Effective Workplace Communication: What Boomers and Xers can Teach Digital Natives

Effective Workplace Communication: What Boomers and Xers can Teach Digital Natives

Contrary to common perception, there is much Baby Boomers and members of Generation X can teach members of Generation Y about effective workplace communication – particularly when social media and digital technology are involved. This post discusses ways older workers can help younger workers understand context, channel choices, communication preferences and more.


Wait a minute… are you sure this headline wasn’t meant to read the other way around? Indeed, most articles take the opposite approach, zeroing in on Generation Y’s tech savviness and how they can teach older generations to communicate in the Digital Era, particularly using social media and digital technology. Reverse mentoring is a popular trend in this area and while there is nothing wrong with mentoring, reverse or not, we like to think of it as a two-way process rather than a one-way street. This post reminds us that there is much members of the Baby Boomer and X Generations can teach members of Generation Y (aka Digital Natives, Millennials), particularly when it comes to effective workplace communication.

On the one hand, it seems using technology is innate to Digital Natives: most know how to navigate social media without any formal training and the mechanics of using various apps is second nature to them. On the other hand, they can be quite clueless about how to leverage these digital tools for professional purposes. To leverage something means “to make the best use of it and to maximize its benefits” and here is where Boomers and Xers come into the picture! While Digital Natives might be well versed on the technical side of social and digital tools, they rarely know how to use them in a professional context, let alone how to maximize their benefits and avoid a number of pitfalls. Now, take Gen Y’s tech savviness and complement it with the business experience and expertise of older generations and you’ll come up with a powerful blend!

Here are some of my thoughts on how Boomers and Gen Xers can help Digital Natives make better use of social media and digital technology for more effective workplace communication. It all comes down to tact, tone and timing.

Understanding Communication Context

Baby Boomers and Gen Xers can help Digital Natives make thoughtful, conscious decisions about the right communication channels to use in specific situations. Questions to ask include: Who is your target audience and how do you reach them best? How sensitive is the content you are about to share? Who can or should have access to it? How formal does the communication need to be? More specifically, they can:

  • Assess whether it’s appropriate to communicate using newer forms of communication (e.g., social media), or whether it might be better to stick to conventional methods
  • Help Gen Y recognize that some topics require more information than can fit into a tweet, text message, status update, or chat message.
  • Demonstrate how to identify situations or occasions when face time or a phone call might be a better option than an email or text message.
  • Teach them to consider confidentiality and potential legal implications, especially if they communicate virtually. Often Digital Natives are not aware of the risks and pitfalls associated with social media.

Respecting Communication Preferences

People are different, regardless of the generation they belong to. Their generational background just adds another diversity dimension to consider when communicating with them. Learning about the individual preferences of key stakeholders may take some time but is well worth it because catering to these preferences can truly boost effective communication. Baby Boomers and Gen Xers can help Gen Yers understand and respond appropriately to communication preferences in the following ways:

  • Teach them to show respect by addressing people appropriately, both in written and oral communication. It is part of professional communication etiquette.
  • Point out that some members of older generations consider a formal tone of voice an expression of respect for their seniority – a must for successful relationship building with more seasoned colleagues.
  • Clarify the fact that some people prefer to keep their professional and private lives separate. Not everyone likes to friend their colleagues on Facebook.
  • Explain that some people choose not to be online 24/7 or access all resources from a single device. The way Digital Natives communicate in the workplace needs to reflect that.
  • Remind them that some people might need time to digest information before they can make a decision: sending pre-reads ahead of time and setting reasonable deadlines for follow-up is usually a good idea.
  • Coach them towards acknowledging the fact that some people appreciate print-outs during a meeting. They might want to check if coming prepared with hand-outs is expected.

Understanding Communication Quality

A lot of Gen Yers have not yet had a chance to hone their professional communication skills, simply due to a lack of experience. They are used to more informal communication amongst peers in a non-business context and they still have to learn that the way they communicate reflects back on their image on the job. Here are some ways older generations can help Digital Natives improve their communication quality:

  • Explain that correct spelling exudes competence. Period.
  • Show them how to communicate more efficiently by including a clear call for action or a summary of relevant content at the beginning of a message, instead of simply forwarding a long email chain.
  • Remind them to think twice before posting something in cyberspace because the internet never forgets.

Your Thoughts?

Members of all generations can help each other enhance communication and collaboration by blending various channels, methods, and styles for the sake of maximizing organizational benefits. What other ways would you suggest that older generations can help younger generations engage in more effective workplace communication? What examples have you seen or experienced in which generations work together to better leverage a range of communication technologies?


Martina Mangelsdorf

Martina Mangelsdorf is the founder and Chief Engagement Officer of GAIA Insights, a boutique firm helping organizations to engage, develop and retain Generation Y talent. She’s also the inventor of GOLD™ – Game Oriented Leadership Development and the creator of www.cracking-the-engagement-code.com

For more information please contact: martina.mangelsdorf@gaia-insights.com.

One thought on “Effective Workplace Communication: What Boomers and Xers can Teach Digital Natives

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and suggestions, Martina. I have a couple I would add as well, based on my experiences:

    1. If you’re going to use a mobile device in a meeting to take notes, let people know that’s what you’re doing. Otherwise, they may assume you’re being rude and not paying attention.

    2. Don’t schedule phone meetings for business when you’re going to be mobile – especially with people you don’t know very well and/or want to impress- unless it’s unavoidable. It may seem like you’re being efficient, but all the background noise and distractions undermine the quality of the call and make you appear less professional. If it’s an important call and you can do so, plan the call for when you’re in a quiet place free of distractions.

    I’ll add more as I think of them!

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