COVID-19 an accelerator of digitalization

November 04, 2021

Geoff Wood, professor and chair of the DAN Department of Management & Organization Studies

Story by Rob Rombouts

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the digitalization of many workplaces, and it is not a pattern that is likely to be reversed, although the form it takes is likely to continue to change.

While the move to remote work led to a quick adoption of digital workplaces, Geoffrey Wood, professor and chair of the DAN Department of Management & Organization Studies, said the process is likely at a bit of plateau, as people and firms consider the changes that have occurred.

Wood and his co-authors examined how the COVID-19 drove or constrained the digitalization of business in a paper ‘COVID-19 and digitalization: The great acceleration’, published in the Journal of Business Research.

“There will likely be a period of consolidation, maybe even a period of unwinding, but,” said Wood, the move toward digitalization “is an inevitable process.”

Digitalization is more than just the more to remote working and paperless offices, but “about the usage of data in novel forms, given the decline of traditional forms of exchange, and the decline of sharing of ideas in the office space.”

Digitalization provides benefits, such as allowing information to be shared in a more neutral space. Remote work is also generally more popular with workers and leads to a sense of greater job satisfaction. There are, however, some negative impacts for workers and firms.

“There is an increase in surveillance, with more data collection about employees, beyond acceptable practice,” said Wood. Some sectors of the economy, such as commercial real estate, are ‘being squeezed by the model’. Wood also said that some forms of knowledge can be difficult to transfer.

“Many people are buying property outside of the traditional commuting area in anticipation that they will be able to carry on remote work indefinitely,” said Wood, pointing out this is more evident among a wealthy middle-class group, and “is more of a life-style choice.”

Despite the popularity of a digitalized workspace, some countries and firms are interested in reversing the trend.

“Tech companies are generally supportive of remote work, and financial services are more skeptical,” said Wood. “Countries that seem most keen on re-setting are those with relatively large financial services industries, and where property managers have more influence.”

In the United Kingdom, for example, the message has been that “people need to stop slacking and go back to work.” In comparison, in Canada, the more common view has been that if office workers are able to do their work, it is not really a problem for them to continue to do so remotely.

There will continue to be potential unforeseen circumstances, said Wood. Some workers, especially those without family, may have increased rates of loneliness. There may also be issues with internet connectivity, some of which can be addressed through infrastructure improvement, but other issues are more complicated, including the risk caused by internet outages. If data is stored remotely, or if firms are dependent on a system that usually works well, outages could present significant difficulties, especially given there are not always clear reasons for such outages.

“Some are foreseen and predictable, such as those due to a weak spot in infrastructure,” said Wood, but other causes can be more obscure and be more difficult to address.

“People have invested heavily in property, and will make a case to work from home. Employers recognize they can save money on space and have a happier workforce,” said Wood. “Lots of people clearly wanted to do it beforehand. It was evident, and they seized the opportunity and wish to carry-on doing it - they are committing housing decisions in doing this - and organizations need to recognize that.”