Understanding (and Maximizing) the Work Practice of the Digital Native

Excerpt from “Dancing With Digital Natives: Staying in Step with the Generation That’s Transforming the Way Business Is Done,” edited by Michelle Manafy and Heidi Gautschi.

The following is taken from Chapter 1: “When Facebook Comes to Work: Understanding the Work Practice of the Digital Native,” by Brynn Evans.

Work as a Practice

This chapter is about the way that digital natives approach work— something that I’ll refer to as their work practice. We all have a work practice that’s unique to us, but if you’ve been employed in an office setting for more than 10 years, chances are that your work practice revolves around the office. When you’re at work, you’re working. When you’re home, you’re not working. This is a mindset (and perhaps a coping strategy) that many people adopt in order to lead a balanced life. Yet it’s a work practice that is likely absent among the digital natives at your company, even if you still work in a traditional office environment.

What exactly is a work practice? It’s not a matter of what work gets done but rather how it gets done. It’s the doing of the work; it’s the process of producing; it’s a frame of mind for dealing with the mundane, as well as the urgent. Included in this frame of mind are habits, standards, expectations, and social norms. For example, a familiar standard is the one-hour lunch break. Additionally, there are certain workplace expectations, which may vary within enterprises (e.g., how quickly to respond to a coworker’s e-mail). Finally, basic social norms apply regardless of company culture (e.g., it’s rude to be on Facebook during a client meeting).

However, digital natives have a different set of habits, standards, expectations, and social norms that stem from being raised in a culture deeply immersed in technology. While their differences may not always clash with non-natives, their work practice is unique and demands patience and compromise from non-natives to understand it and make the most of it. It certainly matters that your employees—from whatever generation—get their work done: Business is business. However, if you have a greater appreciation for digital natives’ attitudes about working, you will learn better how to coexist productively and appreciate the perspectives and techniques that help them succeed.

The Life and Times of a Digital Native

The following account depicts a young woman, Robin, whose childhood was filled with digital technologies, which were used for both work and play. Today, her behaviors reflect the attributes of a digital native, quite distinct from the attributes of workers from previous generations. As you read the following story, consider how Robin’s upbringing might affect her current work practices:

Robin is a 25-year-old technical project manager at Intuit. Growing up in a large family, she needed to jockey for attention with her three younger brothers. She took to video games as a way to compete with them, spending hours on gaming consoles and on the family computer late into the night. She was a natural with computers and even won a programming contest in high school. However, her intellectual passions were history and English.

Her parents sent her to college with a personal laptop. It became her life. She used it for taking notes during class, researching material for writing assignments, and doing homework. It was with her in the dorm, on the front steps of the cafeteria, in the noisy student center, and in off-campus cafes. She never hesitated to call upon the trustworthy machine in the middle of a conversation (even once with the dean of her university) if she thought that Google or Wikipedia could resolve some pressing issue or embellish an important point.

Her laptop was also her social lifeline. She kept Facebook a click away in an ever-present tab in her Web browser. She’d check it during class and when stress caused her to wake up in the middle of the night. Now, only a few years out of college, Robin has more than 1,500 friends on Facebook, from high school, college, and various extracurricular activities. She hasn’t spoken directly with many of them in years, but instead maintains a semi-complete awareness of their whereabouts and activities through continuous partial attention to their streams. It’s a convenient, lightweight way to stay in touch.

Today, Robin is always connected, always online. It’s a fast-paced lifestyle—no longer about gaming and programming but still deeply connected to technology. It’s second nature to her. She doesn’t know another life.

Unfortunately, her managers at Intuit aren’t aware of these past experiences and are often confused by her work practice. She’s not at her desk when they walk by at 9 a.m. on their way to get coffee. She always grabs her iPhone when she steps away from her desk. And she often sends e-mails to the team very late at night, though she does consistently produce good work on time. In recent months, her managers have noticed some exciting new technical ideas coming from her—not something they expected from a history major. Thus, they have resolved to put up with her “idiosyncrasies,” even if they don’t really “get” her.

What appear to Robin’s managers as idiosyncrasies are actually the habits and practices of a digital native. This is her work practice, and it’s something she shares with other digital natives across the industry: Her work comes with her anywhere (and everywhere) she goes, and social activities play a central role in her life. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise if you think about her day-to-day experiences in college: Robin worked wherever her laptop was (and her laptop was always with her), and she was always connected to her friends.

The next section ... elaborate on the anywhere-everywhere nature of work and the type of social activities digital natives engage in to give you an idea of how these approaches help digital natives succeed in their work.

Copyright (c) 2011 by the authors and reprinted by permission of CyberAge Books, a division of Information Today. Available wherever books are sold and at http://dancingwithdigitalnatives.com.

Brynn Evans is obsessed with the intersection of social networks and human behavior. At first, she shunned social psychology, finding joy in neuroscience and dissecting brains. But after a six-year stint as a neuropsychologist, she began studying how people interact with and use technology. Three years later, she completed the graduate program in cognitive science at University of California San Diego and moved on to more practical applications of user experience and interaction design. Since then, she’s been a freelance consultant, social interaction designer, and gamestorming facilitator. Today, she’s a user experience designer at Google. For more information, visit http://www.brynnevans.com.

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