• In 2020, there was an increase in our trust of how governments handle our personal data.
  • More people report their digital skills being used more effectively utilised in the workplace.
  • However, we have noticed a deterioration in our ability to switch off, as well as more aches and pains.

As we look back on an extraordinary 2020, it’s clear that many old patterns of work, leisure and learning have been transformed. But what impact has this had on how people feel about digital?

A couple of years ago, we started measuring how well digital technologies were meeting people’s fundamental human needs.

We have been able to track sentiment using our own adaptation of Maslow’s seminal hierarchy of needs model. Maslow's triggers are in bold:

  • Basic needs: Access to digital infrastructure (e.g. mobile, internet) and trust in data use by governments and businesses.
  • Psychological needs: Improved health and wellbeing, and quality of life through the use of digital technologies.
  • Self-fulfilment needs: Digital skills empowerment and workplace utilisation.
  • Societal needs: Belief in digital’s capacity to improve society, both now and in the future.

We applied our conceptual framework to an annual survey of more than 32,000 people. Here’s what the results told us:

Image: dentsu, Digital Society Index Consumer Survey, 2020

In turbulent times, back to basic needs

Basic needs have increased by six percentage points across the 18 countries included in our year-on-year comparison. In addition, trust in the use of personal data by governments, as well as ratings of internet speed and affordability, have shown the biggest increases.

In a year during which many of us have been forced to work remotely — and many governments have been using our data to help combat the pandemic — these findings are perhaps not surprising.

How this pattern develops moving forward, though, relies on addressing the privacy concerns that many have expressed in light of today’s crisis, and ensuring that hard-won rights are not permanently eroded as the new normal unfolds.

Furthermore, with access to digital now being even more strongly linked to the ability to work, learn and stay connected, broadening digital access as a fundamental human right is critical.

Concerningly, four in ten people rate their internet services poorly on affordability and around a third rate it poorly on coverage.

A certain mental toll

Psychological needs are the only area among the four to show a decline in 2020. This year, two-thirds of people (65%) report digital technologies as having a negative impact on their health and well-being, with particularly acute increases in European countries.

Consumers report feeling more mentally stressed and finding it hard to switch off. They have more physical health issues such as repetitive strain injuries, they notice a deterioration in their relationships with others, and have experienced more online bullying. Clearly, the experience of remote working, learning and socialising is taking its toll.

As we look ahead, many employers have announced that they will enable more of their employees to work from home full-time. But there is a real challenge in how we manage this transition on terms that will enhance, rather than erode, employee well-being.

Questions also remain in terms of the level of responsibility companies take here, with the idea of ‘enforced’ work-life balance potentially becoming more commonplace.

Upskilling by necessity

In light of the shift to remote working, it’s perhaps not surprising that more people now feel that their digital skills are being more effectively utilised in the workplace:

Image: dentsu, Digital Society Index Consumer Survey, 2020

However, it’s still the case that just over four in ten people (44%) believe that their formal education has given them the digital skills they need. Increasing this proportion and ensuring the more effective use of technology is critical as we look ahead to a productivity-led economic recovery.

This is especially so against today's backdrop of potential job losses and ongoing furloughs.

A number of companies are leading the way here. Vodafone delivers a number of initiatives focused on the digital upskilling of young people, including a free service called Future Jobs Finder, which is designed to help young people find job opportunities in the digital economy and free digital skills training.

Dentsu's global flagship schools and early careers programme, The Code, focuses on giving the next generation the skills they need to thrive in the digital economy.

Reasons to be cheerful

Despite the challenges of 2020, belief in the societal impact of digital technologies has risen sharply this year (up six percentage points to 54%). Optimism about the capacity of digital to help solve the world’s most pressing challenges has risen 11 percentage points (to 55%), and overall seven in ten people believe that the positives of digital outweigh the negatives.

It may be that the experience of remote working and staying connected online in 2020 — or the examples of governments deploying tech solutions to combat the pandemic — have helped engender a more positive outlook.

As we move ahead, understanding how the crisis will have permanently altered our relationship with digital is key for businesses and governments alike.

Given we are currently in the midst of the large-scale release of a number of COVID-19 vaccines, there’s potential for a broader groundswell of optimism and belief in science and technology to improve the human condition. This also represents an opportunity for brands to explore how to human qualities via digital, giving people the meaningful experiences they crave.

Now, isn’t that cause for hope?