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The Slack Generation vs. Email Generation: Why More Platforms Are Dividing the Workplace

The communications landscape has expanded in recent years, along with the rate of workplace miscommunications.

two employees working at office computers

Should you leave important information in a voicemail to a colleague? Should you pick up a phone call from your boss after hours? How do you determine what rises to the occasion of a face-to-face, and what information can be shared in an email? Cameras on or off?

Answers to these questions can vary significantly based on industry, age, seniority, workplace culture and personal preference, and the lack of widely accepted norms is creating new workplace challenges.

According to a recent study conducted by online language learning marketplace Preply, nearly one in 10 workers have been disciplined in a voice message, while two in five have deleted work-related voicemails before listening to them in full. Furthermore, while 86 percent prefer communicating via email, nearly 90 percent say that mode of communication is most likely to cause misunderstandings.

“The shift to remote working has impacted our dependence on text-based communication—like direct messages, emails, chats—rather than speaking in-person,” explains Sylvia Johnson, Preply’s head of methodology. “While these methods are very fast and convenient, they do lack those nonverbal cues.”

Is This a Good Time to Call?

Adding to the complexity of workplace communications is an increasingly global, remote and multigenerational workforce.

According to the Preply survey, one in five baby boomers still use their office’s landline, yet more than two-thirds of workers say they want a heads-up via text message before getting a call from a colleague. In fact, a quarter of employees say they get anxiety when they receive an unexpected call or voicemail from work.

“Effective communication is not a one-size-fits-all solution in today’s modern, digital workplace,” says Johnson. “You have to have an understanding of the demographic preferences, you have to consider what type of information you’re communicating, the urgency of the message, the context of the message; all of these are key factors when deciding on the mode of communication.”

Johnson adds that people often default to their organization’s most common communication medium without first considering whether it’s appropriate for that conversation.

“You need to apply a certain level of sensitivity about the type of information you are looking to communicate and ensure that you choose the right medium regardless of the intergenerational preferences,” she says. “Everyone deserved to have difficult conversations in a more personal and a more respectful manner.”

More Communication Channels, More Problems

The communications landscape has expanded dramatically in recent years, and along with it the rate of workplace miscommunications.

According to a recent survey conducted by Let’s Grow Leaders, a global leadership development and consulting company, 71 percent of Americans report experiencing equal or greater levels of workplace conflict in recent years. The top causes, according to the study, are understaffing, poor management practices, and unaddressed mental health needs.

“You still have all your traditional sources of conflict, but now you have this complex cocktail of communication options, and people don’t have clear expectations,” says Let’s Grow Leaders cofounder and CEO Karin Hurt. “There are so many different modes of communication, and they’re suited for different things, so if we’re not having conversations as a team around when we use what, conflict is inevitable,” says Hurt’s cofounder and company president David Dye.

Hurt and Dye explain that remote and hybrid work have opened the door to new kinds of communication-based conflicts. For example, workers may form opinions about how their colleagues use new communication channels—such as, whether they turn on their camera during video calls or whether they include emojis in workplace Slack channels—in the absence of widely accepted norms.

“You might say, ‘you can work from anywhere,’ and that’s great, until someone shows up on a Zoom call from a petting zoo—but it’s according to the policy,” says Hurt. “if you haven’t established norms, you’re going to have conflicts because there are misaligned expectations.”

Such miscommunications have a real impact on productivity and employee well-being. According to the survey, the increase in workplace conflicts is leading to higher levels of stress, turnover, absenteeism, and lower-quality work.

Part of the problem, according to Hurt, is the lack of dedicated training that employees—and more specifically, managers—have received through this period of rapid change.

“We encourage managers to think about these three things: ‘What is it like for this other person to be in this situation? What do I want them to see, feel, or do as a result of this communication? And what questions are likely going to be on their minds?’” she says. “If you can train your managers—before they communicate something that’s highly sensitive—to stop and answer those three questions, it can really make a difference.”

The Medium is the Message

In his 1964 book, Understanding Media, Canadian media-studies theorist Marshall McLuhan famously wrote, “the medium is the message,” and the axiom has only grown more applicable over the past 60 years.

While there are many strategies for matching the medium to the message, communication coach and San Francisco State adjunct teacher Jennifer Kammeyer suggests a simple anagram for making that determination.

“I typically recommend that the platform of communication be chosen based on people, environment and relationship,” she says. “I call this ‘communicating PER the situation.’ ”

Kammeyer recommends simply taking the time to ask the other party or parties for their personal preference for a given conversation. She adds that “environment” can refer to physical, cultural, or mood settings.

“The physical environment can dictate the best medium—it is really hard to have video calls in a bullpen office setup or in a home office with kids watching TV—and the cultural environment can have formal rules, like ‘everyone uses Slack,’ or informal rules, like ‘those who turn on video get more face time with the boss,’ ” she says. “The mood environment also comes into play because if people are emotional—because of bad news—richer mediums like in-person or video are better.”

Furthermore, Kammeyer says you can also use your personal relationship with the other party to determine which communication platform best suits your needs.

“In-person and video is better for building relationships,” she says. “The more familiar the people, the easier it is to communicate via text or phone.”

This article was written by Jared Lindzon from Fast Company and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive Content Marketplace. Please direct all licensing questions to



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