Device connectivity is changing the face of changing interpersonal communications and can cause unforeseen conflicts among remote and in-house workers, says Dr. Julie Albright, a regular speaker at DCD conferences on the topic of sustainable infrastructure.
Based on research for her upcoming book on the impact of digital natives on society and the workforce, the sociologist specializing in digital culture put the spotlight on the changing values and behaviors of a new generation of workers who grew up as “digital natives.”
Calling for a digital native
While the term digital native is not new, Albright differentiates between what she terms “digital immigrants” as opposed to genuine digital natives. While the former can be said to have acquired proficiency with the Internet later in life, a new generation is now growing up in a world where mobility has always been a given, whether in the form of mobile-enabled tablets, smartphones, or other connected devices.
“These [connected devices] are now being introduced at infancy. That is changing behaviors, changing values, because of this digital connectivity that young digital natives grew up with. We will only see the impact of introducing it [so early] over time,” she said.
One result of the pervasive and intensive exposure is behavior that has become “increasingly optimized” for digital devices. Albright pointed to how messaging apps and social media are already reshaping behaviors in terms of how we present themselves online to give the biggest and best impressions to friends and followers.
Ironically, some of the top executives of tech firms send their children to private schools where the use of digital devices is kept to a minimum, says Albright. On the other hand, children in lower-incoming families are now exposed to more screen time than ever. She cautioned that this could ultimately culminate in a new kind of digital divide in terms of the amount of screen time that children are allowed.
An untethered people
As these device-savvy digital natives enter the workforce, many not only want to work remotely, but feel that they have a right to do so. However, this can cause problems with establishing team cohesion of mixed teams of in-house and remote workers: “People working together create tighter bonds, and people who are not there can be left out.”
It can also be harder to determine productivity with remote workers. While those working remotely may think that they are more productive, actual productivity will vary with individuals. Communication will certainly be harder, given the higher propensity for curt or even rude conversations online compared to face to face conversations.
“It is causing some new conflicts or new challenges for managers. For one hand, they want employees to be happy. If young digital natives can’t work remotely or more flexibly, they may look for another work place that allows them to do that,” she said.
“Right now, you see the whole gamut, from IBM getting everyone back into the office, to other workforces that allow their employees to work entirely remotely. There is an entire spectrum [of approaches to remote work] right now, and people are still trying to figure it out.”
Problems and opportunities
For extreme digital natives working from a beach resort in Bali or travelling from place to place, Albright’s research suggests that there may be a price to pay: “If you are constantly on the move, people become untethered. Untethered from communities, relationships… your relationships aren’t necessarily as tight as they are be.”
The lack of rootedness can also create unintended consequences in the form of mental and physical instability in some workers, she says. “Sometimes workers will say they try to start a relationship with someone, but realize they are only around for two weeks. Suddenly, it becomes harder to form any type of romantic relationship; it is harder to form ties with people.”
This is not to say that smartphones and connected devices are bad. Indeed, Albright says digital connectivity is opening the door to work regardless of one’s physical location in the world, and offering more opportunities than ever for those in both developed and developing countries.
“There are websites that allow people to make things at home. It is allowing people to bring in a second income or renting a room on Airbnb. Now people can create income streams form things that were not available before,” she said.
Startups can also operate leaner in the beginning by hiring remote workers, while employees of traditional businesses can collaborate and work without the high cost of renting an office or workspace. This frees up the resources to build up their business quicker than they otherwise could have.
While there is no straightforward solution to address the challenges that digital natives face, Albright suggested that more thought should be given to their wellness.
“Although it is not the traditional role of the workforce to provide anchoring and stability for their workers, we might need to re-imagine the role of the workplace. To create community or connection for new ways, for people who may not have that outside of their work,” she said.
“I would advise people to connect with their bodies by exercising, getting outside, enjoying nature without devices. They can connect with people not over their devices, such as over dinner. Make some real connections with people,” she said. “It is not a matter of not using devices but using what I would consider digital hygiene. The idea of balancing the time on devices with time off devices. So that we are mentally and physically healthier.”
Any words of advice for the rest of us? “Charge your devices outside your bedroom. You can sleep through the night without the distraction of checking phones. Sleep better, and you will be better emotionally, because you don’t deal with things on top of sleep deprivation.”