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Workplace Evolution

Jeff Hough on Mar 21, 2013 12:58:00 PM

technology comic   Copy resized 600The debate about traditional evolutionary theory has been long and opinionated. When the topic comes up, sides are drawn quickly and discussions become heated. I would propose that we are in a cultural evolutionary cycle in which the division lines have already formed. Two Italian psychologists, in their new book, Technoliquidity, are claiming that technology has changed the way people think, creating “a new brain.” The premise of the book is that today’s children and adolescents have newly wired brains resulting from technology altering their thought patterns from the way their parents thought and perceived things.

According to author Marc Prensky, digital immigrants are people born before the existence of digital technology and who have adopted it to some extent later in life. Digital natives are those who were born with technology and have interacted with it from an early age. We are experiencing a clash of these two cultures in the workplace which is causing frustration for employers. I recently attended a meeting where many employers lamented the fact that they struggle to find qualified applicants for open positions. A common complaint among those present was the lack of social skills from many people applying for work. Not making eye contact or offering a handshake during a greeting are some obvious signs of receding social skills.

Interestingly, the technology that is supposed to bring us together has separated us even further. Author Seth Godin claims that for millions of years humans have banded together in tribes or other social groups. The internet has removed the time and space barriers which brought like-minded people together. Consider how often you communicate with your Facebook friends compared to your next-door neighbor and the frequency you instant-message a co-worker rather than walk down the hall to talk.

Soft skills are not necessarily deteriorating, but rather, they are evolving. For example, do you know the difference between a tweet and a text or do you understand the body language behind “:)” compared to “:(”? Employees are adopting the Bob Dylan mantra, “the times they are a-changin'.”, while employers are sticking with the Rolling Stones cry, “I can’t get no satisfaction!” (in an HR approved sense, anyway—LOL). The lack of satisfaction for employers comes from a lack of traditional socially accepted workplace behaviors. The evolutionary gap between the digital natives and immigrants needs a bridge before both sides give up.

digital handshakeChange is uncomfortable because it involves unknown territory.  I have had a wonderful working relationship with someone whom I have never met face to face, yet we have completed several projects together over the last two years.  We chat frequently, although never over the phone or in person.  We trade information and resources seamlessly, although we live thousands of miles apart.  We both have made money and are looking for ways to make more, even though our handshake has been digital.  Technology has rendered time and space almost irrelevant.

It is time for businesses and generations to evaluate their positions in the evolutionary cycle. Do the old rules of human interaction still apply? Long gone are the days of rotary phones, carbon copies and employees sticking with one employer their entire career. Those days have been replaced with flex-time, home offices and tablet computers. I teach a lot of face-to-face classes and online presentations and while some skills work in both venues, there are enough variances between the environments that unique skillsets are required. Just because I can teach a great face-to-face class, does not mean I can teach a great online class. For some areas of business, traditional skill sets will remain. For the digital natives to survive in those positions, they need employers who are willing to look beyond the immediate deficiencies and see the potential within and provide the necessary training. For areas of business affected by technology, employees should understand employer needs, be energized, and engaged enough to put in the work required to meet deadlines and customer needs.

Technology helps satisfy our need for instant gratification—my 70-year-old mother face-timed me yesterday, rather than waiting for the pictures to show up online! Both sides of this evolutionary tale are pointing fingers at the other saying, “they just don’t understand”, when in reality, nobody understands. We are going boldly where no man has gone before.

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