Every tenth of all those engaged in customer work feel that virtual connections have replaced previous face-to-face interaction. As digital tools become more commonplace, it is assumed that virtual interaction will increase in the future. As the coronavirus epidemic is raging, the development may accelerate.
We are living in a service society. According to the 2018 Quality of Work Life Survey, nearly 70 per cent of employees were in contact at least one-quarter of their working time with other people than their co-workers, such as customers, students, patients or day care children.
Now that the coronavirus is raging, the number of social contacts should be restricted in both work and free time. Remote work is encouraged but it is not even in theory possible for all employees - such as bus drivers and waiters - due to the content of their work tasks.
Digitalisation that has fast penetrated working life has changed the situation in some respects. The possibilities offered by interaction through virtual connections and at the same time by remote work have fast grown in such occupations where they would have been out of the question ten years ago.
In 2018, nearly one-half of employees engaged in customer work at least one-quarter of their working time could handle at least part of that interaction virtually through Skype, video, chat or other corresponding application.
In other words, nearly one-third of employees were at least part of their working time in virtual contact with other people than their co-workers.
Figure 1. Customer work and its virtuality, share of employees by sex, per cent*
*Does customer work virtually at least one quarter of working time, Source: Quality of Work Life Survey 2018, Statistics Finland
Customer work is as such very gendered, more common for women than men. However, the shares of virtual customer workers were almost equally big for women and men in 2018, around 30 per cent. In contrast, customer work without any virtual contacts was done by nearly one-half of all female employees, but by 28 per cent of male employees.
In which occupations is customer work virtual?
Virtual customer work – as the use of digital applications at work in general – is most common for those working in professional occupations. Nearly 70 per cent of chief executives and senior officials use virtual applications for contacts with customers.
In other groups of professionals the corresponding share was around 43 to 51 per cent in 2018.
An exception to this is health professionals, that is, medical doctors, dentists and veterinarians of whom only good one quarter were in contact with customers virtually as well.
For technicians and associate professionals, the share of customer workers rose particularly high (66%) among information and communications technicians (e.g. system specialists, operators, IT support technicians). Forty per cent of legal and social associate professionals (e.g. various social instructors) did virtual customer work.
Around one-half of customer service clerks (e.g. information clerks and enquiry clerks) and nearly 40 per cent of numerical and material recording clerks (e.g. numerical clerks and stock clerks) were at least at times in virtual contact with their customers.
In manufacturing work and other manual work both the use of digital devices and customer work are, though, lower than average.
Occupations of employees doing virtual customer work include numerous IT and sales occupational titles as well as customer service clerks, information clerks, architects, accountants and consultants, but also early childhood educators, child care workers, teachers, lecturers, nurses and health care assistants, medical doctors, social instructors and youth leaders, psychologists, physiotherapists and even police officers.
Most (60%) of those who did virtual customer work at least one-quarter of their working time said that virtual contacts have replaced previous face-to-face interaction. In other words, every tenth of those doing customer work had gone through the upheaval of virtual contacts replacing at least partly earlier face-to-face interaction.
The majority (65%) of those having experienced the change regarded it as mostly positive, 16 per cent saw the development as both positive and negative, and 14 per cent thought the change was mostly negative.
Many jobs, tasks and situations remain such that physical presence cannot even be replaced, or it would not be wise to replace it with virtual contacts.
On the other hand, now during the coronavirus epidemic it is excellent if in work with the elderly, for example, direct contacts with persons in at-risk groups living at home can be minimised, but nevertheless, it is possible to stay in contact with them and their wellbeing is monitored via video calls.
As a result of the development of digital tools and applications and their becoming commonplace, virtual interaction can altogether be assumed to grow in the future, both in working life and in free time. The currently advancing coronavirus epidemic may speed up the development.
The author is Senior Researcher at the Population and Social Statistics Department at Statistics Finland.
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