“Back to School” signs are the usual hallmarks of the end of summer. For many parents, it also signifies a return to the workplace. But that was back in pre-COVID times. This year, many workers are returning to their virtual workplaces in front of their computers, whether it’s from their homes or other atypical work locations.

Experts warned against the false sense of security that came with the easing of restrictions and warmer weather. Without a vaccine readily available, many organizations are continuing  to encourage their workers to work remotely. In July, Google became the first major organization to formally extend their work-from-home policy until summer 2021. Other large organizations such as the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis, and Japanese technology company Fujitsu took a step further by announcing “indefinite”  flexible and remote working policies for their employees.

Socially distanced work, a novelty only four months ago, has now become the “new normal.”  But are countries prepared to make near-term improvements and plan investments for the longer-term, beyond the immediate crisis?  And where do they start?

A research team at Tufts University’s Fletcher School provides insight through its “social distance readiness” index that measures a country’s readiness for socially distanced work. “The world is quickly discovering how it can recreate a digital facsimile of the economy-as-usual,” explains Bhaskar Chakravorti, Dean of Global Business at the Fletcher School and co-author of the study. For countries to effectively transition towards digitally enabled socially distanced workplaces, the following three elements need to be in place:

  • Access to robust telecommunications, e-commerce and digital media platforms to ensure business continuity 
  • Proliferation and resilience of digital payments options to facilitate transactions
  • Resilience of the internet infrastructure to traffic surges

According to this study, the United States is ready with robust digital platforms and digital payments infrastructure, but suffers from disparity in internet infrastructure, especially in poorer and rural areas.  Much of Europe, with some exceptions, suffers from middling robustness of platforms and vulnerable infrastructure. By implementing traffic reducing measures, such as requesting Netflix and YouTube to reduce streaming quality, BEREC, the European regulatory body recently announced that internet traffic remains stable.  And the developing world remains ill-prepared on all fronts.What implications could a country’s readiness for socially distanced work have for policymakers and business executives? 

According to Chakravorti, the implications are twofold.

For policymakers, it highlights the need to incorporate digital and social distanced work readiness into shutdown decisions. Inserting digital readiness into the discussions could provide a more holistic understanding of shutdown implications. The discussion could be broadened to include plans for access to the internet as a public good in the long-term, and to enhance availability of wifi hotspots in poorer and rural areas in the short-term. 

For business leaders, it raises new possibilities for recruiting and hiring new and diverse talent. Unbound by the constraints of physical headquarters or office locations, executives are free to hire talent in new locations, provided that adequate network infrastructure exists for remote working. Beyond New York City, Silicon Valley and Boston, companies could expand their outreach to regions. According to the study, the Northeast is currently the most digitally ready region in the United States, followed in descending order by the West, Midwest, and South.  

Digital systems have become the lifeline for socially distanced work. The online meme asking “who led the digital transformation of your company?” having COVID-19 as the chosen answer perfectly captures the urgency with which digital services were rolled out to ensure operational continuity during the past months. Now it’s time to reimagine how these digital systems could better support and enable new ways of working and living.

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