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Covid-19 focuses minds on pressing need for digital skills

After the pandemic ‘disruption has arrived at the gates of nearly every economic entity’

Covid-19 has ‘driven one of the biggest transformational shifts’ since the second World War.

Covid-19 has ‘driven one of the biggest transformational shifts’ since the second World War.


Covid-19 has brought into sharp focus the need for digital skills across various sectors. How are companies preparing new and current staff for the opportunities it can bring?

Covid-19 has driven one of the biggest transformational shifts since the second World War, says Dr John Bustard who is lecturer in digital transformation at Ulster University (UU) and is also course director of UU’s BSc in business studies. “While some sectors were already in a state of transition through digital transformation, industries like construction, hospitality, agriculture and education have not had to invest as heavily in alternative approaches to delivering customer value. Disruption has now arrived at the gates of nearly every economic entity in that companies are now considering the benefits of reduced office costs and travel expenses as well as the positive impact that working from home can have on employee wellbeing, but there are challenges, says Bustard. “Is the home environment suitable and appropriate given issues of connectivity,family and cybersecurity?” he asks.

But could possible technological leaps prompted by the pandemic ultimately cost us dearly by replacing human jobs? “Automation, sensors, smartphones and artificial intelligence is not yet directly supporting many of the more straightforward functions in smaller business and supply chains. The potential is there but it is still too expensive and technically difficult to implement. This will change and will require upskilling and reskilling but, ultimately, our soft skills – adaptability, sensory and cognitive abilities, and creativity in problem solving – are what separates us from machines.”

UU’s business school is focused on strategic support of key business functions leading digital strategy, says Bustard. “A focus on aligning the micro-environment of organisations with the future demands of this more digitised economy is paramount. Everyone must learn and relearn as a habit and there is no better time to engage in this approach than now.”


James O’Connor, managing director of Microsoft International Operations and a former president of the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland, says that Microsoft’s mission to help businesses in Ireland to reskill and upskill their workforce to take advantage of Cloud and other new technologies has taken on a new urgency.

“Microsoft’s Enterprise Skills Initiative provides our customers and partners with best practices, tools, a learning centre and ongoing support from our team,” he says. “The pandemic has [led to] businesses re-evaluating the skills they need within their team to operate in a digital environment. Employees have shown a willingness to retrain and upskill.”

Microsoft has provided unlimited and free access to its online learning platform, Microsoft Learn. “It means existing workers can take their first step into the world of new technology with modules on cloud, data and AI, while the LinkedIn learning platform provides valuable expert-led skills development training on a broad selection of business, creative and technology topics across seven different languages.”

O’Connor points out that the average life of a skill today is less than five years. “To emerge stronger from the Covid-19 crisis, companies need to make reskilling their workforce a core pillar of business strategy.”

Pinsent Masons

“All of our global offices had transitioned to agile working long before the pandemic hit,” says Michael Finn, a partner at Pinsent Masons, a professional services firm with a particular legal focus. “It was business as usual for our people and our clients when the lockdown came; the only instruction we needed was to work from home.”

The firm provided additional equipment that staff needed, such as wifi boosters, printers or additional screens. “Like all organisations, we have experienced a significant increase in use of our video conferencing technologies,” Finn says. “Connectivity is everything, and our IT support colleagues have been tremendous. Our colleagues, clients, and competitors are all in the same situation. The pandemic has enhanced the importance of staying connected, whether that is done by picking up the phone or having a virtual coffee, or by publishing good quality and relevant online content which can be shared on social channels and directly with clients.”

Google Customer Solutions UK & Ireland

“Over the past year, we’ve been helping Irish businesses think through how to navigate in light of Brexit and its potential effects,” says Alice Mansergh, director of Google Customer Solutions UK & Ireland. “We rolled out Digital Garage workshops across the country, as part of our Grow with Google initiative to support local business success. Through Grow with Google, we trained 13,000 Irish people and businesses, to help them build the right digital skills for the opportunities ahead.”

When Covid-19 hit, Mansergh was struck by the resilience and adaptability of local Irish business. “SMEs’ needs changed from expanding their customer base and embracing global opportunities to sustaining their business – in many cases without access to their offices, studios, shops or restaurants. A pool of businesses who had never operated online before were now feeling the pressure to build simple websites and ‘remain open’ for customers online.”

Owners Karl Swaine, Diarmuid McSweeney and Niall Horgan in the Gym + Coffee pop-up shop in the Dundrum shopping centre.
Owners Karl Swaine, Diarmuid McSweeney and Niall Horgan in the Gym + Coffee pop-up shop in the Dundrum shopping centre.

Google relaunched Digital Garage, a weekly webinar focused on the essentials for business, and they’ve seen a 300 per cent in increase in people taking Grow with Google Training.

“Attendance is increasing week by week,” says Mansergh. “We come across businesses like Gym + Coffee who have moved from bricks and mortar stores selling athleisure for sports and social activities to finding customers online, restaurants offering takeaway online, retailers pivoting to new product lines and education companies offering digital services. The tools and resources to operate online do exist and it’s a matter of confidence to know you can learn. My advice is to leverage the skills you have obtained as a result of Covid-19 and find a balance between digital operations and face-to-face.”

See g.co/digitalgarage-ie for more information