Many workplaces - including Parliament - have had to switch to virtual alternatives. Photo: Screenshot/Parliament

New Zealand is grappling with the question of how to continue work after the significant disruption of Covid-19. What will the long-term impacts be? 

The world has been in crisis management mode for the first part of 2020. Countries across the globe have implemented various measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, chief of which is to avoid physical contact. 

Social distancing and contactless interactions are changing business as usual, as organisations in New Zealand grapple with the question of how to continue their work when the very way they work has been disrupted.

But what long-term impact will this crisis have on New Zealand and what can we learn from it?

Digital work – a great opportunity

Where New Zealand lands on the other side of Covid-19 depends on a number of factors. One of them is what it does now to adapt to the new ways of interacting, working and living driven by the lockdown. 

The Government has won plaudits globally as a model of compassionate competence in managing the pandemic. The decisiveness of its political leadership, science-based approach and comprehensive response of people at the front line in implementing the lockdown have been recognised internationally as examples of how to manage the pandemic. This builds New Zealand’s already strong global brand as a small country that punches well above its weight in the international arena, building on humane values and integrity.

New Zealand has further advantages it needs to emerge stronger from the pandemic: an entrepreneurial, self-starter culture; a stable socio-political environment; a sound economy; and last but not least excellent ICT infrastructure. These are the ingredients for a future-proof, digitalised population as developed economies shift toward greater use of technology and automation.

With the Covid-19 lockdown forcing more people to increase their use of digital technologies to keep working – and in touch – the digital proficiency of New Zealand’s workforce has already risen naturally in the past few weeks: 

– Employees are becoming more adept at using digital workplace tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. In fact, many might not want to drop all the new routines and habits that bring flexibility and autonomy to their lives.

– Managers are gaining comfort that work continues even when their employees are physically distant. Common misconceptions dissolve – for example, that remote work reduces the speed of getting things done. 

– Organisations are exploring a broader spectrum of ways to engage with customers, while customers are learning their needs continue to be fulfilled through different, digital ways of working.

In short, the lockdown is changing old mindsets, as well as business and social norms (Zoom Happy Hours, anyone?).

How can NZ prepare for its digital future?

According to an Institute of Directors Survey (2018), only 34 percent of New Zealand businesses feel prepared for how their organisation will work in the future, while the New Zealand Digital Skills Forum noted that “not enough local digitally skilled people [are] being developed”.

If we see the Covid-19 lockdown as a catalyst for the evolution of its workforce, there are a few things New Zealand could do to make sure it lands well:

– Build out a regulatory framework that facilitates the growth of the digital economy and looks after its gig workers

– Create a national programme for digitally upskilling the population, similar to Singapore’s SkillsFuture initiative

– Initiate a programme that promotes New Zealand globally as a digital hub to attract digital businesses and talent, similar to the 100% Pure New Zealand tourism marketing campaign, but which also includes tax and regulatory incentives

– Introduce more digital skills development through every stage of the educational system and quickly implement micro-credentials at a university level that allow individuals to develop their digital skills. Specific digital competencies would include business analytics, artificial intelligence, digital innovation, blockchain, design thinking, social media, cybersecurity, user experience design and other developing topics. 

Beyond the above specific digital competencies, people need to maintain sanity in an increasingly complex digital environment. This includes reserving time for focusing and digital detox. 

After all, digital upskilling does not mean digital overload; it means avoiding digital overload and focusing on productivity and wellbeing. 

Malcolm Foo is an executive adviser based in New Zealand and an executive-in-residence atthe Executive MBA in Wellington School of Business and Government at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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