Workplace harmony, culture and productivity all depend on successful communication. And while language gaps between senior leadership and newer hires aren’t unusual, they’re usually bridged by a shared lexicon of ‘business speak‘. But now, the first generation of true digital natives is entering the workforce, and a pandemic has forced us into virtual offices. Workplace communication is undergoing a major shift, with some huge potential pitfalls.
The move to remote work in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic means younger generations, who are digitally fluent, suddenly have far more influence over communication and culture. It goes beyond slang and internet-speak abbreviations. Gen Z, used to informal, near-constant contact, spurns the prim email in favour of a quick Slack message. But that can be a tough pill to swallow for older generations, who are accustomed to dictating the professional rules of communication.
Kovary points to a former client: a company who came to her for advice after a run-in with a young intern. “On the first day, she emailed the CEO because she couldn’t find access to information she wanted. At the end of week one, she sent a company-wide email, to 8,000 people, with all her ideas. They called me and said, ‘obviously, we let her go’.”
Kovary explains that while the company’s leadership felt the intern “totally violated the unspoken rules of the communication chain”, what really happened was a generation-gap issue. “Most companies don’t want a new hire to email the CEO directly, even if that CEO has said, ‘I’m always available!’ They don’t really mean it, but the new hires don’t understand. I tell executives all the time, don’t tell young people ‘message me with your ideas’, and then be surprised when you get them.”
Stillman says Gen Z values authenticity above all else. It’s why younger employees are less willing to do the same ‘code-switching’ that past generations have. Forced assimilation to a shared lexicon isn’t sustainable anymore, says Nicky Thompson, a London-based business psychologist with a background in linguistics. Code-switching can be especially harmful for people of colour; research shows it can hinder performance and increase burnout. And Gen Z won’t put up with it.
Language and communication evolves and that’s great. What I struggle with is the hubris infused in this article. The underlying assumption is that business needs to adopt the communication norms of Gen Z. Maybe some of them, but the purpose of communication is to… you know… communicate. The purpose is to convey a thought, directive, or query to someone else. Every good communicator must think about their audience and be willing to craft their communication in a way to effectively send the intended message. I would suggest that it is just as important for Gen Z to think about how to appropriately communicate to other generations as it is for the rest of us to figure out how to communicate with them.