Communication can get a little crazy in today’s workplace with 4 recognized generations who have different life experiences, different comfort levels with technology, different comfort with fast paced change, and different existing skills.
Breaking demographics down into generational groups is a long standing practice that can provide some useful insights about patterns of technology use among different age groups. For example, the Generations 2010 research by the Pew Internet & American Life Project tracks trends in online activities of various age groups and reveals that the fastest growth in social networking site use is among users 74 and older. That said, generational differences may not be the best way to think about differences in technology use at work because you aren’t dealing with a random representative sample of the population—you’re dealing with co-workers who share the same workplace context.
Comfort with and knowledge of technology and digital trends are far more important than age when it comes to decision making in a digital world. In fact, when you get to the 18-30 year olds, each year can represent close to a generational shift in technology adaptation and use. Life experience with technology and on the job requirements both drive technology adoption by individuals—not to mention the desire to keep up with friends and family on social networks.
How we experience ourselves, our competence, our professional sense of self, and our communication choices are far more important factors when dealing with differences at work. When successful professionals are faced with new and unexpected learning demands, when they feel left behind, or when they feel threatened due to their own lack of technological mastery, conflict is just around the corner. And not just the “he said, she said” type of conflict, but the deeper identity-based conflict that leads us to hold fast to our beliefs in the face of enormous piles of evidence to the contrary. Over time, as our beliefs about ourselves are threatened by living in a quickly changing world where we don’t feel connected, secure, or confident, all hell can break loose.
Our careers are important to our sense of self and how we perceive ourselves as professionals frames many internal conflicts around the demand for continual learning, change, use of communication tools in today’s workplace. If many of us struggle with our own internal conflicts around changing technology and communication norms, imagine what happens between us when expectations also clash and responsibilities collide. Success in a digital world demands that we set new expectations for living and working—not to mention developing a new mindset that can help us tackle our challenges more effectively.
When faced with co-workers who have very different preferences for communication tools or patterns, remember that you’re all in it together. Ask questions to learn more about their preferences and let them know yours. With a little bit of negotiation, you can both figure out how to communicate effective and reduce stress levels all around. Always keep in mind that there ARE profound differences when it comes to people’s relationship to technology and remember not to judge a book by its cover.