Not all businesses were ready for lockdown but everyone can do something about it, says Ritam Gandhi.
The seeds for the flexible working revolution were sown a long time ago. Over the past decade, perceptions of the ‘traditional’ workplace have transformed entirely.
The idea that work must be completed within a strict timeframe and at a designated physical location has been challenged by the rise of accessible and interconnected technology. And yet for the majority of companies, the traditional ‘9-to-5’ office-based working culture has remained the norm.
This was until the coronavirus pandemic catapulted us into a global, remote working experiment. In March 2020, businesses across the UK were either forced to close up shop or move to remote working with immediate effect.
Ten years ago, it would have been difficult to picture this experiment being successful. However, modern technology combined with a growing focus on a better work-life balance has encouraged employers and employees alike to take a step back and question once conventional practices.
Businesses must double down on their efforts by ensuring that digital literacy is made a priority within their organisation.
What this experiment has also shown is that many companies were simply unprepared for such a change. Whether due to appropriate technology not being in place, or a lack of digital aptitude from senior management, some workplaces have struggled more than others.
Below I will outline the digital divide that lockdown has revealed, and how business leaders can improve the digital literacy of their organisations:
How well-equipped were companies to manage this transition?
1000 UK businesses were recently polled to understand how they have managed the transition to remote working. The unexpected change of circumstances naturally came as a shock to businesses across all industries, and of all sizes.
However, these insights answer some important questions about the technological assets and skills present in UK businesses. Importantly, they also show where there can be room for improvement.
Most notably, half of all businesses surveyed admitted that they were caught out by the move. This was true for companies of all sizes, with only 39% acknowledging that they were already using technology that made remote working easy when lockdown began.
In light of this, half of UK businesses have had to invest in new hardware such as laptops and smart devices, with this number rising to 72% across large businesses (those with over 250 employees).
Meanwhile, a lack of appropriate software was also a major sticking point; almost two thirds (62%) of large companies have had to invest in new software such as Zoom and Slack to ensure operations could continue as normal.
Amidst these challenges, it is positive to see that businesses have taken steps to help employees adapt to new digital working practices. Two in five businesses have offered digital skills training to employees since lockdown was enforced in late March.
Where do businesses go from here?
To keep this momentum going, businesses must double down on their efforts by ensuring that digital literacy is made a priority within their organisation. As we have witnessed in recent months, having accessible tech solutions in place is a critical advantage in the workplace, particularly in the face of unforeseen obstacles.
If flexible working is to be viable in the long-term, further investments of time and resources are needed to enable workers to work comfortably from outside the confines of a traditional office space.
First things first, it is important to ensure that your entire workforce has a solid grasp of programmes and equipment that are fundamental to most business operations today.
It is easy to turn a blind eye and assume that everyone has the same basic understanding when it comes to productivity software such as Microsoft Office products or increasingly popular communications software like Slack and Google Meet.
However, digital gaps can become exaggerated if they are not addressed; everyone from entry-level staff to executives should be comfortable using the technology employed by the business on a day-to-day basis.
However, beyond this, a one-size-fits-all approach becomes largely ineffective. Different teams will require different levels of digital know-how and solutions to work with, and this should be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
For instance, some workers will require specialised skills and knowledge which may relate to a key task of their job role. It might be appropriate, therefore, to invest in more complex technologies like AI and VR, or to provide training to help staff leverage this tech to their best advantage.
Not only will personalising digital training give employees the understanding, skills and tools they need to excel at their job, but it will also help them progress in their career.
Another important point is this – raising the digital intelligence of a workforce cannot be viewed as a one-off initiative. Indeed, according to Deloitte, employees at all levels expect flexible and continuous learning opportunities from their employers.
Encouraging employee satisfaction means that businesses should focus on providing continuous employee training that makes a real impact. This is especially true today, given the growing demand for specialised skills as the digital world becomes more complex.
I hope to see businesses across the UK make a commitment to training their workforce and ensuring they are taking full advantage of the technology at their disposal. It is difficult to foresee what the future of work will look like; who knows whether we will ever fully return to office-based working, or whether this ‘new normal’ will continue post-pandemic.
Whatever the outcome, however, businesses should reflect on the lessons learned over these difficult months. Digital transformation must be a key pillar in any business strategy to ensure that workplaces are agile. Lockdown has taught us that it is less about being prepared, and more about being able to adapt.
Technology is a key enabler in this respect.
About the author
Ritam Gandhi is founder and director of Studio Graphene