Back to Work – Unlearning Digital: The Month That Was


Earlier this month, a circular made rounds in the area I live in. This singular piece of virtually shared information made what was physically impossible during Covid-induced lockdown a possibility. Alleviating the shared agony of all residents in just five clearly articulated bullet points, it stamped the re-entry of house maids after government restrictions were lifted! Victory was ours, after all.

After having worked from home and “for” home for over 2 months, this news was the brightest spot in the Covid-19 darkness. I could now focus on productive things, while outsourcing self-peace-depleting tasks to another human who not only managed these tasks with flair and efficiency but did it because it helped her run her house. For her, coming ‘back to work’ meant ease in putting food on the table, giving her kids a decent shot at life and living her life with dignity.

As with all other things (education included!), the coronavirus pandemic created a digital divide so deep and steep that it affected the lesser privileged, taking away their only source of income. Relaxing the terms on allowing a person outside of your family into your home was akin to restoring the balance of the world (for this side of the world at least!). But when the same was replicated in organizations, the sentiments ranged from fear to anger.

About one-third of businesses in Canada surveyed by the CFIB reported that they are struggling to get workers back into their pre-pandemic jobs with some people doing a risk-reward calculation and comparing getting $2,000 to stay at home or making $2,500 to go to work full-time, according to CTVNews. In Singapore, almost one in three employees don’t feel safe returning to work, as per Circuit Breaker. While in another extreme, the Manitoba government is willing to pay residents up to $2,000 if they go back to work and stop collecting federal COVID-19 benefits.

But go back to work we ought to!

Back to work

Navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath is one of the biggest business challenges of our time. Amid mounting economic turmoil, executives are increasingly guarded in their outlook—only one in five chief financial officers surveyed by PwC said they believed their companies could resume “business as usual” within a month if the crisis ended today.

New reports, OSHA guidelines have been issued to suggest how to safely get employees back to work. Further, to sensitize the workforce, Know Your Rights empowers workers on know-how about what employers are required to do to keep them safe on the job, as well as what to do if they’re sick and how to report violations of state and federal rules.

One way or the other, our love affair with digital seems to have come to an abrupt end as organizations implement a return to work policy. After months of digital skilling and training on remote working, the workforce now sets upon an unlearning journey to wean themselves off all things tech!

Digital Unlearning

“Illiteracy in the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

COVID-19 forced millions of workers to change their daily routines and adopt new digital tools. A significant investment – in terms of time, effort and cost – made towards upskilling for the digital transformation seems to be flattening as the workforce resumes working from office, forgoing the need for digital in every aspect of their work-life.

Let’s take an example of Dave. A Sales professional who adopted digital for client meetings during the lockdown, now has to be the feet on the street (literally!) choosing a physical meeting space over a virtual one. You may argue that he commutes in Uber, logs customer details in Salesforce, communicates with his colleagues on WhatsApp or MS Teams, uses Outlook for mailing and hence has a huge dependency on technology. All taken! But let’s not forget that with all things constant, including the latter set of technology and tools, unlearning his newly acquired approach for client interactions (over virtual conference) is critical for his work performance in post lockdown, back-to-work era.

A word of gold from Margie Warrell, Forbes Columnist & Advisory Board Forbes School of Business & Technology: “Unlearning is about moving away from something —letting go— rather than acquiring. It’s like stripping old paint. It lays the foundation for the new layer of fresh learning to be acquired and to stick. But like the painter who needs to prepare a surface, stripping the paint is 70 percent of the work while repainting is only 30 percent.”

But do we really have to unlearn digital?

According to Live Mint India, “The pandemic has accelerated transformation manifold for businesses in India. Organizations are re-imagining their business models, relooking at talent management strategies and fast-tracking digitalization efforts to be more resilient to disruption. Simulation, automation and remote everything is becoming a reality with the move to a digital first world.”

Accenture says that organizations will want to build competencies they wish they had invested in before: to be more digital, data driven, and in the cloud; to have more variable cost structures, agile operations and automation; to create stronger capabilities in e-commerce and security.

For the workforce, it’s now about skilling for resilience. Companies are investing in tools, platforms and training (content)that facilitates accelerated learning for nurturing and fostering shared resilience.

Overall, it’s the making of a new mindset. Companies are starting to evaluate how digital channels can be used to support business continuity through the crisis and beyond. Companies are also considering the impact of these changes on the way they design, communicate, build and run the experiences that people need and want.

Spilling a hot cuppa after a day of working from home (for me) and work from office (for the hubby), I sigh, “How I wish I could outsource cooking to a robot!”

“Oh sure you could, just tell me! You anyway order me around on other things,” he says with a smirk.

“But you are a human, you know. A bot doesn’t grump when told. You would,” I reply confidently.

“I could at times. But at least you would have piping hot food ready to be devoured. Imagine what would happen if the bot malfunctioned or broke?” pat comes the question.

“I would…”

I stop abruptly as my mind does a mental math of having to unlearn the dependency on a bot, coping with the added frustration of fixing the technology and mechanics, re-honing my cooking skills, summoning up the motivation to get into the kitchen,and, finally, cooking – MYSELF!

Now that’s one learning and unlearning path I could gracefully avoid!

‘The month that was’ is a monthly column covering the hot and the happening in the eLearning, L&D and learning technology space presented in a light, easy-to-digest format. While the aim of these posts is to keep the HR and the Learning & Development fraternity abreast with the latest news and views, it is a vent out for the author, Pranjalee Lahri, who deals with a one-and-a-half men pair – her hubby and her 6-year old son – as she moonlights as a wife and a mother.


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