The business environment today is indeed a very diverse place. There are legal considerations required for sex, race, religion, background and external influences that all come into play when holding down effective professional relationships in the workplace, but one thing is for sure- everyone now has to use a computer as part of their daily routine, whether by force, choice or vocation, and the digital native (Generation Y) is now playing an increasingly significant part in the workforce.
The different age groups present in the workplace potentially highlight the cultural change required to adapt into this technological way of working and communication. The Baby Boomers are now starting to retire, and increasingly senior positions are being filled by Generation X, and in some cases, digital native (Generation Y) workers.
The intergenerational, educational, and skills- based differences are presenting themselves frequently, and combined with cultural differences, understanding of historical events, different family and peer values, sharing of information and attributable behaviours in the workplace are now delivering a different working model. This is requiring both a cultural and professional practice change.
Currently, little is known about the digital native’s working practices, and how personal and professional motivation can shape a company’s direction. Managing the generational differences in today’s diverse and ever changing business environment, it is imperative for the areas of staff retention and engagement that companies and organisations successfully communicate across these boundaries. Full, clear and reciprocal understanding by all interested parties is a key factor for this successful transition.
Working with Digital Natives
So how does a manager or leader effectively manage, engage, retain, and communicate with digital native workers? What makes the digital native different at work? How will those just embarking on their careers work and play with older staff? What are the technology and culture shifts occurring in the workplace? How do you manage these changes?
From personal experience, digital native workers tend to believe in a ‘work hard-play hard’ type of approach to life. The digital native does not see the need to be attached to a desk for eight hours a day if they can get their work completed in half that time. Digital natives want something beyond an all-consuming career. Their time is their most precious commodity. They want a true work/life balance. They believe they can raise their children, spend time with family and friends, engage with social networks, and still meet challenges and achieve professional goals at work, whilst also achieving personal goals at home. If work can be done at home, or a conference call can be had while at a football game with their children, or business be carried out on a blackberry in the back of a taxi, they expect that the employer find this practice acceptable, and support them with the tools and technology to successfully carry out their work. A digital native may also find it hard understanding that other workers from an older generation (Generation Y or before) cannot grasp this idea or method of operating.
The technology and culture shifts that are occurring, simply put the use of new and up and coming forms of technology as a necessity to encourage experimentation. Accept the fact that failure is a possibility.
Image plays an important role here, especially when demonstrating social capital amongst peers- think of a peacock displaying it’s tail- the biggest brightest colour wins the girl. Replace girl with contract, and I am sure you see the analogy clearly.
The digital native is perfectly familiar, experienced, and comfortable with using technology; some were even born with it at their fingertips. They are not scared of new technological advances and adapt fast to new innovations. To attract, retain and engage a digital native, management should not shy away from new technologies that enable open file sharing, telecommunication or virtual work environments, or that help contribute to the aforementioned work/life balance. Utilise video teleconferencing, webinars, laptops and smartphones with wireless access, 3G/ 4G technology and promote an open information sharing culture within the workplace. Technology can be successfully used to encourage group and project based work. Use technology to build in collaboration from the very start of the project, create informal team building exercises driven by technology use, and as leverage for positive public relations for your organisation. Celebrate the fact that technology and an open culture is an important and integral part of your business practice.
Regarding culture- open and honest communication and a culture of performance rewards is an absolute necessity. The digital native believes that communication is key in all directions, up, down, and lateral. Take this opportunity to lead from the front, yet be seen to be on a level field of engagement.
To get the most out of the digital native at work, create an environment where they are encouraged and rewarded for speaking up regarding ideas and concerns, regardless of their status, length of service or level in the organisation.
Add a structured coaching or mentoring program into your organisation, and offer praise at every opportunity that positive progress made presents itself. Build in weekly, monthly or quarterly development check-ins and create an open space for information sharing and discussion. This is nothing new- for many years businesses have used the appraisal method- simply apply a new layer of open communication to this.
Open communication often leads to innovation, increased trust, and engagement. The digital native is likely to have a low tolerance for political bureaucracy and is likely not to buy into the “top-down” or “chain of command” approach. They believe results, not years of service or level in the organisation, drive team success, and will probably demonstrate best practice when these approaches are encouraged, and rewarded. However, this cultural change could be alien to the older workers- you have been warned (!)
Consider changing the structure of your organisation to a more flat model with less hierarchy and more rewards based on merit and performance, not tenure and title.
These technological and cultural shifts are not going away any time soon as digital natives are a growing part of the workforce, for companies and organisations to attract and retain digital native talent they must adopt a more flexible approach.