These days to see into the future, you don’t need a crystal ball. You only need to give a toddler a printed magazine and watch what happens: How he moves his fingers over the pages in the same manner that you’d zoom on a mobile device. Same with TV programs: If a three-year-old wants to switch the channel, she will run up to the TV screen and make a swiping movement exactly like the one you use to scroll through the different apps on your tablet.


A fine line between trend and buzzword

An office with digital natives may look less traditional

Sounds like science fiction? You are only partly right. Indeed, in her Pulitzer Prize winning novel “A Visit from the Goon Squad”, Jennifer Egan describes a future where toddlers are called “pointers” due to the characteristic finger movement they use to tap their electronic devices.  However, all of the scenes above are descriptions from real nurseries, reported (and occasionally put on YouTube) by flabberghasted parents. You’re an employer who is planning to stick around for the next 20 years or so? Then please meet: your future employees.

As the first generation who has basically grown up on the world wide web has now started to enter the labour market, the talk has turned to how to understand the behavior of these so called “Digital Natives”. To some it is a matter of great interest, to others it’s just a new buzzword. The truth may just be somewhere in the middle. Therefore, we have prepared an overview of what employers should know about the subject.    


Who are the Digital Natives?

Digital natives are used to work with technology

The first problem with discussing Digital Natives is that everyone has a different definition of the timeframe for this generation. The term goes back to the US author Marc Prensky who coined it in 2001, but the discourse spirals from there - with the internet just being the smallest common denominator. The easiest way is to place them somewhere in between the Generation Y and the Millennials. Having been born in the mid 90’s they literally cannot remember a time without the internet as the standard communication medium.

While the rapid innovation in communication technology in a relatively short time span makes it hard to define the one typical Digital Native, there are still some common traits that are shaping their behavior in the workplace - from the way they use media to the type of feedback they request.


What’s so special about Digital Natives?

Digital natives will ask for feedback

‘So what?’, you may find yourself wondering, ‘Every generation is different from the next.’ That is, of course, true. The way human behavior is shaped depends on many factors, not simply the year you were born in. There are well-documented instances of Roman and Greek writers complaining about an egocentric, spoiled and lazy new generation - and that was roughly 2000 years ago, so the new media could hardly be to blame.

In the words of the Danish researcher Søren Schultz Hansen, what is so different about the Digital Natives is that they have become Cyborgs: men and (media)-machines have been morphed together, with the most important portable electronic device - the smartphone - as a natural extension of one’s own body and existence. And in his view, these cyborg employees demand a new leadership style: an open, ever-present but not oppressive, real-time but not time-focused type of management. Sounds demanding? It may be, but at the same time it opens the floor to many great opportunities in leadership, feedback culture and customer-orientation that your company can profit from.          

What do you need to know about Digital Natives?


They want to stay in touch with the boss  

To bust one myth right from the start: “Digital Natives are not a bunch of self-centered and egoistic primadonnas”, writes Hansen. They are simply not alone. They are used to always having someone around, if not physically, then at least virtually. This beckons new ways in which communication must be structured. The most important consequence of this generational shift is the synchronization of feedback to everyday tasks. Praise or criticism that is confined to a bi-annual feedback session and a “thank you”-speech at the office’s Christmas party  does not cut it anymore. A new generation of employees demands feedback that is concrete, task-related and at a constant stream.

They blend the borders of public and private   

To Digital Natives, says Hansen, “all media are social media”. Hence, the border that used to separate an employee’s work life from his private life is becoming more blurry through the new ways of communication. To employers it also means that the lines of internal and external communication are washed out: what is said at formal or informal employee gatherings will, more often than not, find its way into the social networks. While many leaders still find this a daunting prospect, finding a way to integrate social media into management practices can prove to be more than just a chore: redesigning your intranet to match the social networks may actually spark new employee-connections within your company and help along teamwork.


They are looking (and asking!) for meaning

The overall assessment is that Digital Natives are looking for meaning and innovation in their work and their leaders. That said, there is a significant amount of surveys that suggests that expectations about what constitutes a great place to work are actually quite stable across generations, which begs the question if Digital Natives are really all that different from other employees or if they are just young. So the operating difference may not be that the new employee generation wants outrageously different things than the previous one, just that they have less trouble saying what they want. Retailers are already lamenting the fading brand loyalty in the internet age and the same goes for employer brands that do not live up to expectations.    

They need to see the advantages of specialization

For many Digital Natives, a high degree of specialization is an inherent risk, which makes sense in their world where technology changes so fast that what is hot one minute will be obsolete in the next. It is up to the employers to signal opportunities for personal development and specialization that will open up your employees to new and different tasks instead of confining them to a niche.

Turn the digital natives into digital citizens

The web has made the world a seemingly borderless place where work can be done anywhere at anytime. What this brave new world is still lacking for the most part, is a code of conduct. In the US teachers have been criticising the educative take on the digital revolution: kids are being taught how to use every new nifty gadget, but nothing about how to become “digital citizens”. That is, how to wield this newly found openness responsibly. As an employer that means that you need to be very clear about what behavior online or offline is acceptable and what your take on confidentiality is - and what constitutes a breach of your values is likely to be dismissed by the young generation. However, try to avoid the top-down-approach when establishing new rules. Instead, have your employees reflect on their own behavior on the web and come up with suggestions for a code of conduct. That will show what is important to your workforce.

Don’t let them forget the physical world

There is no black and white answer as to how to split work between the physical world and the virtual world. The younger generation may have become cyborgs but they still have a physical presence - and most of them actually want to interact in both worlds, even though it may not seem like it from the amount of selfies floating around in social networks. Therefore, setting time aside for face-to-face-interaction remains important, even as schedules become less rigidly tied to the time clock.  

As it transpires, there are many new things to be learned on both sides of the employment contract. Hiring Digital Natives opens up the company to the digitalization and presents an opportunity to re-think old structures to fit them to a new era - an era of flatter hierarchies, timely feedback and a customer-centric orientation. While it is still too soon to tell how the next generation of employees will shape their working life, there are already a couple of hints. All of those point towards a more open and less rigid two-way-communication - and towards to new tools managers can use to make it happen.