Digital Natives: Your Company Will Soon Be Run By People Who Grew Up Online

Workplace evolutions are inevitable. As each new generation of workers enters the workforce, they bring their own knowledge, skills and expectations that often vary greatly from the previous generation’s. Businesses are then forced to adapt to meet those needs to stay relevant and competitive.

Digital natives — people who grew up without ever knowing a time before the internet — are already having a significant impact on business and are precipitating a shift in work culture and norms, strategists Ira Kaufman, Ph.D, and Chris Horton writes. 

As companies bring on these younger workers (who roughly correspond to the late millennial generation and subsequent Generation Z), they must create “work environments that both support their unique needs and allow process and culture to adapt easily to new and emerging technologies,” says Natalie Engels, principal at global design firm Gensler. 

To accomplish this, companies must understand the workplace expectations of digital natives.

What Digital Natives Expect From Their Workplaces

The term “digital native” is important because it captures younger workers’ very familiar relationships with technology. While companies in the 2000s and 2010s wrestled with digital transformation, digital natives were navigating childhood and adolescence with the help of their smartphones.

They’re uniquely poised to inherit the tech-driven organizations that older generations spent a career building.

“Digital natives are helping to create a new business culture, with their technological skills and attitudes possibly making workplaces more efficient and productive,” says Keith Krach, former chairman of the board, CEO and President of DocuSign. 

Below are three characteristics you can expect of the business world these employees will help build.

Transparent, Face-to-Face Collaboration

Ironic, right? The people who grew up online prefer in-person meetings?

There’s a good reason for this: Digital natives grew up watching adults get routinely duped by misinformation published online. They are naturally suspicious. The only way to cut through such profound suspicion is to speak plainly, candidly and in-person.

Data backs this up. A poll of digital natives by Ryan Jenkins, generations consultant and Inc. columnist, shows nearly three-quarters of this cohort prefer in-person communication at work.

Two Business Colleagues at a Boardroom Table Having Informal Discussions; representing Digital Natives in the workplace

Flexible Work Environments That Prioritize Focus and Autonomy

Digital natives grew up using tech in largely solitary ways: Watching YouTube, texting friends from their rooms.

Those habits carry over into the working environment. “They don’t like the idea of sitting in a glass room and collaborating all day,” says Dr. Corey Seemiller, a professor at Wright State University. “They want independent time to work on projects.”

It’s important to note that Dr. Seemiller is talking specifically about Generation Z, a cohort she has studied intensely and written four books on. Contrast Dr. Seemiller’s description with the open, collaborative environments driven by millennial and Gen X tastes.

As soon as digital natives understand what work is expected of them, they tend to prefer to be left alone to get that work done. And they want the option to work anytime, anywhere depending on when they are most productive. For companies, that means offering remote work opportunities outside the constraints of time and space. Digital natives aren’t going to stick to a 9-to-5 schedule, nor will they relish the idea of reporting to the same desk everyday. They grew up on mobile devices and believe that the technology allows for the flexibility for them to work when and how they are most productive.  

A Tech-Savvy Workplace

David Stillman, author of “Gen Z at Work” says 91 percent of digital natives claim that technological sophistication is a determining factor when deciding to work for a company.

This will invert a lot of workplace dynamics, Stillman says, because many organizations tend to impose tech adoption from the top down. “As the workplace continues to figure out how best to incorporate technology, this generation will lead the way. This will not feel natural, as usually it is the older generations to lead the way. However, this is the first time we have the youngest generation as an authority figure on something really important.”

People Meeting; Digital Natives concept

Work With Digital Natives to Implement Digital Transformations

All the way back in 2012, Dr. Marie Puybaraud, global head of corporate research at JLL Corporate Solutions, was arguing that digital natives would drive digital transformations at companies.

Companies that embrace this upward nudge for new iterations of digital transformation will reap the benefits of having more tech-savvy team members across all generations. Enabling this, however, isn’t merely an initiative or a project. “It’s a transformation that has to be backed by a corresponding change in working practices and culture,” says Ursula Morgenstern, CEO of Atos Germany.

What happens, then, is a virtuous cycle: Digital natives take the reins at companies that have already invested more than a decade in digital transformations. Their stewardship of the technology will ensure that their companies are always able to keep pace with change because digital transformation itself is a never-ending process, as Wunderman Global CTO Stephan Pretorius notes. 

That’s where there is the greatest potential for a symbiotic relationship between digital natives and forward-thinking employers. 

Employ Data-Driven Hiring Technology to Attract Digital Natives

Because of the digital presence of this generation, recruiting has become much more than simply looking at a resume. Companies can use hiring tools to create job postings across a variety of sources. Hiring technology gives companies the ability to search job boards, social media profiles, resumes and career blogs to find top talent. 

Further, AI-backed hiring tools let companies showcase their employer brands. This is important when recruiting digital natives because they do their homework and learn everything they can about potential employers. A consistent, authentic presentation of company culture gives employers a competitive advantage when recruiting digital natives. And it’s an edge that companies are going to need as they compete for talent. 

As more digital natives enter the workforce, they are going to push companies to embrace new definitions of work. To create an environment appealing to digital natives, leaders must openly embrace this tech-savvy generation and reshape the workplace to meet their expectations. There may be a learning curve, but organizations must ultimately find ways to accommodate this next generation of workers.

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