How to communicate better at work

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Millennial workers have long been branded “entitled” — often by their older bosses. I wanted to dig beyond those preconceptions and see what the truth is about this cohort. On the Working It podcast this week, I talk to two experts: Emily Bowen and Shelley Johnson, HR experts, millennials themselves, and hosts of the Australian podcast My Millennial Career.

My key takeaway from our conversation is that “it’s not an entitlement problem, it’s an expectation problem.” Reframing entitlement as expectation highlights the differences between managers and staff — are you thinking in different ways when it comes to career development, for example? My FT colleague Taylor Nicole Rogers also joins me from New York — and is extremely tactful about her older co-workers.

After the recording, I asked Shelley what the biggest career concerns are for millennials in 2023. She mentions job insecurity as one, and fears about possible loss of flexibility and balance as the second big preoccupation. “During the pandemic, millennials realised the hustle culture wasn’t sustainable. Work from home was the reset millennials and Gen Z needed to create more balance . . . but with uncertain economic conditions, millennials are worried that employers may unwind flexibility.”

Next week we are revisiting one of our most popular episodes — introverts at work. How can an introvert navigate a noisy, extrovert-friendly workplace? And what are the best tips for leaders who are managing quieter staff? (Isabel Berwick)

Top stories from the world of work:

  1. What to do if you hate your job: Don’t quit in a moment of despair. Instead, conduct an audit of everything you do at work and whether you feel joy, indifference or misery. Then plan a course of action based on the results.

  2. Forget the central business district: Central business districts were designed to be used by white, middle-class businessmen, and they’re usually dead in the evenings and on weekends. Now that hybrid work has upended the traditional commute, there is a push to create more vibrant and social districts.

  3. Cost-cutting isn’t the same as growth: Many leaders see a downturn as the best time to cut costs (and people). But data show the companies that thrive in tough times tend to use a three-pronged approach — cuts, yes, but also a decrease in financial leverage and increasing investment to grab market share.

  4. How to manage rapid expansion: Alan Ryder, CEO of engineering and environmental group RSK, is ambitious when it comes to acquiring new businesses. He speaks to the FT’s Andrew Hill about his leadership philosophy, strength in diversity, and his belief that size matters.

  5. How do I pursue a law career that aligns with my values? In this week’s Dear Jonathan advice column, a reader wonders how she can do good for society in a way that doesn’t hamper her career development.

How hybrid work affects communication

© FT montage/Dreamstime

Three years into the pandemic and the era of hybrid work, many employees are still searching for the best ways to communicate to optimise productivity. In fact, a new report from Grammarly and The Harris Poll finds that most people still struggle with poor practices around written communication.

But the early days of the pandemic offer clues. When most office workers began working remotely, productivity actually increased, showing that with the right tools, we can harness the benefits of remote communication.

Emails, DMs, and other text-based tools are devoid of body language and tone of voice, making it easier to misinterpret even the most well-intentioned messages. People are also more likely to speak rudely to others when they’re doing so behind a computer screen. In response, many feel the impulse to over-explain, out of fear that brief messages will seem rude or be misunderstood. Senka Hadzimuratovic, head of communications at Grammarly, dubs this phenomenon “slacksplaining”. “Constantly second-guessing your communication is frustrating and time-consuming,” she says.

Plus, if you’re too verbose it can actually make your message less clear. Senka suggests that, when appropriate, using emojis and GIFs in written communications can help make your message friendlier and help with comprehension without overcomplicating it.

Another less obvious form of how coworkers remotely communicate with each other is by setting their status on apps like Slack to signal that they are, for example, “Online”, “On Vacation”, or “In a meeting”. According to a recent study by HP, 70 per cent of UK workers feel that default status messages provided by apps like Slack don’t accurately represent how we work — and that workers want options for “Working from home”, “Working from the office”, or even indicators like “Ready to collaborate”.

Claire Cathcart, head of people at employee insurance provider YuLife, recently added a new status option for their company slack, “Not Feeling 100%”, for the days when you’re under the weather but still well enough to work. Setting a Slack status is “a way for people to say they were struggling a bit without having to announce [it] on a Zoom call,” she says. Indeed, for people who don’t like to speak up in meetings, setting a status indicator may be a more comfortable way to communicate than the in-person equivalent.

A raft of tools and tips have sprung up around improving our digital communications, from web browser plug-ins that remove corporate jargon from emails to the hyper-specific “No Hello” movement, which campaigns against the practice of messaging a co-worker “hello” and nothing else. Or take Swirl, the Slack add-on that randomly pairs up coworkers for informal chats, rekindling the serendipitous in-person experience of chatting in the office kitchen or elevator with a co-worker.

Effective hybrid work requires smart choices about how to use digital tools; a bit of a balancing act is required. While too many apps may fatigue workers, that should not deter anyone from suggesting improvements. Overall, digital communication tools are a “net positive”, says Senka. (Sophia Smith)

As companies try to entice older people to rejoin the workforce amid a labour shortage, FT readers chimed in with their thoughts on ageing in the workplace.

Reader Kd2 shares how rewarding they’ve found their current contract work:

Despite knowing I had fuel in the tank for more work, I had fully expected retirement to be a one-way ticket out of the workforce. At 60 years old, I’m fortunate to have been headhunted out of early retirement for a two days/week contract, but only because my new employer is broad minded, creative, and flexible. It accommodates my other passions and commitments. I’m not measured by some hideous American-style appraisal system. I’m giving my all on my two days at work. I’m good at what I do and I’m left to get on with it. Bliss.

Reader dannylonglegs98, who at his first job is working alongside several veteran employees, shares his appreciation for his older coworkers:

They’re passionate about developing the business’ evolution, and are perfect for sense-checking ideas as they know all the super niche edge-case stuff. They tend not to do things by the book — but these are the people who wrote the instructions! These people know what’s what, who’s who and between the four of them have an encyclopedic knowledge of everything is to know about the field. And I very much appreciate their dry appraisals of new HR schemes. I think they are sometimes seen as pricey, less-efficient workers that can be stripped out when needed, but it will be a huge shame when they start retiring, as the wealth of experience they have isn’t something that can just be replaced on a like-for-like basis.

Reader Smudge2001 laments on how harmful ageist misconceptions can be:

Older applicants are frequently perceived as failures having fallen out of work through poor performance, which is a massive misconception that ignores circumstance and a multitude of other factors. It is a real prejudice and cruel in that unlike those alluded to in the article, the majority of those looking for work are in genuine need of employment and often hardship. This is a far tougher position for the older worker over the young when their skills are specific and opportunities limited. Time for a rebrand of the older generation.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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