These words set me off on a long rant about the generational stereotyping and negative profiling that permeates the workplace. The pseudo-research behind generational differences literature fails to make teams work better together as it sets one cohort against another in an “I-am-right-you-are-wrong” mentality.
My deeply held point of view is that everyone has their own unique value and skill set and should be treated as their own entity and not be labeled in an age-based cohort. That said, I am now rethinking this position in light of some disturbing trends I am seeing in the workforce. Read below to see my shift in thinking about generations at work.
THE DANGERS OF DIGITAL COMMUNICATION
By Dr. Alice Waagen
I am concerned about a disturbing trend that is appearing in the behavior of younger workers. Middle managers to senior business leaders share with me their frustration with staff who prefer a totally virtual work environment. These digital workers want to work solo from home rather than be at the office. When at work, they will choose screen-based communication over face-to-face interaction and balk at phone conversations if they can choose a keypad instead. The belief is that virtual is faster and easier, minimizing messy emotions and distracting nonverbal expressions.
What makes this trend so prevalent is that digital communication is not only the preferred method at work, it is the dominant communication channel in their personal relationships. Texting and social media dialogues replace live conversations. We have all witnessed couples sitting across from each other in restaurants, eyes downward texting furiously. Digital communication replete with shorthand phraseology and emoji punctuation feels connected but lacks the subtle messages of live communication.
What concerns me about this trend is the negative impact digital communication has on workplace efficiency and productivity. By nature of its structure, digital communication reduces and even eliminates feedback. In standard two-way face-to-face communication, I see your facial expression, body language, hear your tone of voice; all that will tell me more about your thoughts and feelings than all the words uttered. Digital communication, devoid of this data, produces a feedback gap, forcing me to make assumptions about the effectiveness of my message. Acting on my assumptions, I continue my actions and may not realize for quite some time that they were inaccurate. It is as if we are replacing a state of the art communication methodology, human interaction, with a pair of tin cans on a string!
Another cause for alarm is that the ability to see and interpret nonverbal communications is a learned skill, an indicator of mature emotional intelligence. It starts in childhood when children learn that a frown means something is wrong while a smile is a good thing. Nonverbal language becomes much more nuanced as we get older and frequent human interaction allows us to hone these skills. I see evidence in the workplace today that people are losing the ability to see and interpret nonverbal language causing frustration, errors, and rework.
I am by no means advocating a Luddite-esque workplace of endless meetings. As much as I find total virtual work a challenge for communication, days spent in back-to-back meetings likewise damage efficiency and productivity. What I am advocating is a more strategic and thoughtful utilization of digital and live communication. Work that is best done solo and virtual should be done so. Work that requires dialogue to clarify issues or to resolve conflict should be done in person. Make the choice consciously and intelligently based on the desired outcomes and results, not based on a default mode or personal preference.