Mind your phone manners: are Gen Z’s bad for business?

We all know the office joke about Gen Z employees never picking up the phone but why is this the case and how can it impact your small business?

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Increasing numbers of Generation Z employees (those born between 1997 and 2012) are now entering the workplace, and employers are finding that their approach to business communication tools is rather different.

A new study from Sky reveals that Generation Z members habitually ignore phone calls, with over half even blanking their parents. This behaviour can have repercussions for companies too.

“Every Gen Z we have employed has had an issue with phones,” says Jo Blood, who runs a workplace assessment company called Posture People. “They all get anxious about using the phone, normally have to be trained how to take down a message but are happy enough to sit with headphones on listening to music.”

Despite this phenomenon, though, many employers believe that the new communication skills that Gen Z employees can bring improve workplace culture if training and implementation are right. “Some communication anxiety shouldn’t be enough to write them off,” argues Robert Kaskel, Chief People Officer at background checking service Checkr. “What matters more than excellent phone skills is adaptability and a positive attitude toward growing those skills.”

Why does Gen Z avoid phones?

The traditional landline may be phased out entirely by 2025 – with many office managers deciding between VoIP-powered desktop phones, or simply cutting the cord completely – but that doesn’t mean Gen Z can hang up completely, even if they'd rather. 

The desk phone can be fairly easily replaced by a mobile, which brings with it the extra expectation of using a personal phone for work. For Gen Z, that brings them bang up against the pernicious always-on culture that can so badly impact morale and work-life balance. But, while you should support your staff's right to disconnect on their own hours, you can still set expectations for phone manner during the working day.

It helps, above all, to understand the root causes of Gen Z's loathing of speaking on the phone.

Performance anxiety

Several studies reveal that the younger generation around the world has phone anxiety. One of the most recent, by Australian bank Commbank, shows that half of all young people find that speaking on the phone makes them feel anxious.

According to this study, Gen Z dreads an awkward phone call more than attending a large social gathering or their phone dying in public. Six in ten of them dread making or accepting a phone call. Sky Mobile’s research found that a third of Gen Z find talking on the phone awkward, with half preferring to receive a text first to pre-warn them that they will need to steel themselves for a call.

Tech trends

But why do Gen Z feel so awkward about phones? The answer, experts say, lies in the way communication has changed over the years. The Sky study showed that  Gen Z communicate by Whatsapp, text and Snapchat – communication methods that were not around when the older generation were starting out in the workplace.

Generation game

Bill Catlette, partner at leadership and workplace advisory firm Contented Cow Partners, says that there’s a clear generation difference brought about by technology.

“I received a Thanksgiving greeting from my 18 year-old granddaughter who entered the workspace this very week,” he says. “Her comms tool of choice is the text message. Mine would have been a phone call or videochat via Zoom, which she would have been happy to do, but less practiced at. My parents would have handwritten a note on a card, attached a stamp, and mailed it.”

Renaud Charvet, head of communications service Ringover, says that Gen Z are “a product of the environment they have grown up in”.  He explains, “A focus on social media and instant messaging has made the world less reliant on telephone communications, and that includes customer service environments. As a child, older generations may have had to call up a local takeout while now younger generations can do it via an app, never speaking to someone. That kind of change is going to affect how much practice someone has.”

Catlette argues, though, that every generation needs to get comfortable with the communications preferences of others to run businesses successfully. “We oughtn’t let our personal device or mode preferences get in the way of conducting business.”

Improving Gen Z’s etiquette

Because Gen Z is made anxious by making phone calls, some young employees may struggle with the professional phone manner needed to grow a business. Gen Z employees may need help knowing what the expectations are when answering phone calls. 

Telephone training

Blood, at Posture People, says she has had to train Gen Z employees in how to take down a message, and has set staff targets to make sure they call customers. But giving training, nurturing and best practice guides – for example, for the ever-daunting cold calling – as well as clear expectations, Gen Z can learn how to communicate via phone.

Workplace culture club

“Managers should prepare to spend extra time with entry-level teammates to nurture their growth” Kaskel, at Checkr, says. However, he adds that this is understandable, and many will quickly get up to speed. “I wouldn’t expect entry-level employees to be knowledgeable and skilled in every aspect of their work.”

Professional conduct

He also adds that learning to communicate and work in a team in a workplace is something every generation must learn, in the same way they would. “It’s not a myth that they may need a little extra help, but part of that anxiety is universal, as most young people feel unsure and anxious as they learn how to communicate professionally – a familiar feeling across generations as they enter the working world.”

Challenges for business – and bridging the gap

Businesses may need to consider the implications of employing younger staff made nervous by phone calls. Staff that do not answer calls because they have headphones on, or who do not take down messages will not help your brand.

Putting other communication strategies in place can ensure that companies continue to flourish. Here are some to consider:

Tailor your tools

As well as training programmes, changing the systems your company uses can bear fruit. Consultant Gunn says she has stopped using phones altogether, as this method of communication is “definitely not efficient” and is not valued by her target market, aged 21-35 in the main.

We exclusively communicate via messaging,” she says. “It works better for business resilience. if someone’s out sick we have no problem knowing exactly where they were on a project or task because no communication has taken place on an untrackable phone call.”

In this way, Gunn says, she can leverage the positive aspects of Gen Z communication. “It allows for better boundaries to be set in a world where we are constantly being communicated to, on both sides.”

Get the right tech

There are many technology systems now that can deal with the type of communication that Gen Z prefers.

Project management software such as monday, Clickup and Asana can allow you to allocate individual tasks to the person responsible for them, which means everyone knows what they need to do, and when it’s due – which can reduce the need for calls.

Gareth Hoyle, Managing Director at Marketing Signals, says that new starters who haven’t worked remotely before are often otherwise prone to feeling that they are ‘on’ 24/7, which can lead to burnout. With these pieces of software, he says, “everyone knows what they need to do, and when it’s due”. 

Play to strengths

By training Gen Z to answer phones, but at the same time putting in systems that play to their strengths such as online messaging and collaborative working platforms, employers can leverage the best of these younger employees, as well as ensuring that they serve customers who still prefer talking on the phone.

It is also important to remember that Gen Z’s strengths are something the rest of us can learn from. Nikki Hawkes, founder of fintech startup Stratiphy says that they help us to support channels for those others, like them, who prefer not to communicate by phone.

“Rather than viewing a preference for digital communication as a deficit, businesses can leverage it to serve their growing millennial and Gen Z audiences,” she suggests.

After all, it isn’t just employees who are changing, clients are changing too, and Gen Z employees can give your insight into how to serve them.

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