This is how our screen time is shifting

The coronavirus outbreak has created significant shifts in internet traffic as a result of changes in our screen usage. But these new behaviors might become a bigger part of our lives in the long term. Peter Linder investigates the key shifts in screen time and what it means for the future.

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Information workers' screens are on the move!

The work being done in professions where working from home is possible has moved location quickly over the last three weeks. If you work from home regularly, you might not see the magnitude of this tectonic shift in location and ways of working. Here are a few examples from the American workforce:

  • 7% of the civilian workforce had access to a flexible work from home option in 2019. Out of 140 million US civilian workers, less than 10 million were doing what we are seeing in large volumes now (source: PEW)
  • That percentage drops to 4% for state and local government workers (source: PEW)
  • 54% of information workers don't have a work laptop or a computer at home (source: MetaFacts)
  • 55% of information workers don't have a smartphone provided by their employers (source MetaFacts)

Workforce mobility is running by necessity today and by a strategic agility intent tomorrow. The agility of the workforce environment is being put through an extreme test right now. If you are responsible for the personal computing and communication tools at your company, your future policies can cover:  

  • Shifting desktops to laptops as the norm
  • Encouraging staff to develop remote workings skills, and applying them frequently as a path to creating a more mobile/agile workforce
  • Wireless connectivity designed to work in the office, at home, and on the road for your business-critical IT applications

Conference calls leap into the video age 

Most workers were satisfied with audio conferences and shared slides for conference calls. This ‘new normal’ is great when frequent social interactions are part of your professional life, but not so much when digital communications are the dominating part of your interactions with customers and colleagues. 

The first obvious implication of the switch from audio to video conferences is increased engagement. It’s hard to multi-task on a video call without being called out. The interaction becomes more personal, as we share a little of our work environment. Some of us have home offices, others have a house pet running by, and some take forced micro-breaks to support their children. 

Event teams have canceled their physical events at unprecedented levels. But a few fire drills later, and their pilot online event results have increased reach and even engagement. Video has become accepted as a way to connect. In addition, the elimination of travel time allows you to reach new groups faster, and the cadence for interactions can increase when everyone uses video extensively. 

Sales professionals see the most significant change. Business-critical, face-to-face customer interactions have been brought to a standstill at a time when customers have crisis management on their plates, but also freed-up time from canceled trips. Few, if any I imagine, will keep their frequent flyer status this year. 

What we’ve seen for the last few weeks, and what we have ahead of us, is the inflection point that mobile video communication has been waiting for since the introduction of 3G. Expect it to remain as a core element of the personal communication toolbox even when we’re back to more conventional working operations. 

Conference calls for casual social gatherings

The need for physical distancing has stopped face-to-face social interactions. People are very creative in adding two screens and a network in between their former face-to-face interactions. Casual coffee get-togethers for senior citizens in the neighborhood now happen over FaceTime. Businesses run their weekly after-work socials across their conferencing platform. Families run cross-generation dinners as multi-party video calls. 

The rapid, widespread adoption of video conferencing by consumers now is likely to change what we do in the future. The dinner with mom does not have to disappear as you and your siblings move out of physical reach of frequent dinners. Most will realize that catching up and playing games via video is quite fun in small groups. 

Staying up to speed with the latest news 

Breaking news used to be a daily occurrence, but never have I used so much time to stay up to speed with what’s going on and how it affects me as I do today. It has never been harder to understand which sources I can trust. Related to this is the fact that many of us are trying to understand areas outside or own expertise. The other significant contributor is the "Infodemic" of misinformation taking place on a large scale. 

The difficulty of keeping up to speed with news drives a steep increase in my screen time. These levels are not healthy in the long run, but represent an opportunity to develop new information scanning skills. Are podcasts good for you, and which ones should you select? Can you close competence gaps with books, book summaries or digital courses? We might face a future where we all become so upskilled during the coronavirus outbreak, that the new average level will be significantly higher.

Education for students and workforce transformation 

Students at all levels in the education system are being challenged, and digital access to education is the primary one. The stop-gap solution, where connected schools offer internet access in the evening for homework, will be revisited. Access to broadband from home for all students – independent of family income levels – is vital in education planning for the future. We also have an excellent opportunity to kick-start a workforce re-education movement for digital immigrants. Talks about digital workforce transformation have been

put to the test on a large scale in the last few weeks. Expect people to be more aware of their own digital skills gaps, and interested in accessing digital skills over digital platforms. 

Digital life can, and will remain, human

It’s easy to sit and reflect on a digital future if you’re healthy and you work in a profession suitable for remote working. But let's not forget what matters today. I just learned about a friend who has developed protective gear for the caregivers who visit older generations in their homes on a daily basis. This type of equipment is vital to protect caregivers and high-risk groups of citizens. 

There can be any number of digital platforms, apps and tools out there. But what it really comes down to is connecting with people. Catching up with friends via FaceTime, supporting local businesses through online purchases, and organizing family video calls is becoming even more important. If we can help make that happen, we’re heading in the right direction. 

Learn more

Read our top 10 tips for working from home.

Read Dan Kerber’s blog post on 9 ways to lead with empathy from home.

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