Communicating with millennials: Talk to them face to face

Texting, Snapchat and other digital channels are only part of the discourse puzzle. New research shows that members of Generation Y long for in-person exchanges. No, really.

Oh, those pesky millennials.

So much blame is heaped on those people born between into Generation Y, especially for a culture in which conversation is deteriorating and everybody is texting.

“We never talk anymore,” the complaint goes. MIT social studies professor Sherry Turkle has even written a book about it, alarmingly titled, “Reclaiming Conversation.”

Meanwhile, recognizing that the highly coveted millennial market is busy texting away, companies are tripping over themselves to adopt technologies that will reach them.

Businesses routinely tout the brilliance of technologies that eliminate the need for actual conversation. “No more meetings!” has become a recruiting tool, because, after all, meetings are wastes of time that produce no measurable benefit. Collaboration tools are more effective.

Learn the dos and don’ts of reaching millennial employees in this free guide.

They are also turning us (as critics like Turkle warn) into isolated creatures who don’t know how to communicate with others unless that communication is mediated by technology.

If all this sounds familiar, that’s because we’ve heard it before. When computers first became popular with consumers—especially those using services like the WELL, CompuServe and America Online—experts lined up to proclaim the dangers of cloistering oneself in one’s parents’ basement, with only the glow of the monitor to keep one company.

It was ridiculous then. I remember attending WELL Office Parties in Sausalito, a collection of socially awkward geeks who couldn’t wait to get together with other socially awkward geeks they had met online.

And it’s ridiculous now, even among the millennials who are supposed to be the biggest of the text-instead-of-talk troublemakers. (Robert Scoble’s sold-out 50th birthday party in Napa this past January reminded me a lot of those WELL Office Parties.)

A new study from Weber Shandwick and the Institute for Public Relations found that millennnials value in-person interactions at work and after hours even more than Baby Boomers and Gen Xers.

In a press release about the study results, Leslie Gaines-Ross, Weber Shandwick’s chief reputation strategist, wrote:

Hanging out with colleagues after work might have been a nice way to kick back for a Gen Xer, but for millennials it’s a critical component of building their “rep” or “brand” at work and they take it seriously. Our research shows that more than any other generation, millennials believe that in addition to doing a good job, it’s important to connect with colleagues to build their careers and create lasting impressions.

What’s more, 70 percent of adult workers (including millennials) who use social media say their reputation at work is more important than their reputation in social media channels. As for millennials themselves, one out of five thinks they’re equally important.

The generation currently in school also is being accused of forsaking conversation. It’s another myth. Yes, they use WhatsApp and WeChat and other messaging tools (and despite the insistence otherwise, they’re using Facebook). Mainly, though, they use these tools to stay connected with the close circle of friends they have established in school, friendships that started face to face.

The implications of this preference for in-person encounters are huge for businesses and their internal communicators and marketers who have been investing most of their resources in digital communication. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be investing in digital—having a sound digital strategy is not optional—but forsaking face-to-face communication is a terrible mistake.

Consider meetings. It’s true that not much gets done that moves projects forward, but is connecting with team members a waste of time? Clearly not, when those connections are viewed as so valuable.

As I wrote in my 2004 book, “Corporate Conversations“:

Steve Jobs…used to have coffee and donuts set up in the hallways on a given day. His goal was to lure employees out of their offices so that they would talk to one another.

Anything that gets employees talking to one another is worthwhile, especially given the value that millennials—who account for the largest share of the employee population—put on in-person encounters. Executive breakfasts, town hall meetings, Halloween costume contests—they all offer big payoffs that may be hard to quantify on a profit-and-loss statement.

(When I worked at Allergan, a member of my staff wanted to hold an ugly tie contest. I was reluctant, since it served no business value. I gave in, though, and was totally flabbergasted by how many people participated, how many turned out to look at the ties submitted, all laid out on long tables. Even senior leadership was captivated by the contest. And all those people were talking to each other, building relationships and building their own reputations. I needed to listen to Marianne more often.)

The same goes for customers. Disney Parks holds in-person events for its most influential bloggers. Dell flies its biggest critics in for face-to-face conversations. Ford Motor Co. got mommy bloggers together for an event. Far from preferring the privacy of a living room or office, people crave in-person interaction.

There is no discounting the importance of digital communication and social media. These have a routine part of our lives. Still, they supplement face-to-face communication; they do not replace it. Providing opportunities for real-life engagement will solidify relationships and increase the level of engagement among employees.

Remember, human beings are hard wired for face-to-face communication. We should never drop it from our communication repertoire, no matter how many great digital communication technologies come our way.

A version of this article first appeared on Shel Holtz’s blog.

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