Now that we are halfway through 2020, am I the only one who doesn’t remember my New Year’s resolution? Most everyone would agree that this year hasn’t really panned out the way we thought it would.
The global reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic is and continues to be unprecedented. The shifts in our daily lives were tectonic, personally and professionally. Parents have had to juggle the roles of professionals and teachers; our health care, logistics and grocery workers have risen to the challenge of being on the frontline of the crisis; and now, after two months, our governments and organizations are beginning to grapple with what it means to reopen and return to work. The first half of 2020 has been interesting, to say the least.
As I reflect on the past two months under stay-at-home orders, I have been intrigued by the changes we have made in our lives, particularly as they relate to the use of technology. As professionals, many of us were put in the position of working from home for the first time — and we found ways to build connections through technology that we may not have thought of before. For some of us, it meant learning online for the first time, and for others, even finding love via Zoom. Although these changes were made suddenly, and some of us may not have been prepared for them, are they all that bad?
Living up to Our Digital Potential
In a 2016 study, McKinsey Digital found that the U.S. has only achieved 18% of its digital potential, as it relates to the digitization of industries (for example, the digitization of not only manufacturing processes but also connected cars and smart buildings) and the automation of the skills performed by humans.
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that access to technology and a baseline of digital skills are necessities. Individuals, corporations, educational institutions and communities have all had to take a leap into a digital environment in order to cope with what may be the new normal.
What was most striking, for me, as I watched the stay-at-home orders unfold, was watching communities grapple with how to provide WiFi to students who did not have access. Pew research found that in 2019, 10% of all adults and 18% of adults making under $30,000 per year did not use the internet. During this pandemic, 40% of low-income parents told Pew that their children had to rely on public WiFi to complete their schoolwork, and 36% said their children could not complete their schoolwork because they did not have a computer.
For many of us, technology and digital skills are so ubiquitous that we take them for granted. However, it is clear that too many people in our country are being left behind. The digital divide continues to grow.
A Shift in Thinking
As we emerge from our stay-at-home orders, we need a shift in thinking. For decades, corporations have invested in creating physical workspaces and systems that support such spaces; academic institutions have focused on the physical spaces of learning (i.e., classrooms and dormitories); and communities have focused on an education system that is space-based, with school buildings and other facilities. While we will continue to need these spaces and systems, there must be a great focus on the digital infrastructure we need in order to continue to learn, grow and advance.
Edwards Deming once said, “It is not necessary to change. Survival isn’t mandatory.” In other words, change is mandatory in order to survive. Drastic change isn’t supposed to happen overnight, and when it does, it’s hard to cope. Rather than worrying about how long it will take for life to return to “office buildings and lecture halls normal,” let’s consider what it would be like if we nourished the new normal of digitization.
Digital Access in the Employee Value Proposition
I propose that there is an opportunity for organizations to make digital access part of their employee value proposition (EVP): a New Deal approach to talent in which every employee receives both a computer and a stipend for internet access at home.
If you think this as outlandish, consider Airbnb, whose chief executive officer, when laying off 25% of its workforce, gave those employees their company laptop, because he knew purchasing a new computer was expensive. I applaud AirBnB and encourage other companies to think in this way — not at the end of their workers’ employment but also at the beginning.
Additionally, I propose that organizations support and sponsor their employees and their families in building their digital skills. In some cases, it might mean basic digital literacy. In others, it could be advanced skills in areas such as cybersecurity, coding, or data and analytics. This approach not only adds to the EVP of the organization but also contributes to closing the digital divide. As a learning leader, consider advancing the digital skills development as part of your organization’s corporate social responsibility efforts.
I recently graduated from college, and I did not expect that my first job experience would be in the context of COVID-19. I am fortunate to have had access to technology throughout my life, to have access to broadband and wireless access, and to work for an organization that operates remotely. While I realize that we will never be a completely digital world, it is clear that access to digital technologies and a baseline of digital skills are as fundamental to one’s ability to advance in life as reading and writing.
In the coming weeks, months and even years, there will be plenty of reflection on this period of time we are in — lessons learned, both good and bad. As organizations, let us learn the lesson of the fundamental good of making technology available to all employees and the impact of doing so on their lives and the lives of their families.