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Agile working after the pandemic: limitations and need of new digital skills in the labor market

by Gabriele Marzano, labour policies expert

More than a month after the announcement of the pandemic, the International Labour Organization [1] estimates a 6.7% reduction in working hours for 2020, equivalent to 195 million full-time equivalent positions worldwide. Thus, as in various other reports published in recent weeks, the long-term impact on global economies is already predicted to be highly “selective”, as it is profoundly different from the point of view of production sectors, national contexts and specific strategies to contain the epidemic. For some economic activities we are witnessing a true collapse in the demand and supply of services (e.g. in catering or tourism); for others (e.g. in many business services, public administrations, education, etc.), there is rather an extensive repositioning of working patterns (rather than jobs) through the use of remote technologies. In fact, in a few weeks, in many of the countries[2] affected by the health crisis, there has been a sudden and mass recourse to remote working, demonstrating one aspect above all: at the end of the day, the poor application, before the pandemic, of remote working in many European countries had nothing to do with technological constraints but rather with cultural and organizational shyness still present in the workplace.

Now, however, that agile working has imposed itself in various sectors as an ordinary way of working due to the inevitable social distancing obligations, it is perhaps possible to advance some more realistic considerations on its advantages and/or disadvantages, in particular with respect to the “old” analogue type of work. In the meantime, it is necessary to start from the semantics implicit in the term. The remote worker is in fact implicitly represented as a “smart” worker, since he is fully autonomous in the management of means, in the organization of his activity, in the definition of his professional objectives, so much so that he can work at remotely with easy recourse to digital technologies. From this derives also the opposite, purely conventional value, attributed to the term (more used in the past) of teleworker, represented as a… not smart kind of worker, because he works remotely, but in low-skilled services, with objectives and working methods completely hetero-directed and hetero-educated.

These distinctions are clearly conventional and often unrelated to the concrete organizational realities. Indeed, one thing is clear: in most business organizations the gap between completely self-employed and totally hetero-directed workers is almost never present. It is no coincidence that, in today’s American context, when we talk about remote work, the term distributed work is used more frequently. The latter term is used to refer to company organizations that make use a large number of remote workers, who operate with their own independent means and objectives, but within a coordination system that crosses vertical management strategies with horizontal methods of participation in collaboration and project groups.

It’s good to keep these elements in mind, because the risk of an uncritical adoption of agile working is to lose sight of some important advantages of the…analogical way of working. Practices such as teamwork, project collaborations, the frequency, even random, of working relationships and the sharing of organizational feedback, even informal ones: these are all essential elements for organizational integration, the circulation of information, the creative construction of new strategies. Remember the old English adage: “innovation is a contact sport”. And key to all this, in distributed work companies, is the use of digital co-working platforms that are now common (e.g. Trello, Slack, Teams, etc.). The objective is to ensure the exercise of soft skills, which in the digital world (as much as in the analogue world), continue to be fundamental for the production of value, also because they cannot be replaced by artificial intelligence systems (yet).[3]

Nevertheless, even for these aspects, the current shift from analogue to digital work risks not being painless, especially for the labour force with insufficient digital skills. And Italy, from this point of view, does not hold an enviable position. Every year the European Commission produces a ranking of the European countries regarding the “Digital Society and Economy (DESI)”. It recognizes a great distance between the European Countries both in the composite indexes of DESI (figure n. 1) and in the specific field of the digital competences held by the different populations.  

Fig. n. 1: Digital Economy and Society Index 2019 ranking of European countries

Source: https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/desi

What are the reasons why a real “national e-skills infrastructure” is still deeply absent in some European countries? Perhaps because, in some of these countries, digital skills have so far received little attention, not only in school and university education but also in vocational training. For the latter, it is well known that the courses aimed in particular at workers are almost always limited to individual computer applications or specific software useful to individual companies for their production cycles. In essence, the training offer is very often designed according to company tasks, i.e. the specific technical qualifications functional to the services/products of the companies on which the worker depends. What we want to advocate as appropriate in this case is the formation of a real “digital citizenship” that allows each worker to orient themselves in new technologies, to have full mastery to contribute through their use, to produce innovation not only in their professional life and in the organizations in which they work, but also in their personal social context. In terms of training offer, these objectives should be translated into a strengthening of the learning processes of skills, i.e. transversal skills, applicable in all working and productive contexts even in a highly digitalized world. The example leads to transversal skills such as learning how to learn, how to communicate or negotiate, how to autonomously organize one’s own activity and objectives, how to define, propose and apply solutions to complex problems.

The DIG-Comp system, conceived by the European Commission, tries for the first time to apply the logical framework just described to the digital world, as it proposes a scale of learning levels, as in fig. 2, not bound to specific information technologies, but rather to different degrees of mastery of these competences through transversal skills. The metaphor used by the researchers of the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, is that of the person who develops more and more articulated skills to be able to “swim” in the complex digital world. The system includes eight levels of learning, to be assessed in three main domains (complexity of functions; degree of autonomy; cognitive skills) placed in relation to the degree of mastery of digital tools and their use to solve problems. The last level, the one that should be aspired to, is the one where digital skills are used to solve complex problems of any kind, thus contributing to organizational, economic and social innovation. It is the so-called e-leadership, a skill which, however, in line with what has been discussed so far, cannot be proposed as a prerogative of managers or key figures working in companies, but as a learning skill for all workers.

Fig.2. The digital skills system proposed in the European Commission’s DIGcomp model

In order to aim at the objectives just mentioned, for the dissemination of a true “digital citizenship“, it’s necessary to promote in the near future the massive investment in extensive Lifelong Learning Plans on digital skills, even unrelated to the professional and sectorial placements of individual workers or the specific needs expressed by individual companies and instead linked to transversal skills for the use of digital tools to orient themselves in full autonomy in a labour market increasingly affected by the innovations of the digital world.


[1]ILO, ILO Monitor 2nd edition: COVID-19 and the world of work – Updated estimates and analysis, 7 april 2020

[2] See Eurostat data in this link

[3] Grundke, R., et al. (2018), “Which skills for the digital era?: Returns to skills analysis”, OECD Science, Technology and Industry Working Papers, No. 2018/09, OECD Publishing, Paris,

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