It’s Monday morning in a typical multigenerational workplace—work environments that can have four or five generation groups all working together. David, a Baby Boomer, walks past Emma’s cubicle on his way to the cafeteria. Emma is a member of Gen Z, born in 1996. She is also a digital native and doesn’t know a world where the internet and social media weren’t part of her daily life.

In fact, she doesn’t even think of her apps and devices as technology. They’re simply communication tools. Sending a WhatsApp video to a friend is as easy and natural for her, as sending an email is for David.

How does this generation ever get any work done with all those screens open at the same time? David wonders. 

Digital Natives and a Changing Workplace 

The Oxford English Living Dictionary defines a digital native as “A person born or brought up during the age of digital technology, and so familiar with computers and the internet from an early age.” Because of this lifelong experience, digital natives are better able to understand the technology that shapes our workplaces and economy.

In just a few years, there will be many more “Emmas”— and many fewer “Davids”— in the workforce, and we’ll need to adapt. For better or worse, digital natives will multitask at levels that we are barely starting to appreciate. They’ll expect seamlessly integrated technology that works on all their devices. They’ll feel comfortable working with team members around the world. They’ll insist on flexibility and reject rigid hierarchies that can slow down their productivity.

Those organizations that can adapt will attract and retain the brightest, most promising young talent. Those who lag behind, unwilling or unable to transform, will struggle to appeal to this tech-savvy demographic.

Here are a few of the most important ways you can make your workplace more digital native-friendly.

Five Ways to Prepare 

Communicate your technology strategy. Using slow, outdated software (or group email) will only frustrate your digital natives and stifle their productivity. They expect fast, intuitive, cloud-based tools for data and communication. They’re quick, resourceful, and need real-time technology that can keep up with them. The reality is that infrastructure investments can be expensive, can take time to implement appropriately and not keep pace with employee expectations. It will be important to manage expectations and have mechanisms to understand the evolving tech-savviness of your employee base.

Be open to more flexible working arrangements. Not all of your employees will want to work at the same time, in the same place. Allowing flexible scheduling and remote work can help your recruitment efforts. 

Make peace with the multitasking evolution. In the recent past, multitasking meant being on a conference call while perhaps working on a document. Today, multitasking means being on an online meeting, texting on a smartphone and sending an instant message on a laptop at the same time. What may appear to be wasted time or a distraction to a more-tenured supervisor or co-worker might be a natural, productive way to work for a digital native.

In fact, in a 2012 study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, younger adult test subjects performed better than older subjects when they were told to ignore random, distracting on-screen objects, while maintaining focus on a single moving object. Based on this result, it’s reasonable to conclude that younger employees might simply be more capable of the distraction-filtering brain activity that multitasking requires.

When you’re evaluating the performance of this age group, try to base your actions on their results, not on how many screens they’re using at any one time.

Prioritize collaboration. Millennials and Gen Z are the most connected generations ever. They’ve enjoyed constant access to information and nonstop social networking their entire lives. They value connectedness and relationships. Collaboration comes naturally to them, and the technology they use makes it possible. Expect more internal, as well as interdepartmental, dialogue, and cooperation between digital natives in the workplace.

Give incremental feedback and recognition. Gaming and gamification have made a huge impact on digital natives. Players are given badges or points whenever they “level up” in a game, and we can apply this mindset to the way we give feedback. Rather than waiting until the end of a project or long-term goal, offer more frequent feedback and recognition to show them how much you value their contributions.

We all know how crucial it is to recruit and retain the most capable young men and women. By rethinking and adapting frameworks that recognize the changing generational dynamics occurring in our organizations now, we can attract digital natives and keep them engaged and productive. They will be more likely to stay with a workplace that recognizes their uniqueness and nurtures their skills, while we benefit from their increased performance, dedication, and talent.

Dr. Candace Steele Flippin is a multigenerational workplace scholar, author, and public affairs expert. She is the author of Generation Z in the Workplace: Helping the Newest Generation in the Workforce Build Successful Working Relationships and Career Paths.

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