How differences in digital etiquette cause generational strife

'Businesses should be cautious of allowing new technologies to drive an unnecessary wedge between age groups'

How differences in digital etiquette cause generational strife

Almost 90 percent of Canadian workers say they experience conflicts in their teams due to digital tools.

And 61 percent say these conflicts negatively affect productivity and collaboration, according to a survey by the Adaptavist Group, which revealed problems of miscommunication stemming from misinterpretations of tone, different expectations of acceptable response times to messages, and confusion over emojis.

“The crucial takeaway is that managing a multi-generational workforce requires moving beyond generational labels and stereotypes. Leaders must treat employees as individuals, shaping work to their unique skills and experiences rather than making assumptions based on age,” says Simon Haighton-Williams, CEO of the Adaptavist Group.

“While being mindful of generational differences is important, businesses should be cautious of allowing new technologies to drive an unnecessary wedge between age groups. The focus should be on fostering human connections and mutual understanding across the workforce."

Digital etiquette more relevant issue than ever before

The group surveyed 4,000 knowledge workers in Canada, the U.S., UK, Australia and Germany – including software developers, physicians, architects, engineers, scientists, lawyers, editors, and academics.

Respondents were asked about pain points at their workplaces in regards to how the various generations they work with are using technology tools.

"Unlike past tech disruptions that occurred gradually, today's workplace is being reshaped at an unprecedented pace. Previous technological shifts, like the introduction of the internet or email, happened over years or even decades. But today new apps, platforms, and tools can go from niche to mainstream in a matter of months, demanding continuous learning from workers,” says Haighton-Williams.

“Tech skills are no longer just for the 'IT crowd' - they're fundamental job requirements across all roles and industries now… tech shapes our entire workflow. This centrality of technology competence is a key new challenge for multi-gen workforces."

Confusion calls for more communication about digital etiquette

Simple misunderstandings and annoyances dominate the survey results; for example, half of the workers over 50 said they’re annoyed when younger colleagues don’t have a pen. A third of global workers said they were confused about the use of emojis and internet slang, with the 18- to 24-year-old group most likely to report this confusion.

“Today’s workplaces transcend different age groups, but this results in clashes where tech tools, information landscapes, and communication styles collide,” the report states.

Gen X is the least involved with conflict around digital tools, being listed as the easiest to collaborate and the least likely to have “different” communication styles. Additionally, Gen X’s productivity and ability to collaborate is the least affected by their location.

Haighton-Williams attributed this easy-going status as a result of Gen X having become accustomed to adjusting to new technology on the fly.

"Gen Xers grew up witnessing the emergence of personal computing and the internet; they went from the Walkman to the Blackberry and have had to adapt to innovation ever since,” he says.

“The independence and self-reliance often associated with Gen X may have equipped them well to adopt new technologies as needed, without feeling overly burdened or resistant. Unlike older generations who had to make a hard shift or younger ones who grew up immersed in tech, Gen Xers experienced the evolution of workplace technology in more gradual phases aligning with their career progression."

To help generations collaborate, throw away the categories

In addition to work processes, respondents were also asked how they viewed the other generations they worked with, revealing stereotypes such as millennial laziness and boomers’ technophobia.

However, there is an across-the-board agreement (78%) that such labelling is damaging and should not be supported by workplaces, with employees ages 55 to 64 being the most concerned, pointing to ageism as a serious issue for many older knowledge workers.

Despite the disparities of tech use, a high percentage of knowledge workers (90%) think technology could be the bridge between the generations, if the correct tools are used.

"There are some timeless ways to bring us all together,” says Eliza Filby, generational evolution historian who partnered with The Adaptavist Group for the survey.

“For instance, while face-to-face interaction is a point of anxiety for many, and something we are doing less in a hybrid workplace, we all crave connection, and it can be the best way to alleviate intergenerational conflicts.”

Filby suggests reverse mentoring as a solution to generation gaps, wherein employees from different generations are paired with each other to exchange skills.

“It's a simple way you can foster intergenerational dialogue and learning. In fact, the evidence says that the bigger the age gap, the more rewarding and reciprocated the mentoring relationship,” she says.

She also suggests formal skill-swapping programs; the report showed that 47% of generation Z employees envy their older colleagues’ confidence speaking on the phone, and baby boomers have had the hardest time adjusting to hybrid work. Filby pointed out that these differences can be addressed with skill-sharing.

“For instance, the baby boomers can help generation Z learn telephone etiquette while the generation Zs teach the baby boomers the importance of social media and artificial intelligence,” she says.

“Shared knowledge and mutual learning encourage mutual respect and reduce age-related hierarchy. HR should prioritise a collaborative, inclusive company culture over generational divides.”

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