Innovation

Why the app generation want to phone in their contributions

The app generation employee sees the workplace and the smartphone as being one and the same thing. What challenge does this create for IT leaders? Chris Middleton reports.

August 24, 2017

The app generation will dramatically change the way employees communicate and collaborate as they enter the workforce, according to a new report. In this way, teenagers who have never known a world without smartphones will hasten the transformation already brought about by employees who grew up in the early days of the internet.

The report, ‘Breaking Barriers 2020: How CIOs are Shaping the Future of Work’ is published by Fuze, whose researchers gathered data from 900 IT leaders worldwide, along with 6,600 workers, and 3,300 teenagers aged 15-18. It says, “The teenagers of the app generation will introduce an entirely new dynamic for IT departments with expectations to be permanently connected.

“While flexible work arrangements are hardly new, much of the existing workforce still deems the ability to work flexibly to be a benefit rather than an expectation. The perception is poised to change, as employees consider flexible work a necessity rather than an option.”

Seventy-nine per cent of app-generation teens want to work from home when they enter the workforce, according to the report – a desire echoed by 85 per cent of current employees. Overall, a desire for mobility is felt most strongly among teenagers and young workers (70 and 71 per cent, respectively) and least among the over 55s (49 per cent). However, only 47 per cent of all workers are currently allowed to work remotely.

This cultural change can be mapped against organisations’ shift away from being defined by location, process, and desk-bound technology, and towards being knitted together by a set of ideas and values, connected by video, mobile devices, and collaborative apps as much as by desktop machines and enterprise suites.

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But does this change represent a threat to organisational identity? “People worry that distributed work might make company culture hard to preserve, but for us the reverse is true,” says Andy Yates, IT business partner at consultancy ThoughtWorks.

“We see being able to connect with people from multiple locations as an advantage. We’re now able to bring ‘the office experience’ to remote people. Not only is it easy to quickly jump into a one-on-one meeting, we’re also seeing popular lunchtime talks being broadcast over video-conferencing and all-hands meetings can be – and frequently are – broadcast from anywhere.”

These trends will reach their logical conclusion in the next generation of employees, according to a new book, ‘The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World, by Professors Howard Gardner and Katie Davis. It says, “Today’s youth is the first generation to define itself by technology, rather than by pivotal political or economic events.

“Rather than wanting to explore and try things out by themselves, this ‘app generation’ is constantly pushing to find exactly what they want, when they want it. They want to know how ‘it’ will be evaluated, what comes next, and where this leads them.”

The smartphone’s central importance is obvious from the generational split, even between app-generation teens and the current generation of young workers: 60 per cent of 15-18 teenagers see their phones as being the essential piece of office technology, while only 48 per cent of workers under 24 do, along with 49 per cent of 25-34-year-olds, and 43 per cent of 55+ employees. At the other end of the generational spectrum, 62 per cent of 55+ employees see the desktop PC as being the critical technology.

Many workers are already using their own devices for work, adds the report: globally, 43 per cent use their own smartphones, 34 per cent their own tablets, 39 per cent their own laptops, and 35 per cent their own desktops (presumably at home).

But focusing solely on one piece of hardware over another is not the answer, cautions the report. “Today’s office experience needs to be built to support people and productivity,” says Dan Newman, Principal Analyst and Founding Partner of Futurum Research, quoted in the report. “This means we need flexible workspaces that facilitate team building, spark conversations, and allow ideas to evolve.”

But this workplace transformation will not be absolute, adds the report. “Although employees are demanding flexible and remote work arrangements, 86 per cent of employees say face-to-face interaction will always be important. Nearly three-quarters (71 percent) of the app generation also believe it’s important to connect in person with co-workers.”

However, this ‘always on, always connected’ outlook poses problems for old-school IT managers, while all IT leaders need to balance the app generation’s demands with those of older and more experienced Gen X and Y workers, while still juggling their operational responsibilities, budget pressures, data regulation, security, and customer expectations.

Many business leaders also come from the baby-boomer generation and are standing in their way. Rather than allowing the more forward-looking IT leaders to innovate, many of these senior executives still see IT through a 1990s client/server lens as a cost-reduction function that keeps the lights on. Government, too, has a tendency to regard technology as being primarily about productivity and cost-savings.

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These entrenched attitudes are reflected in employees’ responses to another question: how satisfied are they with their workplace technologies, given the strong desire to work more flexibly? Globally, 48 per cent of workers said, “My employer does not provide adequate technology for me to work effectively”, while 68 per cent said, “My workplace technology is ‘one size fits all’.”

In the UK, nearly three-quarters of respondents (73 per cent) said that their organisation adopted a monolithic attitude to technology.

The conclusion of the report is stark: “Tomorrow’s workforce will demand technologies that fit with the way they want to work, interact, and collaborate. At the heart of this trend is an expectation set by consumer devices, with many office workers seeking the same usability, accessibility, and seamless integration at work that they experience as consumers.”

In this sense, some of the report’s other findings could represent the way ahead for those traditional IT and business leaders that retain a focus on efficiency and cost: 59 per cent of respondents said that adopting new communication technologies is the priority, while 64 per cent said that reducing the number of apps would simplify internal communication: a process of consolidation around collaborative tools.