Digitalization presents boundless opportunities to make the world a better place. Not only is it set to have a massive impact in key areas such as medicine and energy management, but it also offers businesses and employees unprecedented flexibility. Chances are, you’ve already witnessed some impact of digitalization on your own working life. But one way or another, you can be certain of one thing: the pace of digital transformation is at full throttle and this will come to have a profound influence on how your workplace functions on a day-to-day basis. Welcome to the new age of digital working culture.
Opportunities and Challenges
Digitalization is set to change almost every line of work and is opening up previously undreamt of opportunities. More monotonous, repetitive tasks of professions are gradually being taken over by digitalized offerings, freeing up people to enjoy tasks that are more mentally stimulating and rewarding.
Added to this is the benefit that, for many, digitalization is creating new possibilities to develop professional careers free from the shackles of the traditional employment model. Ultimately, this can allow for a far better balance between work and private life.
While companies may recognize many benefits of the transformation, as with any process of major change, there are naturally also challenges with which they must contend.
In the short-term, an issue weighing on job satisfaction is one which is quite intangible, and yet existential: the fear of the unknown. For those of us working in the Internet industry and already witnessing what digitalization can offer, a changing working culture may appear to be par for the course. But for many of those just entering the game, digitalization can naturally create a certain uneasiness – and this is played upon and magnified by headline-grabbing talk of jobs being replaced by robots and machine learning.
The future of digitalization is in our hands
Fears that automation will create considerable unemployment go back to the 19th century, and have never materialized. The truth is, of course, that the future of digitalization remains in our own hands to shape and mold and, ethically managed, could counter real existential threats to humanity. And in the area of employment, while digitalization is seen by many as a game changer which poses threats to many industries, its overall net effect has been in fact to consistently optimize business and production processes.
On balance, current studies are showing overall positive employment effects due to digitalization. Research indicates that many skills of workers – cognitive, emotional, and physical – would be difficult to automate, meaning that employment sectors are not under threat; instead, digitalization is more likely to enhance them. What’s more, many countries in the western world are already up against staff shortages due to demographic change: here, using digital tools to complement human work will help to address important gaps – and in areas such as elder care, will even be life-saving.
In a nutshell, what is seen to be at stake is more an issue of job displacement than job losses. While analog business models are being supplemented everywhere by new, more convenient digital offerings, digitalization continues to create new occupations (such as search engine optimization managers or e-learning coaches),
new types of organizations (such as cloud computing providers), and even new sectors of the economy (such as digital security and data science).
But digitalization is naturally not only impacting on the traditional IT sector. It is also acting as a catalyst for employment growth in the wider economy. In India, for example, it is estimated that each new job in IT has led to the creation of between three to four jobs in other sectors.
To take just two further examples: the number of employees in German mechanical engineering rose from 864,000 in 2005 to 1,032 million in 2017, while globally, the World Economic Forum projects that digitalization could create up to 6 million jobs worldwide in the logistics and electricity industries in the next decade.
In order to effectively harness the massive potential of digitalization for society, and to calm employees’ fears, a huge premium rests on the ability of companies to adapt their culture in the immediate term and to shape the next generation of talent for the digital age. This, of course, presents fundamental questions for businesses and, indeed, for society as a whole. Whereas previous technological revolutions played out over a relatively long period of time, the speed of digitalization is such that businesses need to move quickly.
For most companies, however, the writing is on the wall. In a 2017 German study, the topic of “workplace of the future” was identified as one of the top priorities for companies, coming in just behind IT security. Six out of every seven companies studied had already taken action to prepare for New Work. The main preoccupation of these companies? Adjustments to workplace culture, pared down to aspects such as flexibility, agility, continuing education, and an increase in employee satisfaction.
Already today, few of us expect to work in the same job for our entire lives, or even in the same profession. This calls for a new level of flexibility and constant upskilling, as well as reskilling. As we move into the future, a high degree of self-directed action and the ability to self-organize will be demanded of many employees.
What should companies focus on?
It goes without saying that there is much that governments and society as a whole need to attend to. To equip the workforce for the digital future, new educational concepts are clearly at the forefront of changes required. But what actions should companies themselves immediately instigate in order to prepare for the future? These can be considered in two brackets: firstly, the creation of conducive workplace conditions; and secondly, a strong emphasis on continuing education and professional development.
Creating conditions for a digital workplace culture
eco advocates a greater emphasis on self-regulation, especially when it comes to working time: the principle should be that flexibility is promoted, whenever the task allows for this. In a recent German survey undertaken by the research institute Civey on behalf of the eco Association, respondents identified a number of benefits arising from the digital workplace. Topping this list were those of flexibility when it comes to location, followed by flexible scheduling and self-directed working. Naturally, specific requirements of different professions need to be borne in mind: every company is subject to economic requirements and external framework conditions, while every employee has his or her own individual life plan and needs – both must be sensibly reconciled.
Employers and employees should therefore retain the greatest possible room for maneuver. This applies both to the division of working time and rules for mobile working, as well as the design of flexible part-time models. The model of bridging part-time work, for example, is suited to the new freedom in the digital world of work and to dynamically changing employment biographies.
Flexibility is called for on both sides. On the employee side, entrepreneurial thinking and self-organization are core competencies which should be promoted. In return, the employer must assume responsibility and address the fact that digital work models can tend to merge job and private life. Particular attention must also be paid here to the psychological strain on employees and the growing importance of health-promoting programs. It is important to promote corporate social responsibility and, for example, to contribute to the long-term retention of the workforce through a “healthy work” approach comprising of health care, sports, resilience training, and other measures.
It is also necessary to address the multitude of new working models beyond the so-called “normal” working conditions (full-time, permanent employment) and to make social security systems more attractive for these groups, without interfering with regulations.
Continuing education and professional development
The education system as offered through schools, universities and colleges naturally has a central role to play in creating the groundwork conditions for the digital workplace. But for their part, companies also have a role to ensure that their employees do not lose touch with cutting-edge developments, and therefore allow for continuous training and further education – this could involve, for cooperative initiatives with training colleges and facilitating further education of non-academics.
Technology is subject to constant change and many workforce insecurities arise first and foremost from the fact that employees no longer feel equipped to keep pace with the requirements of a digitalized working environment. It is important to take countermeasures at an early stage through high-quality professional development. Employees need to recognize that fluidity is part of the digital workplace. Rather than panicking if they believe that part of their work could be taken over by digitalization, they should instead be supported to see this as an opportunity to focus on more rewarding tasks. Through professional development programs, employees will get to learn that their employers have “got their backs”, and this will lead to increased job satisfaction.
It is also important to intercept the looming shortage of skilled workers in the technological sector through further education. In those places where it is recognized early on that tasks and areas of work will be transformed, it is possible to take preemptive remedial action to invest in further training of staff.
Time to make the leap
Digitalization offers solutions to all sorts of problems, small and large. We must not forget that what is important is not the algorithm itself, but the opportunity to make the world a better place. All areas of application, from smart city, to energy management, to elder care, serve to improve the quality of life for people. At the same time, a digital workplace can offer more humane working conditions and an easier working life. To make this happen, we need to start now to adapt workplace cultures to reflect the digital age.
 World Economic Forum, 2018. Understanding the Impact of Digitalization on Society Available: http://reports.weforum.org/digital-transformation/understanding-the-impact-of-digitalization-on-society/
Lucia Falkenberg is Chief People Officer with eco – Association of the Internet Industry and DE-CIX Management GmbH. Having joined eco in 2012, Lucia became Head of the eco Competence Group New Work in 2014. Prior to her role at eco, the Business Studies graduate managed her own human resources firm, where she successfully supported numerous clients in finding and retaining talented personnel. Lucia also previously worked as an international HR representative for an American IT company. Her extensive experience and know-how across the entire human resources spectrum is of particular benefit when it comes to advising executives and developing and implementing targeted personnel marketing and recruitment strategies. As a professional mother and woman working in the digital sector, Lucia benefits directly from the opportunities offered by the digital world of work.