Today’s Digital Natives Will Shape Tomorrow’s Communication

I recently drove my 12-year-old daughter and two of her friends to a Sixers game about an hour away from where we live. As we made our way toward Philadelphia, we all chatted about the girls’ sports activities, favorite classes, and spring break fun. About 20 minutes into the drive, however, the conversation dwindled and (with the exception of some Bruno Mars and Drake playing on the radio) silence settled over the car. It didn’t take me long to notice that all three girls were focused on their phones.

The occasional giggle assured me that whatever had their attention must be entertaining. After a few minutes I realized that the girls were glancing at each other as they giggled, and then it hit me: they were communicating with each other on their phones while they were sitting next to each other. Once I pointed out the absurdity of the situation, we all had a good laugh, and they agreed to put away their phones and just talk to each other.

This experience reminded me of the article I wrote for the previous issue of HR Insights. In “A Radical Proposition: Phone-Free Conference Rooms” I proposed the idea of asking employees to ditch their cell phones before walking into corporate meetings. Not having their phones to distract them, I reasoned, would facilitate more (and better) personal communication.

As I sat in the car with my daughter and her friends, though, I was struck by the realization that they are digital natives. No matter how much we want our youth to focus on real, in-person, face-to-face communication, the fact remains that they have been holding iPads since the first time their parents took them out to dinner and wanted a break from entertaining them so they could actually finish their own meals. And whether we like it or not, the generation that’s grown up being “connected” since birth will be tomorrow’s workforce—and we’d all be much better off if the business world adapted to their needs and preferences and didn’t try to force them to follow today’s (or even yesterday’s) expectations about how work “should” be done.

Adapting to this change won’t necessarily be easy. But it is possible. Sometimes it’s hard to let go of the old (just think of how many people still include fax numbers in their e-mail signatures!), but humans have been developing new communication styles for millennia. So there’s no reason to think we can’t continue to adapt!

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