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Teaching verbal communication to millennial staff

Walking the talk and leading by example are the best ways to encourage Generation Y to pick up the phone.

Jacqueline Blondell | December 2019

Today’s open-plan offices are almost silent. Earbuds are used to block out peripheral noise and face-to-face chats and phone calls are heading the way of the floppy disk or CD ROM. The preference is for email or to use apps such as Google Hangouts or Slack to collaborate, rather than really talk to one another.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that verbal skills are becoming rusty and millennials don’t understand that there are other methods of communication. However, some public practitioners, worried about lack of communication between staff and clients, have decided to act on the matter.

For example, every day at 9.05am BNR Partners has a “stand-up” meeting where everyone is given the chance to talk. It is all about making sure staff know what they are supposed to be doing and that there are no unresolved, knotty issues.

BNR Partners director Jason Bertalli CPA has just three questions for each team member: What did you do yesterday, what are you doing today and what are you stuck on? The team is prepared for these questions, which then kickstart the working day.

Improving the working day

BNR initiated the practice 18 months ago to improve verbal communication between team members and with the firm’s clients.

“The issue we are dealing with now, and it’s not just with our younger people, is that we’ve stopped communicating verbally and we prefer to rely on email,” Bertalli says, noting that contact with clients has sometimes stalled simply because a client fails to respond to an email.

“It is not actually about not wanting to talk – people just want to cover themselves and show that they have written verification of [a request] even if they have had no response from the client. I am focusing on the massive benefit of actually making phone calls and then backing [them] up with email correspondence.”

Explaining and modelling the benefits of communicating in different ways is one of the best ways to get millennial staff to change their ways, agrees communications expert Shane Hatton.

Hatton believes that how people prefer to communicate depends on understanding the context.

“Rather than being told, younger people, in particular, need to be shown why verbal communication is important,” he says.

Remember, this is a generation that takes phones to bed. However, that communication mode may not be endearing them to bosses who grew up in a previous technological age. US research shows that while 62 per cent of students believe their communication skills are sufficiently adequate to help them succeed at work, only 28 per cent of employers agree.

“They [Gen Y] grew up in an entirely different communication context to previous generations,” Hatton notes. “They are used to information overload. Think, just 15 to 20 years ago there were hundreds of thousands of websites. Today that number is edging two billion. This generation has learned to cut through with short, sharp communications. Most of their lives are spent behind a screen, so it becomes unusual to pick up a phone.”

How to get people to talk

Trust in your employees helps improve their communication skills. If they don’t trust you, they are less likely to communicate effectively. For example, BNR Partners' Jason Bertalli believes you need to show trust in staff in order to have the favour returned. He says: “For example, I’m not precious about my clients, I encourage staff to have contact directly with them.”

Explain requests and clarify that they are understood. Communications expert Shane Hatton says this is a component of any good organisational framework, where the onus is on both the sender of information and the receiver to make sure the message is understood.

Listen actively. If you are already thinking about your response while listening to communication via your phone, it has already failed.