Overwhelming tech: How lockdown highlighted the generational differences in the office

Do you use Microsoft Office and, if so, do you find it easy to work with? Maybe you’ve been using Word, Excel and PowerPoint for so long that you consider it pretty much second nature.

If that sounds like you, you’re certainly not alone. We recently quizzed over 350 business leaders and employees on the tech they use at work, and the entirely predictable result was that a huge majority (86%) of respondents said they are comfortable using Microsoft Office.

Given that Office has just celebrated its 30th birthday, that’s hardly a surprise. Many of us have spent our entire working lives in front of one version of the software or another.

At this point you might be wondering why we spent time and effort ‘discovering’ something quite so obvious. But we didn’t leave it there. We dug deeper, and not just into Office. We asked about people’s experience of technology more generally and matched it to their age. And what we found is that lockdown has magnified a significant digital divide in many workplaces that has the potential to slow progress towards a more tech-led future.

Communicating at Work

An Office romance?

Certainly, the results around Office use are telling. Most people are fine with it, but 14% aren’t comfortable analysing an Excel page, creating a PowerPoint slide or even writing with Word. And when we dig deeper, our generational findings point to an even more complex picture.

Millennials (born between 1981 and 1995) enjoy a true Office romance, with 57% comfortable with the software and a quarter considering themselves dab hands with it. At the other end of the spectrum, 40% of Baby Boomers (1946 – 1960) said they would only use Office if they really had to, and 45% of Traditionalists (born pre-1946) aren’t even comfortable using a computer, so a PowerPoint presentation is presumably out of the question.

Again, some of this sounds a bit obvious. The older you are, the less technologically adept you’re likely to be (though there are obviously many individual exceptions to that rule). But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an issue.

Thanks to increased longevity and longer working lives, it’s not unusual to find up to five generations in the same workplace. A widening gap in technological proficiency has consequences for your organisation’s effectiveness, especially as we all adjust to a working model involving more dispersed teams and remote working.


Video stars

We’ll look at the effect all this might have on home working in another blog, but suffice to say for now that the digital divide in your own office could muddy the path to new post-pandemic working practices. Perhaps nothing demonstrates that more clearly than our respondents’ attitudes to video calling.

We all rushed to adopt Zoom and Teams during lockdown, and overall 62% of respondents said they will continue to use video calls even after the pandemic ends. But 32% of Generation X (1961 – 1980) aren’t keen, and even 48% of our youngest group, Generation Z (1995 – ) would only commit to using video calling ‘occasionally’ post-COVID.

It’s certainly possible to overstate the importance of these findings. Most workers will happily use video calling at least some of the time. But there’s a significant minority who aren’t bowled over by it, and our quiz results also suggest why that might be.

Technology In Use

Face time (not FaceTime)

The simple truth is, we like meeting up. We like to chat over a coffee, talk over tea, or banter over beer. That’s true at work too (maybe not the beer), with 58% of quiz respondents preferring face-to-face communications to any other option.

That’s a significant finding when you consider the current focus on home working, and the widespread assumption that some form of remote work will remain in place long after lockdown . And it’s not just Traditionalists and Baby Boomers shunning digital communications. Nearly three quarters (73%) of Generation Z prefer face-to-face too. In fact, only among Millennials was there anything but a clear majority in favour of talking in person.

That wasn’t the only finding that highlighted the continued appeal of more, well, analogue communications solutions, at least in certain circumstances. Most respondents of every generation (and 72% overall), prefer to take notes with pen and paper rather than using note taking apps, recording software or anything else.

A tech tsunami

What should we make of all this? Well, we shouldn’t panic. The majority of your workers are almost certainly comfortable with computers and the common software we all use to communicate and collaborate. Of those that aren’t, some may have job roles that require only the occasional use of digital technology anyway.

But maybe it should give us pause for thought before we rush headlong into a new technology-led future. Perhaps our most important finding was that 25% of respondents felt regularly overwhelmed by the amount of technology they were required to use. Even among Millennials and Generation Z, a small but significant minority admitted to feeling this way.

That’s important, because many businesses will be even more reliant on digital tools and virtual communications in a post-pandemic world. There are huge benefits in that, and nobody is suggesting for a second that we try and hold back the technological tide. That would be futile anyway. But it simply reminds us that, as we take the next step on our digital journey, we need to make sure all our employees come along too.