A discussion of generational communication challenges

John is an accomplished experienced lawyer. On a recent trip together, he lamented being increasingly exasperated by some of the young ‘uns in his office.

“I sent him a detailed email with the entire legal position last week,” John told me, “But on Monday the guy tells me that he never saw anything. He just said he does not read emails. Can you believe that?”

“What am I supposed to do?” John asked me.

John’s right. If I send you a communication and you don’t even want to open the tool, what can I do? Is reading emails mandatory? Is that a formal policy? In what time period should emails be read or responded to? Surprisingly, not many organizations have any such policy or clarity on this issue.

We are at a curious cusp. The different ways in which we can communicate with each other has grown exponentially. And we have established no rules for any of them! When should we use what? And whose job is it to create this guidance anyway? HR? IT? Management? It is not entirely clear. Broken communications result.

I know that there are those who will see this attempt at creating clarity as more bureaucracy and an unnecessary attempt to formalize something that works just fine informally and as it is. Perhaps it does. But as a technologist interested in the most efficient use of these tools, I see more communication breakdowns with the increased number of tools – and not necessarily better communication.

In most enterprises today, we have some if not all of the following means of communication: phones, meetings, emails, instant messages, social media, snail mail, faxes, memos etc. Admittedly, some of those at the end of that list are less frequently used, and I probably missed a few others. Carrier pigeons?

Different generations – GI generation (Born 1901-1926), Mature Silents (Born 1927-1945), Baby Boomers (Born 1946-1964), Generation Xers (Born 1965-1980), Millennials or Generation Y (Born 1981-2000, and Boomlets or Generation Z (Born after 2001) – don’t use these communication tools in the same way. This is significant in environments where many generations are intermingled.

Here is one blueprint for usage. Admittedly, this is a work in progress and I welcome your comments and suggestions:


  • Do’s
    • Use email only when you have no expectation of an immediate response. This is important.
    • Experts now recommend checking emails infrequently, say once an hour, or even just a few times a day. Otherwise, as many studies have shown, we have far too many disruptions to perform focused work.
      • If you are trying to connect to a GI or Baby Boomer, use email. You have a better chance of being noticed.
  • Don’ts
    • If your email is longer than 4 reasonable sized paragraphs, you need a phone call or a meeting (that number is fungible, but not by much)
    • If you are one of those whose email ends up with six colors as it moves back and forth with a new color for every response – you don’t understand email. Multi-colors are for whiteboards not emails.
  • And finally, many experts are beginning to look at email as a legacy application. Remember memos….


  • Do’s
    • Use IM when you have a “quick” question or want to respond with a “short” answer.
    • If you are trying to connect to a Gen Xer or Millennial, you are far more likely to get a response on an IM.
  • Don’ts
    • If your IM is more than a sentence, you are probably not using it correctly.
    • It is not a substitute for an email.
    • Just because you see someone’s presence showing green, does not mean they are doing nothing and will respond in 5 seconds (presence allows you to see availability)
    • Don’t assume a Baby Boomer is paying attention to your “texts” (many will call them that)! They probably don’t.


Contrary to common perception, meetings are evolving.

  • First, the ‘traditional’ meeting, the best option for discussions and information sharing, especially when provisioned with advance agendas and post meeting deliverables. It is most popular with the older generations.
  • Another obvious variation is the sidebar or impromptu, where you walk to someone’s office or cubicle to discuss something that is important and urgent. There is also the rise of the “teaming room” meetings.
  • Video/audio conferences are popular in an environment of virtual and telecommuting employees.
  • Next, we have the ‘stand-up’ or ‘bonnet’ meetings made popular by tech companies. These are quick check-ins, and participants will stand in a circle or around a table (‘bonnet’ is another word for the hood of a car). More popular with the younger hip crowd.
    • And finally, the ‘disrupters’ have created yet another form of meeting made famous at many large and small companies – the ‘optional’ meetings. Yes, in certain companies every meeting is optional! Bain & Company found that the average manager wastes nearly a full day every week  in meetings, and senior executives waste a staggering 40% of their work week in endless, mind-numbing, and ineffective meetings. Not surprisingly, these optional meetings are therefore quite successful. Radical!


A phone call fits somewhere between a meeting and an email. There are some conflicting signals about the use of voicemail versus email. In many organizations, leaving a voicemail does not necessarily elevate the communication to an urgent status. Many use voicemail as the “spam call” repository.

  • Do’s
    • The older generations tend to use phones more often and respond better to calls.
    • This communication is generally more urgent.
  • Don’ts
    • Just because you know a coworker’s mobile phone number does not mean you should use it. Being mindful about using phones for work particularly after-hours, weekends etc. is a good idea.
    • Younger generations are far less enamored with talking on phones.


This is one area that has undergone quite a bit of change.

  • Do’s
    • Communications on organizational policies etc. are now located more frequently in ‘announcements’ or ‘posts’ on internal enterprise social media (ESM) outlets like Yammer, SharePoint etc.
    • The younger generations find this more convenient but the older generations are still stymied by social media options.
  • Don’ts
    • Memos are passé as the repositories of “lengthy communications” – and are increasingly shunned as a means of effective communication.
    • Many of the older generations find this void troubling and invariably try to use emails for this purpose, with mixed results.
    • Frankly, the attention spans of the new entrants into our work environments and their preference for shorter communications – has been a death-knell for memos. Viva la Twitter!


This is the newer entrant and again the harder shift for older generations.

  • The problem is best understood as a “push” versus “pull” conundrum. Memos are pushed out. Social media is generally understood as a pull. A la carte is out. We are all now at a buffet. Learn to find it, otherwise you may go hungry.
  • The younger generations, familiar with the Facebook and Twitter worlds, have had no problem with this concept and use. The older generation, responsible for much of the content, is instead trying to use social media as a substitute for email.

Given the tremendous challenges of this plethora of choices, vendors are experimenting with all manner of hybrids.  Will more options makes this easier?

On July 22, 2015 Microsoft announced Send. Send is a cross between an SMS and an email. As Microsoft describes it: It is a brief, snappy communication. It is when you want an instant response, and yet want to be able to retain a record of what you said in Outlook. Microsoft says Send is different from regular email because it only shows messages sent using the app itself. Time will tell if this will work.

Many organizations spend a lot of money and time on personality testing and team building. It is not uncommon to walk into enterprises and find the Myers-Briggs profile alphabets of the staff prominently placed in their workspaces. It helps to understand a colleague’s personality and how to interact with them. Is it time to add a “communication preference” to that alphabet soup?

“I prefer ESM, IM & Bonnets”. You?