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Strategic Communications Planning for Better Collaboration: Listening and Learning Across the Generations

Nancy Settle-Murphy

For the first time in the history of the workplace, organizations need to accommodate the contrasting communication styles of four distinct generations. Although they go by a variety of names, let's call them Traditionalists (born 1927 to 1945), Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), Gen 'X'ers (born between 1965 and 1980), and Gen 'Y'ers (born after 1981).

Most work teams consist of people representing at least two or more generations. Yet, when deciding how best to communicate across teams, we often employ a "one-size-fits-all" approach which may not work well for anyone, let alone everyone. And because so many managers are from the Boomer generation, these channels typically mean "conventional" communication styles such as face-to-face meetings, phone conferences, email, and the like.

Regardless of their ages, many managers fail to take generational preferences and styles into account when mobilizing and motivating their teams. Instead, they develop team norms and operating principles that may run counter to what individual members might need or value. For example, a Boomer manager may insist that all people work from a central office during typical working hours. However, many Gen 'Y'ers are most productive at 10 PM, working from the comfort of home. Some Gen 'X'ers, on the other hand, may need an afternoon off for family obligations, coming back online later that evening. Instituting a rigid policy about work hours or locations may leave some team members feeling alienated, excluded and ultimately, not very productive.

This article is co-authored by Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts, noted business writing facilitator, author, and Principal of Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts & Associates. We offer practical guidelines to connect people from different generations through more targeted communications. In future editions, we'll tackle other issues related to intergenerational differences, such as retention, rewards and recognition.

We have made many generalizations in writing these guidelines. And while each person must be treated as a unique individual, making some "best-guesses" about communication styles and preferences is a great first step toward creating a team communications plan that works for most.

Rethinking "normal" work hours: Apart from some government offices and banks, the 9-to-5 business day has given way to more flexible work times and locations, with people working at all hours from multiple locations. For a team that works virtually, it's much harder to find an agreed-upon window for group meetings, whether face-to-face (FTF), phone, web conference or videoconference. A Boomer manager may feel more comfortable when all team members convene FTF for the weekly 8 AM status meeting. But consider a Gen 'X'er who's caring for a family, and needs to battle traffic for 90 minutes to get there. Or the Gen 'Y'er who insists s/he is most productive from 11 AM - 11 PM. Many Traditionalists easing their way into retirement are also demanding more flexible work arrangements. Managers must consider the comfort level and preferences of all participants when deciding which team meetings really need to take place FTF and which can be done via call or web.

Sharing vital information: When time is of the essence and you need to get critical information to team members, what's the best choice? It depends on a host of factors, including the likely preferences and habits of members representing different generations. Older generations tend to rely on email, phone or FTF as the default, while many younger members may look to instant messaging, blogs, wikis or phone texting as their primary means of giving and getting important information. Consider multiple channels for information-sharing, especially if you have people with strong preferences for different communication methods. At the same time, make sure you have an agreed-upon method for sharing urgent information, such as news likely to affect the work of the team or missed deliverables that will trip up others. Keep in mind that younger generations tend to be natural and eager collaborators, and often do so from a distance as a matter of routine.

There's no place like "home:" Create a team portal that's easy, quick and intuitive for members of all generations to use. Younger generations expect and demand highly efficient websites where needed information takes just one or two key clicks to find exactly what they need. Otherwise they may tune out quickly. Older generations may require a bit of prodding to regard the team portal as the place to go to share and view the latest and greatest information. If people are slow to gravitate to your team portal, try pushing out emails that contain a sentence or two about what content can be found on the team site, and refrain from including the actual information in emails so they have more incentive to visit the portal. Constantly seek feedback from team members representing all generations as to how the team space can be made even more useful.

Instant gratification vs. patience as virtue: Younger workers typically expect responses and information right now, as evidenced by the popularity of social networking sites (such as, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and others) and the proliferation of text messaging and IM. Waiting a day or two to receive a return email or voicemail is a non-starter. Older workers tend to expect a reply to take a little more time, and likewise may be slower to respond themselves, especially if they have to wade through a jammed inbox to reply. Create agreed-upon norms for responsiveness to certain types of inquiries or issues, and then determine how best to use specific tools to get the job done. If one person insists on an IM or a blog update and another prefers an email, work together to agree on the best ways to meet as many needs as possible without extraordinary effort from any one.

Open wide vs. buttoned up: Older workers tend to prize consistency, predictability, accuracy, good grammar, and thoroughness in communications. Even the most creative ideas may be dismissed if such ideas crop up randomly, without context and without a way to prioritize them. After all, if the ideas don't lead to something tangible, you've just lost a lot of time! Younger workers, on the other hand, are adept at brainstorming and collaborating with people who have shared interests, including total strangers-for the sheer joy of creating something new and fresh. Social networks enable this type of spontaneous collaboration that may lead to great new ideas that may do nothing more than satisfy intellectual curiosity. Openness and creativity are especially valued by younger generations vs. playing by proscribed rules of engagement, which is something their parents may be more prone to do.

Ramping up and ramping down: People from different generations have a lot to teach each other, if we create the right opportunities for knowledge transfer. Many younger people coming on board bring rich new perspectives, a keen appreciation of how best to apply the right technology tools, and a passion to learn. They embrace challenges with gusto and are devoid of the "this-is-the-way-we've-always-done-it" mindset. Older people, many of whom might be nearing retirement, have accumulated wisdom about the business, industry and organization, and know what it takes to operate successfully within the enterprise. Two-way mentoring programs, pairing a younger employee with a more senior counterpart, afford the opportunity for both to learn from each other. The result: New people position themselves for success more quickly and older workers can leave behind valuable knowledge skils and knowledge for the next generation.

Bottom line: Organizations need to examine the most significant generational differences and determine how best to anticipate and address the implications within each work team. The outcome: High-performing teams that consciously take advantage of generational differences instead of ignoring or dismissing them.


Related Article
Millenial Workforce: IT Risk or Benefit?


About the Author
Nancy Settle-Murphy is a facilitator of remote and face-to-face meetings, trainer, presenter and author of many articles and white papers aimed at getting the most out of remote teams, especially those that span cultures and time zones. Go to Nancy's Web site for more information about her services, including workshops and webinars.

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