The born digital and business leaders

How can today’s top brass best support the leaders of tomorrow?

REPORT | 7m read
May 25, 2021

Executive summary

  • Born Digital workers and business leaders are inhabiting different tech bubbles, and that truth has only grown clearer during the pandemic.
  • While Born Digital workers are far more invested in instant messaging technology than business leaders, the difference is more hierarchal than generational.
  • Born Digital wants its leaders to be more invested in flexible working technology, but feel leadership is not doing as much as it could.
  • Business leaders will need to do a better job communicating that technology will augment, not replace, workers.

In the current business environment, it’s not difficult to paint an alluring — if superficial — portrait of the Born Digital. Everyone works in their sweatpants and takes laundry breaks. In place of dreary meetings, they hold digital free-for-alls where every idea is special, and nobody casts a sideways glance. What’s not to love?

But this is where impressions crash against the rough shores of reality. According to research in “The Born Digital effect,” most business leaders think that access to the newest technology is what Born Digitals want the most, when this consideration actually sits at the bottom of their list. Many of today's executives may simply not have the right listening strategies in place. To build supportive, flexible, collaborative work cultures that transcend the limitations of physical space, nuance deserves a seat at the table. Otherwise, some leaders could miss out on the major economic benefits that flow simply by addressing Born Digital’s needs.

For business leaders, this means more than just getting used to the idea that work can happen anywhere and everywhere. It means listening to how your employees want to work, then providing the right experiences for individual, team, and organizational progress alike. There’s a whole new set of rules on “how to office” — rules that the Born Digital can teach. Because for them, work is no longer a place, but a set of conditions.

A closer look

As previously noted, an increase in Born Digital workers can have an profound impact on profitability. Born Digital workers want to feel empowered, and business leaders are best positioned to deliver on this desire.

That starts by working to close the gap between the way these groups think about work. For example: business leaders are inhabiting entirely separate tech bubbles from Born Digital workers, a truth the pandemic only made starker. The research in “The Born Digital effect” suggests that business leaders are using different apps and tools than their Born Digital employees, and — perhaps not surprisingly —diverge in their attitudes toward workplace technologies and apps in general.

For example, business leaders use instant messaging services far less frequently than their Born Digital counterparts, with only 21 percent of business leaders using services like Slack and WhatsApp for work purposes, compared to 81 percent of the Born Digital. What’s more, only 26 percent of business leaders actually like using instant messaging apps for work, versus 81 percent of Born Digital.

This divide seems more hierarchical than generational. To wit, 83 percent of Gen Y workers like using messaging apps for work, whereas 67 percent of Gen Y leaders ​dislike​them. Either way, Born Digital workers see value in these platforms and rely on them to collaborate, and hope that business leaders’ attitudes toward them will evolve. 

With flexible work models increasingly desired by job seekers, both technology and leadership’s attitude toward it have room for improvement. Eight out of 10 business leaders believe that younger employees in their organization have adapted to increased remote working faster than their older colleagues. But the Born Digital don’t think that leaders have adapted as well as they could have.

And it’s not just skepticism or an unwillingness to adopt new platforms that puts some leaders — and by extension, their businesses — on the back foot. In a distributed age, organizations are fundamentally fumbling digital security. Businesses must rethink their IT protocols, and that means thinking beyond the VPN connection, for a world that’s primarily remote. Cloud security is no longer a nice-to-have, and IT no longer sits outside the CTO or CSO’s office. It’s time that everyone, leaders and employees alike, get on the same page via digital collaboration and other workspace tools, but do so in a secure way.

And while just 33 percent of Born Digital workers use a digital workspace today, 67 percent are positive about this technology. Born Digital is hungry for digital platforms that create the supportive, collective environments they seek. The old way of working is ready for a software upgrade. 

Additionally, as the Fieldwork by Citrix “Work 2035” report captured, most Born Digital workers still fear being ​replaced​ by tech and AI. Although most business leaders believe that tech will help them work harder, they’re still not always communicating that value to their employees. Business leaders have a responsibility to amplify and invest in tech that makes working and collaborating easier.

Digital systems must be redesigned around intelligent, inspiring experiences that empower employees to solve problems in creative ways, and make decisions more quickly. All aspects of the former office can exist within virtual space.

But giving that experience color and shape is not the sole responsibility of business leaders. Read on to learn how to reconcile the needs of the organization with the wants and needs of your younger workers.


of Born Digital uses instant messaging services like Slack and WhatsApp for work purposes.


of business leaders do the same.


of business leaders believe their organization has accelerated its digital transformation in response to the pandemic.


of Born Digital says the same.

Related resources


The Born Digital effect: Young workers and the new knowledge economy


The critical case for employee experience: Apply three principles to fuel EX that unlocks your organization’s potential


Work 2035: How people and technology will pioneer new ways of working