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As with fashion, workplace communication sees trends come and go. Here’s an overview of how workplace communication has changed throughout the years, as well as which means make for the most effective communication 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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
- Next-generation voice communication
Gen Xers were dominating the workplace when several disruptive technologies reached critical mass in the market. 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. Cell phones allowed an employee to be away from the office but never miss a call.
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.
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.
These game-changing portable devices came of age around the time this generation started working. With smartphones, 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.
- 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 both management and job seekers.
Generation Z (born 1990 to 1999)
As this generation continues to become employed, expect many more changes in workplace communication.
- Social media
Likes, tweets, regrams and snaps are normal ways to communicate for this generation, who has never known a world without broadband and wifi. Thanks in part to Gen Z, company executives have learned the value of social media in corporate 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, Skype 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.
- 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 Duo. This type of communication reduces travel costs and isn’t likely to go away.
- 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 coworkers and with management could stem from their a for immediate feedback, as visual cues communicate how well another employee received a message.
Whether you’re a 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.