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Dancing With Digital Natives
Staying in Step With the Generation That's Transforming the Way Business Is Done
By Michelle Manafy, Heidi Gautschi
Information Today, Inc./CyberAgeCopyright © 2011 Michelle Manafy and Heidi Gautschi
All rights reserved.
When Facebook Comes to Work: Understanding the Work Practice of the Digital Native
The most valuable thing I learned in graduate school is that progress is not linear. It would take me 10 days of hard work before a big insight would come along and give me the equivalent of a week's worth of progress. Although I'm talking in the past tense here, this simple life lesson is true of my current work too — and of the work style of many so-called knowledge workers.
This pattern reveals itself in other domains as well. Imagine that a soccer game is coming down to the wire, tied at 0–0. From an absolute perspective, each team has made zero "progress." Of course, both teams have played a full game — they're exhausted — but nothing quantifiably distinguishes them from each other. Yet, at the last possible moment, either team could orchestrate a single clever play and score the tie-breaking shot. The game would technically end with a winner and a loser, although a score of one to nothing hardly reflects the deliberate work that both teams put in throughout the match. Still, what matters is that the winning team finally pulled through.
This perspective is important to keep in mind as you read this chapter. Although digital natives may conduct their work differently, they still recognize the need to pull through and meet the same deadlines. Even if they appear to be progressing slowly, be aware that, in their work too, progress is not linear.
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 email). 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 nonnatives, 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 AM on their way to get coffee. She always grabs her iPhone when she steps away from her desk. And she often sends emails 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 that 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 will elaborate on the anywhere–everywhere nature of work and the type of social activities that digital natives engage in to give you an idea of how these approaches help digital natives succeed in their work.
The Anywhere–Everywhere Nature of Work
The nature of "work" has changed a lot over the course of the past few centuries. This is most striking if we think about how our ancestors spent their waking hours just trying to meet their basic needs: finding food, making clothing, securing shelter. Significantly, much of today's work force performs information-based tasks, or knowledge work. Uday Apte and Hiranya Nath noted in their article, "Size, Structure and Growth of the U.S. Information Economy" (Annals of Information Systems, vol. 1, 2007: 1–28), that this type of work accounts for almost 70 percent of the U.S. labor force.
What's more, many types of knowledge work can now be done from anywhere and everywhere — across devices and across locations. Robin, for example, checks email on her iPhone first thing every morning. She uses this time to take care of urgent requests, provide her team and managers with status updates, and prepare herself for what's to come during the rest of the day. By starting her workday at home, she gets a head start on her projects, though she inevitably arrives "late" to the office.
Perhaps digital natives embrace this anywhere–everywhere mentality because they treat technology as a trusted partner in life rather than as an irritating mother-in-law. And yet, it's largely simple communication and networking technologies that make possible a distributed workplace. Laptops and netbooks, mobile phones, instant messenger (IM), Skype, virtual private network (VPN), Gmail, and cloud computing resources like Google Docs all support this networked lifestyle.
One of the characteristics of this work style is what Anne Zelenka from the blog Web Worker Daily calls "bursty work." Instead of working in four-hour continuous blocks, digital natives work in smaller chunks. Dawn Foster writes that she intentionally splits her day into chunks so that she "can be productive for longer periods of time" ("How I Work in Chunks," posted September 5, 2009, bit.ly/hiuGke). Although this sounds counterintuitive, there is a rationale and structure behind her segmented work blocks.
Since meetings greatly disrupt her day, Foster has learned to set aside Mondays for meetings so that the rest of the week goes uninterrupted. When this isn't possible, she makes sure to leave a few solid hours in the morning before her first meeting, in order to complete her important client work first. She further batches her client work into smaller chunks, saving a number of client-related tasks for a continuous block of time, reporting that this "helps to avoid getting projects confused by jumping too quickly between clients."
On another blog, Paul Graham discusses the difference between a "maker's schedule" and a "manager's schedule" ("Maker's Schedule, Manager's Schedule," posted July 2009, bit.ly/eVtDkI). As they are younger employees, most digital natives in the work force today are not yet managers. Instead, as makers, they are expected to produce: by making sales, writing code, or submitting deliverables on time. However, their style of work tends to coincide with the "manager's schedule" of chunking the day into hour-long blocks (although managers often use this time for meetings). What's critically different, however, is that frequent interruptions and scheduled meetings tend to reduce the maker's productivity. Thus, even if it appears that digital natives' work style outwardly conforms to their managers', makers might do better with a certain amount of autonomy regarding their schedules to find their own balance and accomplish their work.
It's important to note that bursty work is not the same as multitasking. Digital natives who break their work into smaller segments are not performing multiple tasks simultaneously. They're doing more focused work for smaller periods of time. I expect that we've all experienced this at some point, where one hour of dedicated work can be more productive than a workday full of interruptions.
It appears that research supports this notion as well. Joshua Rubinstein, David Meyer, and Jeffrey Evans report in their article, "Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching" (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, vol. 27, no. 4, 2001), that goal shifting carries a high cognitive burden, especially when shifting to tasks that are novel or unfamiliar. Concentration and cognitive capacity may actually be at their highest during short periods of focused, familiar work.
Other research has found that a certain level of task switching is optimal for productivity in the workplace. In one study of information workers, Sinan Aral, Erik Brynjolfsson, and Marshall Van Alstyne report that employees who have a high capacity for managing several simultaneous projects at once — accomplished only by deliberate and tactful task switching — have greater outputs and year-end revenues. This report, titled "Information, Technology and Information Worker Productivity" (NBER Working Paper No. 13172, 2007), notes that this outcome is not the result of working faster. Sometimes projects last longer than originally projected but result in better quality outcomes in the end.
Furthermore, project-based work benefits the most from bursty work practices, largely because demanding projects often require attention in the "off hours." People are better equipped to deal with an unexpected crisis or a bug in the codebase that can't wait until morning when they have an anywhere–everywhere attitude toward work. In large, distributed organizations, it is becoming more common to coordinate meeting schedules with international team members very late at night or early in the morning in order to synchronize the project work.
Additionally, time away from a problem often sheds new light on puzzling issues. Workers who segment their work into smaller chunks have the advantage of perspective when they return to a task at a later time. First, the pre-coffee morning perspective is different from the afternoon one. And second, related information may be brought to their attention during those moments when they aren't specifically working on the task. Here is an example:
Daniella is an intern at Microsoft. Most recently, she's been trying to incorporate Flash technologies into Silverlight (a project aimed at creating interoperability between competing products). She successfully drafted an initial proposal for her manager but then felt stuck. Over the next week, she spoke casually with her friends about her project and someone happened to point her to a relevant blog. When she later had a moment to review the blog, she realized that it contained information that was critical for the project. She was able to re-draft her proposal and point her manager to the information resources that she'd discovered in the meantime.
Despite how it may sound, having a bursty work practice with an anywhere–everywhere mindset does not mean that digital natives are constantly working. Leisure time is taken in bursts as well. Digital natives log more hours at their computer (in total) but switch between work and leisure tasks in one sitting. Andrei, a 19-year-old programmer, engages in this very practice:
Andrei's primary task is writing code. He spends most of his time in a debugging tool, but when he gets stuck on a problem, he switches to his web browser to read articles. He does this to take a mental break — something we've all been known to do when we're stumped. For him, this means checking in with friends on Twitter and Facebook who frequently share interesting articles and tidbits. After he's done snacking on information, he has usually re-worked the problem in his head so that he can tackle it with motivation and a fresh perspective.
Now, you might be wondering why he doesn't just go for a walk or brainstorm his idea on a whiteboard. Walking and whiteboards are common strategies for those in previous generations. Digital natives see technology as a tool that enables them to work or play, which results in their leisure time activities taking place via digital technologies. You're more likely to see them texting, IMing, Facebooking, or browsing the web at their computers in the middle of the workday than see them step out for coffee or take a walk around the block.
There are benefits to taking digital breaks. Dr. Brent Coker from the University of Melbourne observes that "people who surf the internet for fun at work — within a reasonable limit of less than 20 percent of their total time in the office — are more productive by about 9 percent than those who don't" ("Freedom to Surf: Workers More Productive if Allowed to Use the Internet for Leisure," posted April 2, 2009, bit.ly/dFRJOH). Of course, leisure activities must take place in moderation, but they can lead to increased productivity because short breaks help us "zone out" for a while, so that we can return to our tasks with greater concentration afterward. Another benefit to digital breaks is that if your concentration returns or inspiration strikes in the midst of leisure time, you're already at the keyboard ready to capture your insights.
Excerpted from Dancing With Digital Natives by Michelle Manafy, Heidi Gautschi. Copyright © 2011 Michelle Manafy and Heidi Gautschi. Excerpted by permission of Information Today, Inc./CyberAge.
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