Why Are Digital Natives Finding Online Work So Unnatural?

By: Michael McQueen

Working from home has certainly been far from bliss for many of us. Attempting to do our office work within the clutter and distraction of home, navigating complex online modes of engagement and doing so within the stress of such an uncertain time has made this new work form challenging.

However, for the generation we thought would do best with it, given their demand for flexible working hours, their technological competence and their love for independence, working in isolation has proved even more difficult.

Interestingly, more than any other generation Gen Z and Millennials are reporting feeling disconnected from their work and teams and hindered in their productivity. For a generation of digital natives who depend on the virtual world for relational connection and work productivity, this statistic is surprising. It is especially surprising when you compare responses from Millennials to those of Gen X and Baby Boomers.

Half of Gen Z and Millennials are finding communicating with colleagues challenging, compared to approximately 35% of Gen X and Baby Boomers. More younger workers than older report finding video meetings and conference calls to be a hindrance to their productivity and the management of teams and projects to be challenging. [1]

What we know about Millennials is that at their core as a workforce they are drawn to transience and flexibility. During any given year, one in four Millennials will leave their current employer and role to join a new organisation or do something different. 88 per cent of Millennials expressed a strong desire to have some control over start and finish times and 75 per cent would like to have greater scope to work from home or other locations where they feel most productive. In contrast, only 43 per cent of organisations allow the sort of work-location flexibility Millennials are looking for. [2]

Knowing this, it would seem young workers have attained exactly the circumstances they once hoped for. So why is a generation that is so drawn to transience and flexibility struggling the most with working from home?

Having moved among many businesses in recent weeks, I have found that these statistics ring true. When presenting them to various workers, nods of agreement were clear among most young people, while older generations tended to be somewhat surprised at the struggles of their younger counterparts.

In conversations with these younger workers, I found that these struggles were related to three core reasons.

1. Not all technologies are created equal

On a very practical level, the video technology and conference calls being used by most organisations are not young workers’ primary preference for connection and communication. For many young workers, video conferencing is quite literally too ‘in your face’.

While for many older workers who are comfortable with frequent phone calls and emails it may seem like connection is being well maintained by organisations, for young workers these are not commonly used modes of communication. Direct messaging and social media are by far the top preferences for connection between young people so in a world of conference calls and emails, connection can feel hard to come by.

2. Culture is caught and not taught

For a young worker who is still learning the ropes of an organisation and of their role and place within it, being separated from its physical environment and from the everyday humdrum of an office space can make things difficult.

One of the key parts of navigating a new job or role is learning and assimilating into the culture of the organisation. Hearing the office banter, the war stories and the wins that weave themselves into everyday conversation is one of the key ways of understanding the values, goals and nature of the business. It’s how a young worker can gauge their progress, understand their expectations and feel a part of the company.

Being handed a 5-point list of core values or being given a lecture on a Zoom call about a business’s mission simply cannot compare to water cooler chats and passing conversations that naturally occur within an office and to the atmosphere that is created within a physical space.

Culture is caught and understood by immersion, and for a young worker, understanding culture is core to progressing in a role.

3. There’s no affirmation in isolation

Millennials are often painted out to be constant cravers of attention and affirmation, reaching for it almost as much as they reach for their phone. In many cases, elements of this stereotype are true: Millennials generally do need much more affirmation than their older counterparts if they are to remain motivated and connected to their work.

This attribute has not made work in isolation an easy challenge to endure. The incidental affirmation that Millennials may have once depended on is not as easily found from a home office or bedroom desk.

However, this need for affirmation is not as superficial as it may seem. For younger workers in the early stages of their careers, everyday feedback and dialogue is essential. Informal coaching and advice from older colleagues, feedback from bosses and fellow workers who can help to give direction is integral to growing within a role. As well as this, the best ideas are often born across a lunch table or in a passing chat with a colleague.

When it comes to working online, the minor questions and perspectives that assist a young workers development and confidence in a role simply seem out of place – to unmute on Zoom and interrupt the flow of a meeting for a minor query can feel like too much of a disruption.

Although it may seem odd that in the most technological season of our digital age to date, young people feel more disconnected from their jobs than older generations, it becomes understandable when examining these three reasons. Ultimately, it is less to do with age, attributes or technological proficiency, and more to do with a lack of experience within a company – experience that can only be gained by physically being within the space of an organisation.

An interesting point revealed by these three ideas that leaders would do well to reflect on is the power of incidental conversations in encouraging worker engagement and corporate culture. When we return to our regular office spaces, what could you do to encourage dialogue between workers for the benefit of idea generation, culture and engagement?

Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.

About the Author: Michael is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *