10 August 2020
The world of work was slowly but steadily transitioning from bricks and mortar to being dominated by online technologies, then Covid-19 came along without warning, requiring both producers and consumers to abruptly digitise their practices. I argue that younger workers are a not-so-secret weapon for smoothing this transition and gaining a competitive edge. But they must be mobilised properly.
How can this be done? To answer that, we must first address how digital natives are different from previous generations, and go beyond the very reductionist view that they are "good with computers" or they can intuitively operate Zoom without any instructions. For those born into a digital world, digital technology is not an external appendage harnessed to achieve various goals, but instead it has shaped who they are at a very fundamental level.
I find the term Social Natives to be more pertinent in discussing this generation. It allows us to move away from knowing them as those who can use a touchpad without instruction and are fluent in emojis, to instead view them as people who have grown up in an instant-communication, relatively boundary free social world.
So how are Social Natives different from non-natives, and how do we get the most from them?
Individualism and Personal Evaluation
First, they are more individualistic and therefore have a greater need for acknowledgement of their success than prior generations. This craving for quick personal feedback comes from years of posting for 'likes' through technologies such as Facebook and Instagram, which for better or worse has bred an 'evaluation generation'. For Social Natives therefore it is not enough to say the team did well; they want to know they personally succeeded. To increase workplace contentment and reduce employee turnover of a generation that is known to change jobs at the drop of a hat, employers should endeavour to build in frequent personal evaluation sessions for these workers.
Higher Expectations and Wellbeing Challenges
Second, whereas older generations would have been content with a job that provided a good standard of living, digital natives set the bar much higher. It's fuelled partly by popular parenting and education strategies used when they were growing up, based around telling children they could be whatever they wanted to be.
This generation is not satisfied unless their job is well-paid, extremely fulfilling, and often also involves international travel and in some way saves the world. This fire of high expectations is constantly fanned by the hands of Facebook and Instagram. Every day, natives see beautifully curated images and stories from their peers, who appear to have reached those high expectations.
This is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it makes the workplace more competitive with Social Natives working longer and harder to chase their ideal lives. On the other, these expectations are often unrealistic and chasing such goals is most likely to end in failure, especially now as times are tough and many constraints are in place. This is rubbed in further when they see someone post: "So excited to move in to the house I bought in San Francisco and start my new job in Google's pro-environment team."
Consequently, this has led to a generation which has been plagued by mental health issues. Employers need to embrace the motivation and tenacity of Social Natives but also be mindful of the pressure they put themselves under and be ready with initiatives to raise wellbeing, such as mindfulness classes or gym membership.
Third, Social Natives are innovation sponges. Workers used to be exposed to innovations at particular times or places, such as a local business lunch, or by reading industry magazines or attending international conferences. Today, they follow and like online content related to their jobs. They are relentlessly shown innovations through their social media channels.
Knowledge transfer is no longer bound by traditional barriers such as time and geography. Employers should view time spent on social media as not time wasted but in certain ways encourage it. For example, they could consider a LinkedIn hour, where employees search for innovations in their industry.
Fourth, computer-mediated communication is their modus operandi; their thumbs glide mobile keyboards as eloquently as they can speak, and they fully understand the etiquette of online speech. As customer service moves even quicker to instant messaging rather than in person/by phone, and agile workforces further integrate group chat technologies such as Slack, employers must not fight the casual language and emoji used by Social Natives.
This informal approach to communication is what is generally expected in technological exchanges if you want to build relationships. Research has shown, for example, that smiley emojis significantly improve customer service interactions. Therefore, employers should fight the urge to be critical about the way Social Natives communicate online, and encourage it.
Embrace Generational Idiosyncracies
Taken together, it's a heady mix. Social Natives are motivated to succeed, they want to make a positive difference to society, and they embrace new ideas. Their impact on the workplace is potentially huge, especially now. Innate fluency in technology and the confidence to innovate in this realm are essential now as businesses adapt. Social Natives provide this, but to truly harness their powers, their generational idiosyncracies must be recognised and embraced by employers.
This new generation will play a crucial role in this turbulent time, which needs an injection of rapid innovation powered by greater knowledge, fluency with technology, and raw ambition. The need for constant positive feedback and the reaching for often unreachable goals will call into question the stability of the workforce over this period of fast change. The challenge for employers will be to ensure initiatives that encourage flexibility and that improve resilience are built-in for our Social Native era.
Ben Marder is Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Edinburgh Business School