The Virtual Natives embody these four key macro trends:
Redefining the format of white-collar work
Rewriting the employer/employee contract
Championing the Great Renegotiation and the War for Talent
Commodifying the digital nomad lifestyle
The Virtual Natives graduated during the pandemic and have since joined the workforce in an almost exclusively remote capacity. They are redefining the very nature of white-collar employment and office structure — they work from their bed, their living room, a rental in Costa Rica. They spend their days glued to laptop screens, and — though inured to the routines of online life — they feel slighted, having missed out on celebrating milestones and fostering relationships in-person. Yet the pandemic has allowed them to curate their professional surroundings to their specific habits, making them less willing to sacrifice comforts. Flexibility. Perks. High salaries. Regular recognition and praise. Their exacting expectations are becoming the norm as turnover rates continue to rise. To retain top talent, employers will have to cater to the demands of the Virtual Natives and others learning from them.
Many white-collar workers have happily carved out hybrid or fully remote working arrangements over the past two years, jettisoning their prior commutes, “work pants” and desk lunches in favor of working from home and spending more time with their families. But there exists a brand new and still-growing cohort of office workers who have been having an entirely different experience. Unlike their more seasoned colleagues, Virtual Natives lack the shared experience of having once been co-located, able to share a coffee run or water cooler conversation with their professional milieu.
The dominant reaction to remote work has been surprise at how well it works and how relatively seamless it was to transition. The reason? Humans adapt incredibly well, especially under pressure or sustained discontent. From our research, we observe that the Virtual Natives, through their desire for control and connection, are taking the reins on making the most out of a seemingly remote, isolated, and unfulfilling virtual working environment. They are nonconformists, with a shared sense of having suffered a trauma together but having risen above it in their own, self-defined ways, carving out a new path.
“I feel unsupported and disconnected at work. I haven’t even met my boss in person.”
An overall sense of disconnection underscores their thoughts and behaviors. While it would be easy to conclude that the answer to this dilemma is to force everyone back to the office ASAP and provide the Virtual Natives with the experiences they claim to be missing, that would be a fatal error. This group’s mindset is nuanced, and a slight misstep could rapidly alienate them further.
“I like working in the same place as my friends. We each do our own thing during the day and hang out at night or when we need a break. It’s perfect.”
Virtual Natives are not the scattered and isolated generation one might imagine. This group turns out to be highly social and resourceful — a generation of prolific community builders who have engineered ways of being together even while work has kept them apart. Disillusioned with how much personal connection and meaning they can expect from employers, they have instead formed their own communities and devised their own working arrangements. On a typical workday, you may find them co-located with personal friends in houses, apartments, coffee shops, co-working spaces, and even in vacation spots. Much like their older colleagues who have grown attached to flexible work and how it enables more quality time with family, Virtual Natives also relish this flexibility and how it allows for quality time with their self-defined personal communities.
“If the company I work for wants me to stay, they need to do a better job of showing it.”
Virtual Natives want to feel like their work fits into their lives, not like they’re squeezing their lives around their work. Their determination for flexibility is striking, cited as a primary way to retain them. It is so vital that the majority would sacrifice a portion of their salary for it, despite still valuing higher salaries and opportunities for upward mobility. Yes, they want to have their cake and eat it, too. They’d also appreciate some literal cake, as the Virtual Natives feel like they’re missing out on typical workday perks such as free food and drinks.
“If I’m forced to come back to the office full-time, I’ll quit.”
The Virtual Natives are adamant about maintaining their independence. Whether out of lack of experience, fear, or resistance to change, they have made it clear that a hybrid work model is a minimum requirement for retaining them. The majority will feel empowered to quit if a full-time presence in the office is mandatory. At the same time, 69% of this complex group are excited to return to the office, and 72% say having a corporate office is important to them. Their desire for the best of both worlds drives their ardent push for a hybrid future.
Failing to address their demands will drain an organization's talent pool and create unsustainable churn. Virtual Natives are likely to appreciate logic and utility above rules and hierarchy and may resist complying with any mandates they don't see as valid. Finding ways to engage them and earn their loyalty will be a persistent challenge — they have already reallocated some of the emotional energy that might have gone toward working relationships to other avenues. To win them over, start by thinking outside the box and outside the office walls.
While they are at the forefront of some retention issues organizations face today, they also represent a unique opportunity for leaders to reset their operating model foundations to prepare for the future of work. Insights from Lippincott's Brand Aperture tool highlighted that only 28% of employees felt like their employers were catering to their primary needs effectively. With the Great Resignation and labor shortages affecting employers everywhere, organizations must adapt their practices to better reflect the new nature of work today, or risk losing the core engine of any business—its people.
While understanding that the Virtual Natives provide critical insights in navigating labor shortages, their consumption behaviors also have meaningful implications for organizations that cater to white-collar workers.
The Virtual Natives are driving demand for:
- Locations that could serve as their temporary office space. They are willing to pay for access to desirable areas where they can gather for their preferred hybrid work setup with friends. This presents an obvious opportunity for alternative co-working spaces and other venues such as private clubs, restaurants, retailers, gyms, apartment buildings, and hotels that could feasibly allocate a portion of their space for this purpose and market it to this segment directly. It also presents a set of privacy and security challenges for companies, and the opportunity for software and data security providers to address them.
- Ancillary products and services that enhance their ability to work from anywhere. Since they tend to move around but need reliable audio and visual connection, this group will likely continue to seek high-quality portable electronics and accessories for virtual work (hotspots, cameras, microphones, lighting, noise-canceling devices, etc.).
- Reinventing corporate office space. Virtual Natives are most likely to be engaged by approaches to professional co-location that emphasize meaningful time together with colleagues (that is, not an everyday 9-5 routine where people sit at adjacent desks or cubicles). This presents an opportunity for corporations to rethink whether their spatial configurations best support this purpose. It also positions conference and meeting venues, team-building experiences, hotels, restaurants, or other destinations as prime locations for that intentional gathering.
- Leisure wear and virtual polish. Virtual Natives will continue to push the boundaries of what counts as appropriate workwear in the direction of comfort, utility, and personal expression. They are likely to be interested in trying new software that (through filters, backgrounds, and other enhancements) can help them present a polished image online and save them some time and effort in real life.
- Career training. Employers need to engage this group and build loyalty among them, and since the Virtual Natives believe their professional development has suffered, there may be an opportunity for upskilling. Organizations could market this training toward employers or directly to Virtual Natives themselves.
As Virtual Natives continue to disrupt and shape the future of white-collar work:
- In what ways has working remotely made things better or worse at your organization?
- How or should you tune your employee value proposition to appeal to the new generation of workers and top talent?
- To what degree should you rethink your office locations and work spaces to allow for fluid blending of remote (digital) interaction and episodic in-person interaction? To what degree do these two models blur, and how should they be kept distinct?