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Exploring the Transformation of Human Work in Relation to the Shock of the Novel Coronavirus Pandemic

Exploring the Transformation of Human Work in Relation to the Shock of the Novel Coronavirus Pandemic Economy Near Us (XXVIII)

Work is one of the concerns of our daily lives. Permanent, but often on very short-term, concerns about work issues are at the forefront of public debates specific to the economic or other fields of social sciences. Countless scientific studies and reports have referred to workforce, professional skills, working time, employment, unemployment, income from work, stress or happiness at work, well-being and work-life balance, their results firmly arguing that the nature of work has changed and that innovation in work can be a driver for sustainable labour productivity growth. As a result, a large number of strategies, policies, programs, measures, each of them regulated at national, regional, union, global level have been elaborated in order to know and control any type of imbalance between the demand and the supply of work. Regardless of the extent to which this has been achieved, or lack thereof, it can be seen that the solutions to the problems have been under the spur of the moment and nobody and nothing has been prepared for what is happening today with the workforce and could happen tomorrow or later on the labour market.

The purpose of the paper is to present in accessible language possible work developments starting from the assumption that the whole society is now facing a shock, and is preparing to face a profound transformation that will have an impact on employment, especially in certain sectors of the economy, and for certain occupational categories. This partly natural, partly social transformation, and of course under the influence of politics, will reshape the global conditions of the labour market. We can ask ourselves if it will be a meta-transformation, but there is no doubt that it will present many challenges for societies, national economies and decision-makers/policy makers, in the field of labour and labour market policies. The paper addresses the change in the nature of work, referring to two elements – the workplace and the technologies. 

The context 

Being an atypical, extended and unpredictable situation, of course, many of the consequences of “blockdown” of economies can be purely speculative, but there are immediate effects on the labour force and the labour market that can have a medium and long term impact, which must be studied and analysed even with an awareness of the surprise of this pandemic. There is uncertainty about the impact of the epidemic on human health and life and there are uncertainties about what economies will look like after passing the stage of disruptive public health preservation measures.

From issues regarding geopolitical changes, the use of information and technologies in communications, to new forms of learning and information exchange in the virtual environment, data security challenges and the demographic transition, all are expected to have major implications for production and production models, consumption and implicitly for the labour force, labour market and labour market policies.

It has been argued in recent years that the nature of work has changed, that innovation in work through technology, digitization, automation, artificial intelligence, robotization may be the engine of sustainable growth in labour productivity, but most of the times these have been viewed with pessimism by political decision makers and received with hesitation by the labour market because these meant the definitive loss of jobs, the transformations of the space and the conditions of the workplace, increased flexibility on the part of the employees and the employers versus the decrease of the security of a long term job. These have led to forms of atypical work, work belonging to the concept of gig economy and others which are difficult to manage both at a micro and macro level.

In practical terms, until the end of 2019, workplace innovation was tested through a series of specific actions:

  • Regarding the workspace:
    • the use of their own offices in large open spaces, without separation of organizational structures or functions;
    • alternative workspaces – “shared” or “co-working”; virtual offices; rented spaces in a flexible way depending on the specificity of the activity or its duration;
    •  remote work (at home or in a space chosen by mutual agreement).
  • Regarding working time:
    • flexibilization of the work program by reducing working hours in the office;
    • flexibilization of the start and end times of the work program;
    • reduction in the working days of the week;
    • one day a week – remote.
  • Regarding the use of technology
    • Teleworking is a form of work which involves the use of information and communication technology (ICT) and assumes that the workers voluntarily fulfil their work obligations in a space other than that offered by the employer. In Romania, the labour legislation requires at least one working day of the monthly working time to be included in the teleworking regime, in the manner described. This fundamentally changes the skills and abilities that employers are looking for. Employees must first of all have extensive digital and linguistic skills, be adaptable, be good communicators, be able to work in a team and solve complex problems;
    • Robotization, automation, artificial intelligence have influenced traditional production models and generally being perceived as job killers. The adaptability of the employees is also conditioned by their computer skills;
    • Digital work and digital platforms are terms for emerging forms of work organization that include interaction with ICT. Digital technologies play an important role in radically changing the nature of work and the characteristics of the workplace, the processes of production and the results of work. It is associated with high incomes and various benefits. The activity carried out in a computing medium combined with the activity in the digital network and the social networks continuously influence the time allocated to work. There is a tendency to combine work time with relaxation and interaction with family and friends through online socialization. The boundaries between actual working time and breaks at work or rest after work are erased. The concept of digital work includes ideas and theories from different fields of science that deserve special attention in a dedicated paper.

However, the changes have been relatively limited and it can be seen from the data that the innovative practices encompass a small number of employees. The specialists suggested various explanations for the resistance to change, from the costs involved for the employer, to the mental states of doubt, fear and stress of the employees, as well as the slow shift in management mentality. So, while projects, teamwork, job rotation have widely spread, flexible working time, distance work or alternative payment systems can be successfully implemented on a large scale now, leaving automation and innovation to act as a force for the future of work. 

Work and the pandemic 

The emergence and rapid spread of the coronavirus fostered an unprecedented shock globally through the attempts to prevent the spread of the virus and to manage the anticipated health crisis. A state of emergency was established and crisis measures were imposed, which caused the gradual closure of some economic activities, an interruption in work for a large number of employees, the suspension of self-employed activities in different fields, ushering in an economic crisis in a very short time and with a profound impact on the labour market.

All employers, almost anywhere in the world, are obliged to introduce the possibility of working remotely in compliance with all general obligations to employees. If this is not possible, due to the nature and specificity of the activity, the employers are obliged to implement anti-epidemic measures to also preserve the health of employees. Where it is not possible to respected physical distance requirements, for instance, the activity is shuttered.

Increased occupational health and safety measures are required, involving occupational hygiene measures, organizational measures and personal protection measures, to protect employees against risks related to exposure to the virus. Employers are responsible for monitoring and evaluating health risks and taking all necessary measures. The right to paid leave and holidays for the care of young children is assured for those without childcare options.

In Romania, as a measure of employee protection, employers were able to unilaterally change the workplace and the way of work without the employee’s consent. Except for the force-majeure situations, the Labor Code allows the organization of work from home, the employees establishing their own work program, and the employer is entitled to check on the employee’s activity. The employer has the obligation to ensure the transportation to and from the employee’s domicile, as the case may be, of the raw materials and materials that they use in the activity, as well as of the finished products that they make.

Teleworking, as previously was defined, with full coverage of working time, also offers a useful option for continuing work and even creating new jobs, for certain sectors of activity and for the field of public administration.

New work arrangements, widespread use of digitization/digitalization, online public services are all results of technological change. It is time for the state through its institutions to set a positive example and to digitize all its services, eschewing the bureaucratic morass that appals citizens and companies. We must focus on organizing online distance learning, electronic signature within town halls and other public institutions, online counters for all the services that already exist (filing tax returns, filing applications, paying taxes, marriage schedules, applying for furloughed worker compensation etc.) and many more. It is little known that, in Cluj, Antonia is the first virtual civil servant and manages to greatly reduce the document circuit. 

What can the state do? 

It is estimated that, by the end of the medical crisis, the states affected by the novel coronavirus will be in an economic crisis, and the previously planned policies and strategies will no longer be effective.

If the work activities are not supported to keep the labour force busy, if the already available labour force will not be quickly employed, the states will face high levels of unemployment, which will lead to lower wages and accentuate the polarization of incomes, poverty and, lastly, social problems and maybe even social revolts.

In the short term:

  1. To maintain employment through protection measures for those in work activity.

Romania has an EU aid scheme at its disposal worth 3.3 million euros. The purpose is to support small and medium-sized enterprises in order to cover their immediate working capital or investment needs and to continue their activity.

  1. Increasing social protection and assistance to ensure a guaranteed minimal income that does not depend entirely on having a job. This involves also providing income and transition support for employees and other categories of citizens, with incomes from activities that have been stopped (for example, some liberal professions) including providing unemployment benefits, public assistance for finding work during this period and after the medical crisis.

Romania has adopted the formula of furloughing workers, and the benefits that the employees receive are set at 75% of the basic salary corresponding to the job occupied and are paid from the unemployment insurance budget, but not exceeding 75% of the average gross wage forecast provided by the state’s social insurance budget for 2020.

  1. Fiscal policies that involve the modernization of tax systems in order to provide fiscal space to finance the recovery of the economy and implicitly of the labour force along with the social protection granted to vulnerable groups. However, the issue of fiscal space is dependent on the initial level of the budget deficit, with all of its implications. Romania suffered an excessive deterioration of the current account balance in 2019, reaching -4.64% of GDP, which exposed it to the excessive deficit procedure of the Commission. This situation was generated by the disregard for the European Commission’s recommendations and the warnings of the EU Council from 2017 to 2019 regarding the deviation from the level of public spending and the fact that the medium-term fiscal plans were not correlated with the budgetary ones and with the national economic perspectives. The procedure was suspended as a result of the pandemic.

In the long term, we are facing the urgency of allocating money to health, now that all health systems have demonstrated their limits, but we must analyse what their state will be after this shock and award them the utmost attention from policy makers.

A high degree of importance must be given to investment in education to capitalize on the benefits of technologies and to train future generations. The education, learning and training systems also went through forced digitization and moved into the online environment. What are the long-term benefits, what are the sustainable systems and how do they cope with the pressures of the state system of education? There are lessons to be learned for the future perspective.

Special attention should be paid to children and young people in order to develop cognitive abilities and social behaviours. Neither the vulnerable groups, nor the need to change professional skills or pursue lifelong learning should be ignored. 

Conclusions 

Different types of disruptions have been fostered by technologies, but it is time to use technology to deal with the pandemic-related disruptions, and use technological progress to improve wellbeing and facilitate the creation of new value chains. At this moment, technology creates opportunities, increases the productivity of distance work; it offers the opportunity to create new jobs and, last but not least, transforms and improves the quality of public services.

 
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OEconomica No. 1, 2016