The Covid-19 pandemic forced a sudden change in global working structures to comply with the strict lockdown protocols instituted in many countries. Workplaces were forced to quickly adapt to remote working, necessitating a rapid shift towards ‘digital work’, a broad term to describe the employment of  technology centric work practices. Whilst digital work practices were already in place or growing in utilisation across most industries, Covid has certainly expedited this process.  Most companies quickly realised that to ensure the sustainability of their company, they needed to find ways to keep staff working despite restrictions. This article will examine how digital work has affected businesses and employees and the misconceptions that have arisen over the last year.  

Digital Work: The Impact on Employees & Businesses

For businesses and industries unaccustomed to digital working practices, 2020 has forced them to re-evaluate assumptions that work must be conducted within the same physical working environment in order to be productive. Even after the pandemic ends, it is likely digital work is here to stay. It is critical therefore for managers to understand what digital work entails, and how it will impact both employees and businesses.

The main benefit in digital work for employees is that telecommuting often provides individuals with greater flexibility and autonomy to complete their work away from the office. This includes reducing travel time, allowing employees to reallocate that time to personal and caring responsibilities.  However, with employees working away from the office – companies have now had to shift their working conditions to accommodate for a digital workforce. 

A key issue for businesses that have shifted to digital work is how they can ensure employees are working during company time. Digital work has allowed for people to challenge the 9-5 work day norm, and instead work to complete output instead of hours. This necessarily requires businesses to rethink both their conception of employee trust and the employee performance metrics they utilise.  

According to Alan Ossher, a product manager at Dicker Data- an Information Technology distribution company, one way that businesses are ensuring their employees continue working away from the office is through the introduction of more stringent KPIs. This may include sales targets, set goals (e.g. articles published), or hours worked through the introduction of a clock-in/ clock-out system (e.g. for customer support)

Digital work has also required businesses to be more flexible to accommodate the needs of their employees. According to Ossher, IT companies like Dicker Data have been at the forefront of this move onto digital work, as they already had the systems and structures in place to facilitate this shift. For example, Dicker Data had already implemented a cloud-based system for their business operations – which allowed employees to transition into remote work. This meant that company data and systems were easily accessible from the employee’s home. Thus, unlike companies with more traditional working dynamics such as paper-based offices – the transition into digital work during the pandemic has been more seamless for digital work ready companies.

Telecommuting also has positive impacts on the environment, because working from home or locally means fewer people require public or private transport to access their place of workJonothan Hermann, chairman of the North Shore Innovation Network (an organisation that connects and advocates for innovation startups and entrepreneurs on Sydney’s north shore), agrees that remote work can be a sustainable choice for many reasons, including reduced paper product consumption as companies shift to digital records and cloud based storage. 

Another benefit of digital work is greater flexibility in how employees connect. The rigid schedule of having to host meetings by securing available space and booking physical rooms has been replaced with a much more flexible and easily accessible system of links and virtual meeting rooms. The shift to digital business has similarly increased the need for businesses to invest in IT applications which can both connect employees working from home as well as integrate with already established business practices. Businesses have used services such as Zoom and Google Meet as conferencing tools, as a substitute for the more traditional in-person meetings, whilst applications such as Microsoft Teams and Slack have been used for both formal and information business communication.  

Associate Professor in Computing at UNSW, Dr. Nadine Marcus, explains that the transition to virtual meetings has also increased their accessibility and utility for employees. Online meetings can now be organised more spontaneously, and are easier to access for all workers including those with caring responsibilities or those who find accessing the office more challenging for a range of reasons.  Online meetings have largely been facilitated by the deployment of video conferencing tools, with use of this technology increasing rapidly around the world during the pandemic. For example Zoom saw a significant increase in worldwide downloads of the application, with downloads 14 times higher in the US, and 20 times higher in the UK in March 2020, compared to the fourth quarter of 2019.

Even though this digital shift requires financial investment, it also generates some savings. Some businesses are now able to scale down their physical spaces as more staff work from home permanently or undertake a hybrid working pattern of home and the office, allowing more hot-desking to be utilized across offices

However, telecommuting and working from home is not without its downsides. Workers who prefer a defined working office, within physical distance of their colleagues may experience increased feelings of social isolation with remote work. This can have an adverse effect on productivity, with a 2002 study finding that depressed workers lost 4 times as many productive hours per week. Similarly, some employees have also been negatively impacted by digital work through the loss of informal or casual conversation around the workforce. To combat these issues, companies such as Dicker Data have provided tailored mental health employee resources and dedicated time towards virtual socialisation

Misconceptions about Digital Work

With the sudden move into digital work forced by the Covid pandemic, misconceptions about digital work inevitably arose, although many of these are related more to the circumstances which led to lockdowns, as opposed to digital work itself. These misconceptions fall into two categories; both unrealistic criticisms of digital work, as well as issues that may potentially arise with digital work. 

A key misconception about digital work is that it is more stressful and tiring than traditional office based work. Professor of Information Systems at the Wellington School of Business – Alexander Richter, explains that the abruptness of the Covid situation has resulted in a large amount of coordination work, necessitating multiple online meetings, which has made the transition to online work very stressful for some individuals. However, this was more a consequence of the suddenness of lockdowns rather than remote work itself. In contrast, experienced digital workers, accustomed to working across multiple time zones, quickly employed strategies to reduce the need for synchronous communication and thus the need for endless online meetings.

Another misconception of telecommuting is the notion that employees are required to constantly prove their value. The autonomous nature of digital work, with employees unable to be physically seen within a working environment, may result in some feeling the need to overcompensate by being more contactable and responsive than they were prior to the digital shift. The misconception that employees need to be at their desk to be productive is a notion that will need to be challenged as employers adjust their metrics, expectations and level of trust for their employees. Similarly, employees will need to ensure they remain disciplined in their working practices and provide their employers with the assurance that they can still deliver the required job output, despite their altered work structure. 

Three Key Recommendations for Managers: leading an online workforce

  1. Invest in resources, both for the broader organisation and the individual employees. With digital work slowly becoming the norm, it is integral that businesses invest in resources which facilitate digital work. This includes cloud storage, communication tools such as Slack or Microsoft Teams and online meeting software such as Skype or Zoom It is also imperative that all staff have the correct equipment and working conditions for digital work. Businesses should invest in things which facilitate an employee’s ability to work remotely both effectively and comfortably, such as a laptop, access to fast internet headsets and appropriate desk space
  2. Try to facilitate remote employee socialisation to avoid social isolation and maintain team connectedness. Many managers have adapted to digital work by scheduling weekly or fortnightly virtual drinks to substitute the previous after-work drinks which occurred in the office. This ultimately fosters social interaction in the workplace and boosts employee morale.
  3. Trust employees to work remotely. If mutual trust exists between managers and employees, then overall morale is improved across the organisation. For example, instead of constantly checking if employees are working remotely, KPI’s can be created by managers to ensure productivity. 

There is no doubt that significant adjustments and reframing has been and will continue to be required by both organisations and their employees in the wake of the continuing global pandemic. However this pandemic has also provided us with an opportunity to rethink what the productive workplace of the future looks like and strive to create not just a “new normal” but a “better normal”.

Author: Bradley Lanesman

Editor: Shireen Bernstein, Insights & Partnerships Manager, North Sydney Innovation Network

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