Digital literacy used to mean being able to send an email or type using a word-processing programme. It was a skill largely required of knowledge workers – people who might use specific software at work, and need to be fluent in how to use it accordingly.
But the phrase has evolved significantly. Now, digital literacy means having the skills to thrive in a society where communication and access to information are increasingly done via digital technologies, such as online platforms and mobile devices. The concept encompasses a broad understanding of an array of digital tools that enable in-office, hybrid and remote work across all types of workplaces: think real-time collaborative software, live workplace chat apps and sophisticated asynchronous work tools.
Today, digital literacy is no longer a functional proposition, it’s a mindset. In the modern workplace, there is a greater expectation for employees to nimbly adopt whatever technology comes with their job as well as adapt to ever-changing tools and approaches. Workers are also expected to use technology strategically: from working off their personal mobile devices, to leveraging collaborative workflow programmes.
And, importantly, digital skills are no longer essential only in knowledge work. “These are becoming universally applicable to almost everyone,” says Ying Zhou, director of the Future of Work Research Centre at the University of Surrey, UK. By 2019, a UK government report showed digital skills were required in at least 82% of online advertised vacancies.
Zhou says workers who stand still and stop acquiring digital expertise risk falling behind. “Every time technology is developed it pushes up the workforce’s skill requirements. It becomes a race between digital skills and technology: the faster it advances, the quicker we have to update our skills. The bar is being raised all the time.”
“Digital literacy is a broad concept: you can work with digital devices from simple ways to high complex tasks,” continues Zhou. “It can vary from printing out an invoice in a shop, to using word processors and spreadsheets, to advanced use like web design, data analysis, computer programming and coding.”
Job market demand for digital literacy has grown consistently since the 1980s. Zhou cites research showing that while demand for literacy and numeracy skills among the UK workforce has plateaued, roles requiring digital skills have continued to rise.
Over time, a degree of digital expertise has become expected even in roles unrelated to tech. From warehouse operators using cloud-based management systems, to doctors consulting with patients via remote video appointments, and contractors managing construction projects through mobile collaboration apps, technology is no longer sector-specific.
“Digital literacy – and employers’ demand for digital skills – has evolved as the economy and labour market has become more digitised,” says Danny Stacy, UK head of talent intelligence at hiring platform Indeed, based in London. “What used to be seen as a bonus is now a critical component of virtually every role.”
This demand for digital literacy has spiked as employers adopt hybrid or remote-working patterns. “Today, employers are far more likely to identify specific digital skills and name software they use,” says Stacy. “There are greater requirements to have proficiency in office and project management tools, specific software so employees work more effectively.”
Yet the growing importance of digital literacy doesn’t mean workers have to master all the software out there to get a job. Instead, they have to be digitally confident: keen to try new technologies; embrace how the right tools can streamline routine tasks and improve workplace collaboration; while also having the flexibility and adaptability to learn new processes.
Today, employees need to assume they’ll keep upgrading digital skills. After all, the expectation when a worker begins a new role is either they have the digital skills to do the job or they’ll learn them – fast. “Hybrid and remote working were only relevant to 5% of the workforce before the pandemic,” says Zhou. “It’s nearly half of all workers now. Regardless of what work you did previously, an employer now expects you to learn whatever digital skills are required in a role.”
One bit of positive news is that even if workers don't know the term, they’re probably already fairly digitally literate. Technology’s ubiquity means nearly everyone emails, messages, swipes, snaps and scrolls anyway, which often translates into workplace technological skills.
And even if workers feel like they're not quite where they want or need to be, there are ways to improve these important skills. In cases where workers need to be brought up to speed, companies often offer employees training to help bridge any digital skills gap they may have. “In the face of worker shortages, employers are showing greater willingness than before to train and upskill candidates rather than seek the finished product,” says Stacy.
This upskilling could take the form of on-the-job training or online learning and development courses. However, Zhou says one of the best ways for employees to build their digital literacy is by simply doing their job through a trial-and-error process. “Informal learning and knowledge sharing among colleagues is one of the most proven ways of acquiring new skills.”
What people do outside the workplace can also help them, too. For employees behind on their digital literacy, using technology at home offers opportunities for experimentation and learning. For example, catching up with a friend via video call, rather than text message, may help familiarise an employee with the apps they’ll use at work; using social media can help them acclimatise to the more informal forms of communication they may encounter through workplace collaboration tools.
Zhou says although most employees in the labour market may not currently need highly complex computer skills, digital literacy is a baseline requirement that is always rising. This means workers who keep up their technological expertise continue to evolve in an ever-shifting labour market that increasingly values digital skills.
“Digital skills ultimately offer greater bargaining power in the job market,” says Zhou. “The work environment has changed in favour of having greater digital literacy.”