• COVID-19 has forced companies to adopt digital tools that weren't planned for another five years.
  • This rapid pace of change has widened the digital divide and exacerbated social inequities.
  • Employers and educators can bridge this divide by reskilling workers for a sustainable future of work.

The global pandemic has had far-reaching implications for the world of work and has illuminated – and exacerbated – social inequities. Young people were among the first to lose their jobs as many worked in sectors hardest hit by the pandemic – often on part-time or temporary contracts with limited protection. Lockdowns and social distancing disrupted educational and training opportunities, isolated young people from their peers and are widely believed to have contributed to mental health issues.

Added to this, there are challenges related to climate change, social disruption caused by digitalization and an employment landscape being transformed and automated by artificial intelligence (AI) technologies that could curtail some job prospects and accelerate the need for reskilling. We are also seeing a growing divide between the digital “haves” and “have nots”, which we will explore in this article.

At Zurich Insurance Group (Zurich), we believe that we’ll make the most progress on addressing these challenges if we work together with other organizations. We look forward to participating in the upcoming Jobs Reset Summit and discussing how we can collaborate to help support current and future workers in the post-COVID-19 economy.

Closing the digital divide

As a new way of working unfolds, shaped by a global pandemic and the shifting attitudes of workers, there is greater urgency to ensure no one gets left behind. The digital divides that separate those who have the skills and technology to succeed, and those who struggle to keep up, must be closed if we are to create a brighter future of work.

Pandemic lockdowns and other restrictions that have kept workers at home have brought into sharp relief the inequities that exist in the digital era. Those who have access to reliable technology and can develop the skills required for remote work have found it much easier to continue their work uninterrupted, keep their careers on track and contribute to the welfare of their communities than those who do not have those advantages.

New technologies arrive early

The gaps have opened partly because companies have adopted new technologies earlier than expected in order to maintain quality service to their customers. With lockdowns preventing travel, virtual meetings quickly became the norm, while the use of AI and other digital solutions were ramped up. The pace of change was unexpected, and while some employers were able to move quickly to adopt new technologies, and train their employees to use them, others were not.

Skills employers thought their workforces would need in five years are in demand now.

—David Henderson, Chief Human Resource Office, Zurich Insurance Group.

Research by Zurich and the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford has confirmed that skills employers thought their workforces would need in five years are in demand now. The pandemic response that has kept people out of offices and away from face-to-face meetings has meant earlier adoption of technology that companies had considered implementing years from now.

Solution lies in reskilling and internet access

Left to consider a new landscape, employers, public officials, educators and other stakeholders must do the necessary work to make sure workers have the digital skills they need, while working to provide reliable broadband services to the hundreds of millions of people who have no access. Digital divides cannot be allowed to widen, in fact, it is time to remove the space between digital “haves” and “have-nots.”

The challenge calls for a commitment from employers to reskill their employees who have suddenly found themselves unequipped to handle the demands of a new world of work. Training, support and an investment in the proper tools will be part of that obligation.

The scope of the challenge is outlined in the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020, which shows that 84% of employers surveyed were rapidly digitalizing work processes as remote work expanded. The report notes they plan to offer reskilling and upskilling to more than 70% of their employees by 2025.

Looking towards the workforce of the future

Of course, the digital divide doesn’t stop in the workplace. It can even extend to schoolchildren. We have seen many reports of students lacking the technology and internet access that would allow them to continue their classes virtually while schools are closed. If these students fall behind now, it will be even more difficult for them to have access to the same opportunities as their peers in the future.

Part of creating a sustainable future of work is ensuring the development of a diverse pipeline of future workers who bring different perspectives and experiences into the workplace. As employers, organizations have a role to play in supporting today’s students (tomorrow’s workforce) in accessing and successfully navigating our digital world.

There is no question that technology allows us to connect in more ways than ever before. Let’s be sure that everyone has a seat at that virtual table.

We look forward to discussing during the Summit the issues around digital divides and, more broadly, how we can prepare current and future workers to successfully participate in the changing world of work. Partnering to address these challenges – and thereby scaling our impact – will be critical as we strive to make meaningful progress.