The green age? Generational differences impacting virtual training

Aerial view of four generations of phones representing generational divides.

Key takeaways

  • “Old school thinking” attitudes towards technology can be a major barrier to implementing virtual ways of working in to the workplace.
  • Understanding where these issues may present themselves within the business, and addressing them through education or training, is the key to moving forward.
  • Whilst sustainability is important to millennials, virtual training needs to offer more than sustainability.
  • To appeal to the younger generation, virtual training needs to capitalise in the areas where F2F training cannot.

What are the generational differences in our workplaces?

Workplaces are now more diverse than ever. While there are a variety of age groups all working together in the same space, these can be broadly categorised in to two rough groups. “Digital nomads” and “digital immigrants” are terms first coined by Marc Prensky,  American writer and speaker, in 2001. Digital immigrants are typically include:

  • Silent Traditionalists born between 1925–1945
  • Baby Boomers born between 1945–1965
  • Gen X born between 1965–1980

In contrast digital nomads are those born after 1980, and include millennials, gen Z and gen Alpha.

  • Millennials born between 1980–1995
  • Gen Z born between 1995–2010
  • Gen Alpha born 2010 to the present day

Learning a language- understanding the divide

The divide between the “nomads” and the “immigrants” can best be understood like learning a language- we all understand what it is like to feel that everyone around us is speaking a foreign language, and we are completely out of our depths!

To the digital nomads, who have grown up in a world that is tech focused, technology is their first language. It is what comes naturally to them, and would be their first point of call.

In contrast, the digital immigrants have grown up learning to speak a different language, one that is focused around face to face interactions, in person communication, and physical copies of reports, data etc. Technology is not their first language. In fact, it is completely foreign to them! They have had to adapt and learn this new language to keep up with modern society, but for most, it is not first nature.

Prensky describes digital immigrants as retaining a “digital accent”. They retain a preference to their first language, that of the world before technology. This may be evident in things like printing off emails, preferring paper copies to digital, to turning to the internet second for information, or a general distrust of new technologies.

How does this impact the workplace?

Digital immigrants tend to be characterised in to three groups- avoiders (who prefer a technology free lifestyle), reluctant adopters (who accept technology but feel it is intuitive and hard to use), and enthusiastic adopters (who are fast learners and embrace and value technology). They share common characteristics, such as preferring to talk on the phone or in person, rely on traditional ways of working, prefer physical workspaces and prefer a logical and linear process of discovery when learning.

This divide has wide ranging impacts throughout the workplace, especially when it comes to change.

In fact, Prensky says that the digital immigrants may also project their beliefs on to those around them- believing that if they are true to themselves, they must be true for others. A manager may not believe team members can interact properly over Zoom, because he himself can’t. This old school thinking has wide reaching consequences throughout the whole team, and often may translate to a workplace that is adverse to change. This can be a huge obstacle to introducing more virtual or remote methods in to the workplace- even if the majority or the workplace is eager to change, the beliefs of a few individuals may hold the whole team back.

Virtual training needs to offer more than sustainability

Corporate travel offers the opportunity to socialise, have new experiences, and see the world. Attending a meeting in Dubai seems far more exciting than attending in the office next door! Whilst this is true for most people, millennials and GenZ have missed out on the adventure and experience travel offers due to Covid.   As though to make up for lost time, these generations are more eager than ever to travel, with 70% of millennials say the desire to travel is a primary reason to work, and the  Deloitte global millennial survey revealing that seeing the world/ travelling ranked as the number one aspiration for these generations, outranking things such as “being wealthy”, “buying home” etc.

With increasing time spent on social media , the younger generations can access the world from their phone. Where previously they may have been happy staying at home, social media widens their horizons, and they are hungry for the experiences they see on their screen. In fact, data suggests that younger generations (in this case those aged 40 and below) are the products of globalisation- identifying as being part of the world, rather than their own nations or region. This desire to experience the world may even supersede their sustainability ideals- and can pose a huge challenge when it comes to implementing virtual training as part of an organisation’s sustainability strategy. For many, the associated benefits of increased sustainability is not enough – it does not replace the experiences they may have missed from travel. Virtual training needs to capitalise on the areas where travel can’t, providing benefits that would never have been gained by getting on a flight.

Looking for solutions

Perhaps the solution comes from looking what sustainability means for these generations. We know younger generations are passionate about climate change, with 9 in 10 making an effort to protect the environment, and almost half saying they have put pressure on their organisation to take action. However research shows they want more investment in everyday, visible actions such as banning single use plastic, offering sustainability-oriented employee benefits etc. Background commitments, such as achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions and engaging in public policy ranked much lower in their priorities.  While virtual meets many sustainability goals – it doesn’t offer flashy headlines, or have the instant appeal of trendy solutions such a fleet of electric bikes for all employees, or new sustainable branding headlines. The younger generation want their impact to be tangible, and immediate.

Demand for change

However, having different generations within the workplace can also be a huge positive- even acting as a catalyst for change. Since the pandemic, it has become apparent that the younger generation want for a focus on wellbeing and flexibility within the workplace.  A study showed that in 2022 there was a 77% increase in engagement among Gen Z when a company post on LinkedIn mentioned flexibility. In contrast there was a  31% reduction among baby boomers. And 66% of gen Z say they would  like more investment in mental health in the workplace, compared to only 31% of baby boomers.  The millennials and Gen Z have seen generations burn out before them, and they don’t want this for themselves. There is a demand for better ways of working and  learning that can meet their needs. And who blames them? For many working from home during the pandemic highlighted the many benefits of remote working. Where before employees may have stuck rigidly to the in-office, 9-5 way of working, people are starting to realise there are better options.  As such, there is increasing scope for virtual training methods to meet this demand, providing a range of benefits to employees that they would not get from F2F.

Final thoughts

Generational differences mean that there is a myriad of different attitudes to consider when implementing more virtual ways of working, and this can pose a challenge. Identifying, and addressing these, is the key to moving forward.

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