The Untethered Are Coming
“We think about technology as progress. Now that we’re so many years out from the development of, for example the iPhone, more unintended consequences are starting to show up.”
That’s Dr. Julie Albright, iMasons board member and author of the book Left to Their Own Devices: How Digital Natives Are Reshaping the American Dream, speaking at the Spring 2019 Global Member Summit in Silicon Valley. The unintended consequences Dr. Albright talked about – from falling rates of marriage and rising rates of anxiety, to rising rates of remote and “gig” work, among others – are the result of what she broadly calls the “untethering” of digital natives.
This “untethering” phenomenon raises big questions about how today’s digital infrastructure leaders will prepare for tomorrow’s workforce. Those big questions were the focus of a think tank style discussion among Infrastructure Masons in attendance, who broadly concluded that preparing for – and adapting to – this new generation of employees will be essential to the success of the industry.
“We think about technology as progress. But there are unintended consequences.” – Click to tweet
Your next gen workforce? They’re untethered
You’ve probably heard the term “digital native” – the generation of young people who never lived in a world without anywhere/anyplace connectivity. This is the generation in which 33% of people say the internet is as important as food, water, and air (50% say it’s close). In becoming tethered to their devices, digital natives have become untethered from traditional social structures, process, and institutions, including the workplace.
That intertwining of technology and behavior and subsequent untethering is dramatically affecting the workplace.
5 key ways that employers will be impacted
- Digital technologies are reshaping how and where people work. “Mobility is changing the perception of work and what it means and where you do it,” Dr. Albright said. Why come into an office if all the work can be done from the mountains or the beach? Here we see a change in the pursuit of work-life balance. Work-life balance used to mean a balance between time at work and time home with the family. But because the younger workforce is delaying starting families, work-life balance has come to mean time for experiences. “And people want that flexibility built into their schedules.” In fact, most young people today believe they have a right to work remotely.
“Digital technologies are reshaping how and where people work. Most young people today believe they have a right to work remotely.” – Click to tweet
- The paradox of choice comes to the job board. Digital technologies provide almost unlimited choice, which one might think would lead to more and better decisions being made. But in fact the opposite is true – too much choice is paralyzing. In one representative study, shoppers were one day given 24 selections of jam and a coupon to purchase a jar. The next day, shoppers were given 6 selections of jam and a coupon. When people had fewer choices, they were ten times more likely to buy jam, any jam, as when they had more choices. The principle applies to online dating apps (one reason people are connecting less in real life, despite ubiquitous access) and to job sites as well. “Like a bad Tinder date, some people are now ghosting potential employers,” Dr. Albright explained. “That’s a behavior brought about by this perceived unlimited array of choices online.”
“Like a bad Tinder date, some people are now ghosting potential employers. That’s a behavior brought about by this perceived unlimited array of choices online.” – Click to tweet
- Extended adolescence changes the importance of work. For a generation in which the majority of people were married, had kids, and owned homes by their early 30s, responsibility was a powerful motivator to stick it out at work. Yet in the untethered generation, far fewer people have achieved those “markers of adulthood” by their 30s. So they are free to job hop, work in the gig economy, or make other work choices that might be precluded if they had a mortgage and kids at home.
- The platform economy has weakened the connection between employer and employee. The platform economy – think Uber, Airbnb, Postmates, TaskRabbit – has “shortened the relationship between employee and employer and cut people loose from place,” Dr. Albright explained. That has yielded unintended consequences, including loneliness and rising rates of anxiety and depression. (25% of college students take prescribed psychotropic drugs, Dr. Albright said.) Another consequence of the shortening of the employer-employee relationship has been the emergence of the “patchwork career.” Where a person’s career used to be a sequence of jobs, today it is multiple jobs at once. Gone is the idea of working hard to build a career over several decades then retiring at 65 with a modest nest egg. “This is the emerging face of the untethered worker.”
- The workers of today are not equipped to do the jobs of the future. As the pace of technological change continues to accelerate, the skillsets required for the jobs of tomorrow move farther away from the skillsets of the current workforce. “New jobs will be created, yes. But those new jobs will require higher levels of skill than what’s required for the jobs that are being automated,” Dr. Albright explained. “Robotics, AI – these are highly technical, highly trained positions that take an immense amount of education to get. So there will be a mismatch between people who get pushed out of the workforce and those who take the new jobs.”
“There will be a mismatch between the skillsets of the people who get pushed out of the workforce and the skillsets required for the new jobs.” – Click to tweet
Bottom line: the untethering of the digital natives has led to significant unintended consequences, which will only be magnified over time. Those consequences will affect employers; as Dr. Albright pointed out, “This is your incoming workforce.”
How digital infrastructure leaders can respond
After Dr. Albright’s presentation, the Infrastructure Masons in attendance broke into small groups to discuss a series of questions about how digital infrastructure leaders can best deal with an untethered workforce.
How do we equip ourselves to build the future of digital infrastructure with this new untethered workforce?
The industry needs this new generation of workers, and current leaders will have to figure out how to be successful in different ways that in the past. There was consensus around the need to move away from an “us versus them” mentality. As one participant said, “It is our obligation to match the work to the workforce. There is this notion of ‘those Millennials’ as the ‘other’ rather than ‘us’ as a whole. Realizing and changing that perception is fundamental to answering these questions.”
Other ideas for building the future of digital infrastructure with a new untethered workforce included:
- Embrace the younger generation’s values without compromising business delivery
- Set a big mission and over-communicate it
- Look at potential instead of pedigree
“How do we equip ourselves to build the future of digital infrastructure with this new untethered workforce? It is our obligation to match the work to the workforce.” – Click to tweet
As employers and mentors, is it our role to create new anchoring points for younger, untethered workers? If so, how?
It is indeed current leaders’ obligation to create the kind of environment that can serve as an anchor point for otherwise-untethered workers. But it’s not only about catering to the younger generation. One participant suggested creating an environment in which generations can connect with and learn from each other.
Among the other ideas discussed for creating new anchoring points:
- Create opportunities for social connection, including digital and real-life anchor points (because “teamwork and interaction are key to success” but “creating binding social ties is a challenge and it won’t be organic”)
- Create a full-time role for an “untethered worker liaison”
- Provide opportunities for empathy and connection with the whole person – what people do at work and outside of work
In a world of almost infinite perceived choice, where Millennials can “swipe right” to see an endless array of possible hook-ups, monster.com lists 10,000 jobs, and they expect an executive role right out of school, how do we keep Millennials engaged in their jobs long enough to really add value? Or should the question be “Given that the younger workforce has these expectations, how do we get the most value from them?”
Keeping Millennials engaged – and promoting a mutual exchange of value – requires sharing the organization’s vision and engaging them in achieving it. One participant suggested, for example, that if an employee wants to work remotely, he or she should explain how they’ll make that situation work to achieve the vision of the business.
Other ideas for ensuring a mutual exchange of value include:
- Build career pathways and show how each team member can be a contributor to the success of the corporation
- “The cultural aspect is key because if you don’t have something that they can buy into, or give them some sense of growth, you won’t attract or keep them”
- Reward and celebrate successes; work should be quickly measurable and feedback should be quick
“Keeping Millennials engaged – and promoting a mutual exchange of value – requires sharing the organization’s vision and engaging them in achieving it.” – Click to tweet
Given that many Millennials believe telework is a right, how do we create “a tight-knit team”? Is a “tight-knit team” still the goal?
Tight-knit teams are critical to success. As one participant shared about his own organization, “we provide structure that people can return to and not become unmoored from identity and purpose.” Leaders have a responsibility to build a sense of inclusion and belonging.
Ideas for creating a tight-knit team include:
- Be disciplined in carving out time to mentor people and build relationships inside and outside of the workplace (“if they know you’re trying to uplift their career they’ll stay longer”)
- Foster a work culture that provides meaning (whether it’s sustainability, giving back, or something else)
- Create an environment that enables the lifestyle employees want – yoga, mindfulness, games, healthy eating, dorm rooms, etc.
There’s no getting around the fact that this next generation coming up in the workforce is very different than its predecessors. There have been and will continue to be challenges for employers. But different doesn’t mean bad. Untethered workers do have value to add, and they can be developed and managed and grown. There is simply no alternative, so get to it (before your competitors do)!
In coming weeks we’ll feature a new set of Top-of-Mind blog posts based on the iMasons Advisory Council meeting held just before the Global Member Summit. Stay tuned!