Gen Z’s having a harder time around the water cooler, and their conversation skills aren’t to blame. For younger employees who came up in the time of Zoom school and virtual work settings, working remotely has had them missing out on learning some norms in the workplace—and now returning to the office has shown that they’re struggling with in-person communication skills.
Managers are noticing the difference, too. In the UK, for example, firms like Deloitte and PwC are developing all-new training programs for their youngest recruits to strengthen their conversational chops.
But some of those skills have little to do with the spoken word, says Dustin York, an associate professor of communications at Maryville University. Younger workers also need help with nonverbal cues—the kind that help you keep eye contact, express through gestures, and read a room.
“Being able to build trust with colleagues and with customers, to build credibility and empathy,” he says, “comes down to nonverbals.”
When you’ve come up entirely in virtual spaces, York says, you don’t learn the indicators that help you understand people (or the room) in the same way as you would in person. But with just a bit of guidance, becoming a better nonverbal communicator is a skill that can be picked up—and quickly. In his experience running communication workshops, York says, practicing the skill just 5 to 7 times can build an easy habit—and close the communication gap. Younger workers just need that routine practice. “We can workshop around showing up naturally in person,” he says.
Why Zoom makes communication cues so hard to learn
“Anxiety is through the roof on Zoom meetings, especially for a lot of early professionals,” York says. The reason, he says, is partly because virtual meetings render a lot of our nonverbal cues nonexistent. For one, when everyone’s cropped to their head and shoulders, you can’t see gestures or body language. Pixelation and lag obscure facial expressions. Screens impede a direct gaze. We just can’t read the room—and if virtual meetings are all we know, we never learn to.
There are the obvious audio snafus, too. Sound can cut in and out when two people try to speak at once, or the software prioritizes one speaker over another. The “raise hand” function—and the corresponding ping it sends across screens—can feel like a loud interruption. A lot of people use muting and unmuting themselves, York says, as a more subtle visual indicator that they’re trying to speak, which can go unnoticed.
And we often overlook another big reason virtual meetings have us missing out on communication cues: Physical space is a communicator, too. In a regular conference room, where and how we sit can nod to the roles we play, like how the person in charge may sit at the head of the table or stand at the front of the room. But with rectangles arranged on a screen, we lose those dynamics.
The three key communication skills younger workers can pick up
In his workshops, York hones in on three core communication skills we can be more intentional in teaching—and he says these nonverbal cues can be explained or practiced beyond group facilitation, too.
Crack the eye contact. “One [tough transition] that comes up quite often is eye contact, simply because you’ve been Zooming for the last three years,” York says. “There’s no genuine eye contact happening on Zoom, or Google Meets, or any one of them.” But to communicate we’re listening, he says, we need to maintain about 90% eye contact in person.
In one activity he facilitates, York instructs participants to try learning a person’s eye color while in conversation. (No need to tell them, he adds, that you’re focused on that hazel shade.) Stepping into that intent, he adds, gets participants over any discomfort about not breaking their gaze—and helps them learn the skill so it becomes second nature.
Show some hands. We often sit too close to the screen in virtual meetings, York says, and prioritize our head and shoulders. Once in the office, younger employees aren’t as used to communicating with the rest of their bodies. “[At the start of my] workshops, I say, ‘You know, 90% of you have already failed as far as hands,’” York says. “You have to get your hands on top of the table.”
Gestures count: Psychologically, people trust you more when they can see your palms, whether they wave people in or impart a TED-esque gravitas. So intentionally bringing our hands into view, York adds, can help build confidence and rapport.
Lean into lingering. In virtual meets, we’re used to logging on at a scheduled start time; as we say goodbye, we rush to the red button. What younger workers lose out on learning from them, York adds, is the value of sticking around a little longer.
“Gen Z is just not comfortable there. They want to leave immediately,” York says. “But the true power is staying back a little later and talking with the boss for five minutes. That’s how careers get accelerated.” That’s why he encourages hang-back time: Intentionally staying behind to be with a boss or colleague—where both verbal and nonverbal skills can be put to use building relationships.
How managers can help Gen Z build their communication skills
Younger employees don’t have to go it alone. Managers can also step in to support their soft skills in the same way they’d onboard them through any other new project or coach them through a skill.
Leave buffers between meets. York advises managers to not schedule back-to-back meetings; instead, breaks in between give younger teammates the chance to have meaningful contact. “Make sure you have 15 minutes after a meeting so [everyone] can have face time afterwards,” he says.
Model hanging back. With that additional time in place, York adds, managers can make sure younger reports are using it to connect. They can do it in one of two ways: Before the meeting, managers can tell a young teammate to stay behind and talk to someone they don’t know well. Alternatively, the manager can model the behavior by starting a casual conversation and drawing their report in.
Try a ride-along. In York’s own work, he’ll bring students to workshops and task them with observing how people communicate with each other. “If you’re a manager, bring in that new person and say, ‘I want you to read the room,’” he says. “‘Let’s see how people are moving. I want you to take notes.’”
Ultimately, these essential communication skills are easily teachable to younger members of a team—they just require intention. “Think about how you can put them in [the right] situations to help them grow,” York says. “Ask yourself, ‘How can I put someone in the position to fail safely?’”
This story has been updated.