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How do we bridge the 'digital divide'?

  • #technology
  • #digitaldivide
  • #voiceisolation

Published byScott Drayton

Technological advancements bring with them massive opportunities for people around the world. For others, however, the adoption of these technologies creates an invisible barrier, as these advancements are never equally available to all socioeconomic and geographic groups. This split between those who can afford, access, and take advantage of new technology and those who are unable to is widely known as the ‘digital divide’.

Many social and technological changes in the past have highlighted this issue — access to a personal computer being a fairly recent (and obvious) example. When I was in primary school, we had one wardrobe-sized computer decked with Solitaire and a strange, text-based adventure game. In middle school, we had ICT classes and homework on Microsoft Word. By the time I reached high school and university, pretty much all homework, seminars, and lectures required a personal computer and access to the Internet.

Suddenly, access to a personal computer went from being a rare luxury with little benefit to a huge advantage from a productivity and convenience standpoint — going to a public library every time you needed to do any work or research suddenly felt like a daunting waste of time. As the personal computer became more of a prerequisite rather than a nice-to-have, the digital divide widened.

A divide turned into a chasm

I first explored the concept of the digital divide whilst researching our whitepaper, ‘The role of audio in an increasingly digital world’. I was looking into how much experts believed remote education and hybrid working would stick around after the pandemic. Many experts pointed to the digital divide as one of the main obstacles to their widespread adoption.

Now unless you’re in senior management or the teacher’s pet, when it comes to in-person working and learning, you’re usually in the same boat as the rest of your colleagues or classmates. You’re all sitting on similar chairs, at similar desks, using the same WiFi, in the same room. This considerably reduces the likelihood of a divide or unequal opportunity. 

However, the COVID-19 pandemic caused 88% of organisations to mandate or encourage their employees to work from home (Gartner) and almost 1.3 billion children (UNESCO) to learn from home. The equal environment collapsed, turning a growing digital divide into a chasm. Workers used ironing boards as desks, pupils dipped out of online lessons as their internet struggled to cope, and people without dedicated spaces grew to hate the mute/unmute dance as they navigated a minefield of background noise.

The damage of the divide

What our whitepaper research revealed was that the impact of this divide was more than just a petty annoyance. It was damaging to productivity, business outcomes, and most alarmingly, long-term prospects.

From a productivity perspective, research shows that the audio problems caused by the digital divide alone were extremely problematic when it came to achieving desired outcomes. A University of London study investigated the impact of noise on adolescents during the pandemic and found that higher levels of background noise resulted in increased annoyance in students that negatively affected their performance in tasks. This threatened to have long-term effects on students’ executive function, particularly hindered the learning of students in larger, noisier households.

Meanwhile, those working remotely in a disadvantaged environment suffered similar problems. Stanford University found that 49% of US workers lack a dedicated workspace — hence the use of ironing boards mentioned above. Another study of 2,800 US workers showed that audio problems were the biggest pain point of virtual meetings, with over 50% putting issues such as background noise, mic echo, or forgetting to mute and unmute as their top annoyance.

These issues affect all businesses that rely on video conferencing, but let’s zoom into (pun intended) the customer service industry, where business outcomes directly rely on clarity of communication. Without a dedicated quiet space to take online customer calls throughout the day, both customer experience and employee wellbeing suffer consequences. In fact, in a survey we conducted of 500 call centre agents in the UK and US, 84% of agents said that noise has a negative effect on customer service and prevents them from achieving positive outcomes. Suddenly a digital disadvantage — be it poor internet, substandard workstations, or a lack of voice isolation tools — affects both personal and company performance.

Probably the most worrying issue with the digital divide is its potential impact on long-term prospects. As previously mentioned, the divide naturally puts certain remote employees at a disadvantage compared to others, which they wouldn’t experience in a neutral setting. Poor audio, poor internet, poor technology will all create obstacles to achieving outcomes — whether that’s learning, collaborating with your team, or talking to customers. In addition, diversity and inclusion consultants are worried that work environments shown through video calls could lead to conscious and unconscious bias, affecting job prospects, promotions, and extra-curricular opportunities that would otherwise be easy to take on.

How audio can bridge the divide

If we really want the ‘work from anywhere’ movement to continue, we must ensure it’s actually the ‘anyone can work from anywhere’ movement. Whilst the flexibility and freedom offered by hybrid working is enticing, organisations and educational institutions need to invest in tools that ensure all staff/students can operate on an equal footing.

Voice isolation tools such as IRIS Clarity are one way in which we can level the playing field. IRIS Clarity uses AI to remove background noise from both sides of an online call. That means even those without a dedicated workspace can feel confident their background noise isn’t distracting others, and the noise on the other end isn’t making matters worse. Pair that with noise cancelling headsets and you’ve got an ideal voice isolation bubble: headphones cancel noise around you for you, and IRIS Clarity cancels noise around you for others, and around others for you. 

By allowing the conversation to flow no matter where people are working, tools like IRIS Clarity empower everyone to work to their full potential. Other solutions will be needed to fully bridge the digital divide, but that’s already a great start.