At the beginning of spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic started gaining dramatic momentum and forced companies to change how they operate, it became clear that this crisis would trigger substantial changes in the way we work and collaborate.
Many observers expressed a certain optimism that both the economy and society would inevitably experience a surge in digitisation. The hope was that, in this unprecedented crisis, everyone would realise that digital progress is needed to meet both current and future challenges.
In practice, however, most organisations made great efforts to enable as many employees as possible to work from home but have not had the chance to make structural adaptations to their internal pool of competences, organisation structure and work processes yet.
The majority of jobs are still non-digital
For years, it has been rightly pointed out by many experts that companies and institutions have been lagging behind in terms of digital know-how. The current crisis has shown that some industries are particularly vulnerable, given the nature of their core business and jobs. A study by the Office for National Statistics has shown that “in both the transportation and storage sector and accommodation and food services sector, only around 10% of people report ever being able to work from home."
This shows that enabling remote working on a grand scale is only a preliminary step towards the future of work and a more digital global economy. Don't get me wrong, it is an important and essential step forward, but now comes the real challenge.
Besides an optimal remote working infrastructure, most people now need actionable digital skills. Does this mean we need millions of coders? Probably not. But we definitely need millions of people who are able to think like developers. People who are able to tackle business challenges with technical solutions - this will also enable them to communicate more efficiently with the teams building and designing the technology. Ideally, they should be autonomous in fixing something themselves.
This means that almost everyone in a company needs to learn basic skills in areas such as programming, product design, user testing and experience, systems architecture and data analysis.
Shortage of skilled workers in IT - a never ending story?
If you take a look at the current job market, this shortage of digital skills is already extremely acute.
According to a report from the Edge Foundation, roundabout 600,000 job vacancies in digital technology are already costing the UK £63 billion a year. The demand for such specialists will continue to rise, because digitisation as a whole will not slow down and it will certainly not stop.
In this respect, the question is: What is a long-term digitisation strategy that, in view of the crisis, focuses on a sustainable labour market? The answer might be: We must develop the digital skills listed above - and we must do so consistently and at all levels. To do so, we should significantly expand all three pillars underlying the qualification of relevant skilled workers: higher-education programs, professional training and, last but not least, intensive practical training such as coding bootcamps.
As companies are adapting the way they physically operate by enabling remote working across all possible business lines, new business constraints urge companies to upskill their workforce in the face of this digital era. Technology is not just an enabler anymore, it is essential to most organisations’ reinvention - and the skills needed to leverage on these new tools will be the key to success.
Alexandre Tombeur is General Manager UK, Le Wagon