• 'Digital dexterity' is at a premium during the current crisis.

• A worse-case scenario is that the digital divide could widen.

• Corporations, SMEs and individuals can influence how digitalization progresses.

The words “future of work” always bring to my mind an atmospheric science-fiction soundtrack. The unpredictable is going to happen! But then, those movies usually fall into two categories: We leave the cinema feeling hopeful and upbeat, or down and pessimistic with catastrophic images in our mind. Luckily, we are still in the present, and we can shoot this film according to the choices we make.

This movie has a breathtaking start. In a plot twist, a global pandemic has accelerated the digital future, forcing virtual ways of interacting, working and learning all over the planet. Technology researchers Gartner define digital dexterity as the ability to make the best out of technology for better business outcomes. A priority in this current environment.

Adapting to this shift is complex. According to the report Accelerating the Digital Inclusion in the New Normal, digital literacy is still a barrier to adopt the required digital services that enable a remote lifestyle. In lower-income economies, only 32% of the population has basic digital skills (for example, sending emails). Even in higher-income economies, this number is just 62% and drops rapidly to 44% for standard skills (creating electronic presentations).

We are witnessing staggering numbers of unemployment, most notably in the US. But at the same time, Microsoft estimates that by 2025 there is more demand than ever for new digital skills. The lockdown is accelerating digitalization and is expected to create 149 million new jobs by 2025. Each crisis displaces jobs with repetitive tasks, while new jobs requiring high cognitive skills emerge. COVID-19 accelerates this trend.

Digitalization threatens repetitive jobs that are easily automated
Digitalization threatens repetitive jobs that are easily automated.

How will this story unfold?

The worst-case scenario is the risk that this new future exacerbates existing inequalities. Workers and businesses not ready to gain the necessary digital skills will face more difficulties in jumping to new opportunities. Those more digitally skilled will find it easier to thrive. Less developed economies will struggle and have higher rates of unemployment, as well as increased difficulties to remain competitive.

On the other hand, there is still room for an uplifting, inclusive and sustainable outcome. For me, there are three obvious areas:

Companies know that investing in cognitively diverse teams makes them more profitable. So digital organizations are looking for a variety of backgrounds, as well as more neurodiverse talent. More than ever, different individuals can join the party.

• Virtual working facilitates participation in the digital economy of people regardless of where they live. Businesses can benefit from attracting talent in different locations, which promotes a diverse way of thinking, sparking new ideas. Those living in rural areas will not necessarily need to migrate to work or study.

• In this virtual world, individuals could have better work-life balance, a broad access to learning platforms, and more opportunities to network and share their expertise than ever before.

Three actors will influence how the story pans out: corporations, small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and individuals, with governments as the crucial supporting cast. Their ability to manage this transition will dictate if the ending is hopeful or catastrophic.

Corporations need to upskill their workforce. It is imperative to encourage a culture that champions the growth mindset, rewarding and celebrating upskilling, reinforced with a communications campaign. Organizations need to give their employees access to training, so they learn how to use digital tools effectively, and can read and interpret data. One piece of advice about how to succeed is to create personalized tracks for different roles. When people understand how their own job is evolving, and where their skill gap is, they are more open to making the best out of the available training.

SMEs have to adapt and embrace the transformation. According to the Future Ready Report Vodafone 2020, realigning the business to become more digital has become a top priority during the crisis for 45% of SMEs. Governments and industry must help and support their digital journey. Accelerating the Digital Inclusion in the New Normal report provides many examples, including e-Estonia, whose government has empowered a digital society, or V-Hub, a useful resource hub for SMEs led by industry.

What about you and me, the individuals? We need to reinvent ourselves: examine our backgrounds and find the digital resources to support us. There has never been so much online guidance about how to boost our digital skills. For example, free training from platforms such as Google Digital Garage, or programs to encourage diversity for those who need it most, such as Women in Big Data, which offer at the same time mentoring opportunities.

The ending to this story may yet be unwritten, but we are not a passive audience. Skills and adaptation lie at the heart of this transformation towards a digital, post-COVID world.This could be the role of our lives.