As the world began closing down this spring, the digital world that we’ve built has proven itself to be fundamental in keeping our societies and economies up and running. But our now months-long experience has also shown us that we have a lot of work to do when it comes to ensuring that our technologies not only help us persevere, but excel through times of crisis.
Most of the digital services that have saved us during this shutdown stem from measures that had been introduced over the last 20 years. Most vital, given this particular crisis, has been the work of digitalizing health care and infection tracking. Schools are another good example. Many once questioned the introduction of laptops and tablets to young students. Today, there’s no doubt that digital devices — and skills — have come in handy now that millions are learning from home.
In the private sector, app-coordinated food couriers have been a life raft for struggling restaurants. Contactless payment and self-service kiosks reduce infection in supermarkets, post offices and takeout places. Streaming services have worked together to throttle quality so that as many people as possible can enjoy all the movies and TV while stuck at home.
Faster internet and better collaboration tools have shown companies that their employees can be just as productive — if not more so — in home office mode, full or partial. My company’s traffic on the software code platform, GitHub, increased by 20 percent since we started working from home, which means that we’re developing software faster than before. Internationally, the big tech players, some of the most productive, innovative organizations on Earth, have announced that they’re allowing their employees to work from home till at least the end of the year, or in whatever arrangement works best for them.
What’s not working
Crisis measures for laid-off workers that ensure partial to full pay came quickly into place in many countries, but many workers have yet to be paid and spend the majority of their days on hold or in high-risk, physical queues at their unemployment authorities.
Retailers, hobbled by ownership structures that didn't enable them to effectively digitalize sales, services, and supply chains, are now filing for bankruptcy.
Most critically, with internet access either unaffordable or inaccessible to many rural and low-income families around the world, some children still aren’t getting any schooling.
The coronavirus has shown us where the cracks in our digital foundation are. Let's close them now so that we are better equipped for the rest of this crisis, and for the next one as well.
New ways of work
Those working in the corporate world know that we can’t fall into the temptation to just go back to the way things were. Even before the offices are reopened, companies should have an open conversation about how we can work in new and better ways. What have we learned about our own productivity over the past few weeks, about how we can ease transport congestion, find healthy schedule balances between work and home life, and how can we weave all of this together with the best of working in the office?
On a more fundamental level, too many people around the world are still without basic internet access, affecting information flows, disease tracking, and ability to work and learn from home. It shouldn’t even be a debate that authorities make universal internet access a top priority for the regions they serve, so that people are on a more level playing field when the next crisis forces us to hunker down.
Everyone needs to build basic digital competences, starting now. Using my home country and industry as an example, tens of thousands of workers in Norway’s asset-heavy industries have been placed on temporary leave, laid off, or asked to work from home. New solutions, such as a newly introduced digital academy for industry workers, to maintain and build on their digital skills to drive them past the current crisis are needed now more than ever.
We can’t predict the future, but we can see the present, and for this particular industry in this particular country, it’s riddled with digital skills gaps. Giving our workers the opportunity to learn and use advanced technologies will not only support a crucial renewal of industry, but also give each person valuable skills for the future workplaces. This notion is applicable to industries and supply chains around the world.
Industry leaders should consider this a rare opportunity to fill competency gaps and organizational vulnerabilities that the past months have revealed. Chief among them, leaders should accelerate continuous learning and upskilling programs to develop a workforce that is more versatile and prepared for shifting environments. With that, they’ll be primed to build organizations that are more resilient, efficient and forward-thinking.
John Markus Lervik is the founder and CEO of Cognite AS. Lervik has a Ph.D from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, where he was awarded the Esso academic award for his PhD work.