terms of communication across teams, and she advises people to consider their tone.

Digital natives who have grown up with texts are happier with informality whereas digital adopters will prefer a formal tone.

“Formality may make younger workers feel they are being told off by teacher whereas a more casual approach might make boomers or Gen X may feel they’re not being respected,” says Kim.

Greetings and sign offs can be a minefield, so Kim suggests thinking these through (no kisses!) and she says use emojis with caution depending on your audience. “They can be very divisive”.

Getting people talking

Living with differences is a part of modern life and so identifying links between generations can go a long way to improve connectivity, respect, and trust.

55/ Redefined helps global companies like AXA UK, Dentsu, Bank of Ireland, NatWest and Cap Gemini develop multigenerational teams. At a recent Age Pioneers event hosted by the Group, it gathered an expert panel to advise managers on how to create effective communication across multigenerational teams.

The panel explained that managers need to show they are willing to step out of their comfort zone: “Compromise is key to finding a non-judgmental middle ground, so try to think of your differences as learning opportunities.

“If you have direct reports who are older and younger than you, have one-on-one conversations with them and ask what kind of interactions feel most comfortable to them.”

Managers can set the example by helping their team members find ways to clearly communicate with each other. There are a variety of ways of doing this but one thing the panel suggested was to create an Employee Resource Group (ERG) focusing on Age Inclusion.

In this setting employees can go deeper and create a continuous loop of feedback to present suggestions that employers can consider adopting to remove ageist behaviours and practices and replace them with inclusive ones that have come from the bottom-up.

Debunking traditional cognitive bias

The John Hopkins study reveals that with over 10,000 Baby Boomers per day reaching the age of 65, by 2030, Gen Z will constitute about 30% of the workforce.

Derek Browne, CEO of Entrepreneurs in Action, the international Gen Z insights agency tells me that asking the Gen Z quotient of a workforce to share its thoughts is a great way to encourage intergenerational communication and in turn helps the wider organisation.

“Gen Z is using tech more than any other generation in work and at home which makes their lives more efficient.

“And yet you don’t get to hear from them under the traditional hierarchy of an organization because you only get heard when you’ve been there for ten plus years.”

He believes that digital and communications should go hand in hand and companies need to leverage the knowledge of digital natives who will have great ideas about how to adapt technology to real life problems.

“Young people have their 10,000 hours of practice done and are still racking-up the hours [in technology] which gives them a level of digital expertise that other generations in the workplace do not have.

“They’ve been working with tech much longer and Covid accelerated that as it was the only way they could communicate.”

Derek believes that best practice is moving away from traditional institutional cognitive bias which says you must be a technologist to implement new ideas but rather switch to asking who else can work on this challenge and who else can innovate. The answers are very likely to come from those who are using technology across all aspects of their lives.

For internal comms professionals now is the time to get to help people across our businesses interact with each other better.

Different people will have different preferences in terms of communicating. For some a quick at-desk catch up will suffice. For others a one-liner over Teams. For some, it is a phone call.

From my experience, it is less about generational preferences and more about the outcome that is needed and the time scale in which it needs to be achieved.

By recognising that collaboration and good communication lead to greater learning, success, productivity and ultimately profitability we will make it an easier sell not only to ourselves but also to our colleagues and our leaders.

This PRmoment Internal Comms Review is written by Naomi​ Kerbel, Director, Communications, SEC Newgate.

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