• Steven Taylor

Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants: Leveraging Both in a Successful Post-COVID Workplace

For workers who were lucky enough to avoid a furlough or a layoff during the COVID-19 epidemic, fully remote work poses a new set of challenges. The truth is that even for those who prefer working remotely, most workers were thrust into a remote environment with little forewarning.

What does being part of a remote, distributed workforce look like for the millions of digital natives and digital immigrants surfing this new remote work wave together? Digital natives are Millennials and Gen-Zers who grew up using technology, and digital immigrants are Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers not exposed to digital technologies at an early age.

Digital immigrants may not have some or all of the digital literacy skills necessary to succeed in a remote environment. Still, they’ve had decades of experience in the workforce with ample opportunities to learn, practice, and refine the blend of essential employability skills needed to succeed in the workplace. These skills – communication, critical thinking and reasoning, ethical decision-making, problem identification and problem-solving, and teamwork – are referred to in various ways such as soft skills, 21st-Century skills, employability skills, power skills, and career-relevant skills; the bottom line is they are broadly applicable to most work-based, professional environments and across a variety of jobs within an organization.

As for digital natives, there is little question about their digital literacy. On any given day, they use dozens of apps across one or more digital devices. They’ve likely acquired the digital literacy skills to succeed in a remote environment, but do they have the 21st-century career-relevant skills needed to succeed in a remote work environment? Although digital natives have had many opportunities to learn, practice, and adapt their digital literacy skills over their lifetime, they have not had the decades of work experience of digital immigrants. And, it takes time and experience to master the career-relevant skills; there’s no just-in-time app to learn to work well in teams, that takes experience.

We need to think about how we can quickly upskill incumbent workers, not necessarily for roles as tech experts, but for roles that require digital literacy skills; they simply need baseline digital tech skills to succeed in the new world of work. These non-digital natives can learn these through training programs explicitly designed to equip people with a generalist set of digital literacy skills. What digital immigrants have in abundance are the essential employability skills that enable the workplace—live or remote—to keep humming.

Digital natives require just the reverse. They are digitally literate and often expert across a wide assortment of platforms and skills. But they have not yet had enough time to learn, practice and master essential employability skills of problem-solving in teams, ethical decision making, and the like.

We should be creating beneficial mentoring relationships where digital natives and digital immigrants upskill one other, with natives mentoring immigrants on the latest tech that can make working more efficient, whether you’re in the office or thousands of miles away.

Digital immigrants can help natives take a step back from the go-go pace of change in technology and society, to pause, reflect, and develop the social and emotional grounding to think critically about the world around them that technology is shaping.

We need both digital natives and digital immigrants because their skill sets are deeply complementary. They can learn from one another and create a third way to achieve outcomes that benefit the individuals, the employers, and the beneficiaries of their work. It doesn’t require a significant investment on the employer’s part; it merely requires leaders to marshal the single most crucial resource of the organization, its people.

When employability skills and digital literacy are married, the new normal for the workplace of the future may well be our best workplace yet.

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