On 23 March the UK Prime Minister gave the British people one simple, clear instruction: “you must stay at home”. In the months following, our use of technology to support our public services, stay connected with our loved ones, and keep the economy moving became increasingly important. To understand how our dependence on technology through this period has impacted the UK’s attitude to digital technologies, techUK commissioned polling to find out.
Research was carried out by a leading research organisation on behalf of techUK. It surveyed a nationally representative quota sample of 2,190 online adults in Great Britain aged 16-75 across two different waves (1,095 sample on each) using an online Omnibus. Wave 1 ran between 13th and 14th May 2020 and wave 2 ran between 10th and 11th June 2020. Data has been weighted to the known offline population proportions for age within gender, government office region, working status and social grade. The design and analysis of the survey was conducted by techUK, with research organisation Ipsos MORI responsible for data collection.
At a very top-level techUK wanted to understand whether the public saw digital technology as an opportunity or a threat to our overall way of life and whether the restrictions we all faced led to a change in confidence when it came to tech.
Overall, the public are optimistic about the impact of digital technologies on our economy and society. Of those we surveyed, almost a third (32%) viewed digital technology more as an opportunity than a threat. For most people (58%) digital technologies were seen both as an opportunity and a threat. But, only 6% saw digital technology as more of a threat than an opportunity.
Interestingly, when we narrowed down the question to better understand how people felt about the impact digital technology had on the delivery of public services, like the NHS, the response was overwhelmingly positive. 68% of those surveyed felt that digital technology had a positive impact on this, with only 6% feeling it had a negative impact.
Delving a little deeper into this, for those who reported being more confident using technology since the lockdown (n=657), this positivity about the delivery of public services like the NHS increased to 85%. And the inverse is true, those who felt less confident using technology (n=157) were more likely to feel digital technologies had a negative impact on the delivery of public services like the NHS (27%). This suggests there is a correlation between people’s increasing or decreasing confidence in using technology and perceptions of digital technology’s wider impact on the delivery public services.
And the good news is that this survey suggests that as a nation one silver lining is that we have become more confident in using technology during this period. In our poll conducted between 10 – 11 June, almost two months since the introduction of restrictions, 31% of respondents report feeling more confident. Whilst 16-24 year olds grew the most in terms of confidence (49%), 55-75 year olds also reported an increase in confidence (26%).
Businesses see the clear benefit of digital technology
During this period many businesses were forced to pivot online, whether that was entire offices working from home using collaboration tools such as Webex, or restaurants moving online using platforms like Deliveroo and Uber Eats.
Historically, UK businesses have been slow to adopt digital technologies, so at techUK we wanted to know whether having been forced to use digital technologies, attitudes had shifted. The answer was emphatic. 71% of business leaders (management and decision makers, n=425) we surveyed across both waves 1 and 2 felt that businesses would become more dependent on technology as a result of the pandemic. Whilst this was lower than the general population surveyed (77%), it remains a significant indicator. As before, if an individual reported feeling more confident in their use of digital technology, they were more likely to feel that businesses would become more dependent on technology (88%).
This expected greater use of digital technologies in the workplace should be seized on by Government. As a result of the last few months, our survey shows that most people, including managers and decision-makers, are more open to digital technologies. At techUK we know that digital technology can boost productivity and turbocharge growth.
Productivity growth has never been more important and it is where Government must focus its attention to get the economy on the road to recovery. techUK urges Government to seize on this moment of openness to drive real change. Evidence from Government suggests that it is often management that acts as a blocker to the adoption of productivity boosting technologies, so if this barrier has been lowered then now is the time to take the running jump.
Digital disbelief and lack of motivation are key barriers to digitisation for SMEs as evidenced in recent surveys from Lloyds which showed that 41% of SMEs believed “being online is not seen as relevant for our business”, 37% saying digital is “not worth the investment” and 28% “just not interested in doing more online”.
Digital skills now seen as key to the future
The survey also explored attitudes towards digital skills.
The UK’s digital skills gap is an ongoing concern not just for our sector, which struggles to recruit and retain tech talent, but across the economy where it is estimated that the digital skills gap costs the UK £63bn in lost GDP every year.
The survey explored perceptions around the importance of digital skills. Respondents to our second wave of polling overwhelmingly agreed that “digital skills will become more important over the next 12 months” (82%), with 27% ‘strongly agreeing’ with this.
More importantly, the recognition of the importance of digital skills appears to translate across to wanting to do something about it. In our surveys, 58% of respondents reported being interested in gaining more digital skills in the next 12 months.
There are some interesting differences with regard to age. Taking the results from our second wave, it is clear that younger people are motivated to upskill/retrain. Amongst those in the 16-24 and 25-34 age groups, the percentages were significantly higher, at 73% and 75% respectively. This is important given the evidence points to this age group being the hardest hit by the economic downturn resulting from COVID-19.
Government must seize on this sea change in motivation to ensure that young people in particular have access to digital skills training courses. Already the Government’s Digital Skills Toolkit has provided those on furlough and the wider public a chance to take taster digital training offers. techUK is calling on the Government to expand this programme to provide more extensive training and clearer pathways towards digital jobs.
In doing so we must keep one eye on diversity and a levelled-up recovery. Our survey data showed a discrepancy in motivation between men and women, with men more interested in gaining digital skills than women (62% compared to 54%). As we move forward we need to understand why this gap exists and how we can work to close it. Fortunately, this ‘interest gap’ does not exist across the regions where interest is comparable across the board. This should remind us that motivation is everywhere and therefore opportunity should be everywhere too.
In conclusion, our survey suggests that the changes we’ve seen during the lockdown – increased use and dependence on tech, have had an impact on attitudes to digital technology. As the Government looks at getting people back to work and driving productivity growth it should recognise that there is considerable optimism about the positive role that technology can play especially in improving public services. It should also seize on the very positive perception about the relevance and value of digital skills and the fact that young people in particular are now saying that they a very motivated to acquire new digital skills. Our survey also points to positive changes in terms of the attitudes of business leaders towards the importance of digital adoption within their businesses.
The shifts outlined above are silver linings that can never outweigh the huge human and economic cost of COVID-19. However, as we start to set a course to recovery we should seize on this moment to drive real change – to upskill the nation, boost productivity and drive long-term sustainable growth.