The future is now: what digitalization means for companies, employees — and a new role for trade unions.

Trade unions have lost, in many European countries, their social and founding role — or worst, their capability to represent all kinds of workers — as the result of the advancement in disintermediation, driven by both globalization and digitalization.

In the tragic events of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, there could be seeds for a new foundation and scope for Trade Unions’ legitimacy, one that could lie particularly in negotiating cooperative approaches between all stakeholders, as well as he implementation of new international and national regulatory frameworks with local in-company approaches. This new path could in fact allow all economic actors to produce dividends while at the same time ensure quality occupation.

Yet first Trade Unions should ask themselves the following questions: what are the strategic choices that companies have to make in order to adapt their operations to the so-called New Normal? What do the employees demand? What should governments do?

COVID-19: the Great Accelerator of Digital Transformation

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic caused thousands of deaths, ravaged the balance sheets of entire industries and resulted in millions of unemployed people all over the world. At the same time, it worked as a powerful accelerator of trends that were already underway.

Although for many companies around the world the arrival of COVID-19 meant extreme instability and difficulties, several businesses have benefited from this exceptional event. The activities that reaped the greatest market benefits were those related to the need of many workers to move their work from the office to their home. The considerable boosts observed in e-commerce (for example of foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals) and packaging, are cases in point.

The change in daily and working habits has not only had a high economic impact, but also led to an evolution in the concept of work as well as in the behavior of employees in relation to it.  The practice of remote working has enabled many people to carry out their activities from the comfort of their own homes, reduced their environmental impact and the costs of traveling to the office, and enabled them to spend more time with their families.

In terms of urban spaces, teleworking has to be considered also a great opportunity for more remote regions, where inhabitants of more peripheral areas are no more requested to travel daily to reach their workplace. Besides this, the digitization of activities means for companies the possibility to relocate to more remote areas, of course only if adequate infrastructure is available or if new is created.

The real driving force behind these changes is undoubtedly Digital Transformation, which has brought millions of workers closer to new technologies, making structural changes in the work environment absolutely necessary.

Why a “Right to Remote Work” is a seductive temptation that will not work — except for some

In light of all those evolutions and potential advantages, there has been a call for the establishment of a legal “right to work remotely” as part of the New Normal.

This may prove more difficult — or even counterproductive — than it appears: many of the challenges involved in creating a generally binding right to telework are strictly related to the impossibility of constructing a solid-enough regulatory framework, adaptable to all professions, as well as to different categories of professional and personal situations.

Some jobs, or a large proportion of the activities that comprise them, cannot be carried out remotely; at the same time, within a company, the development of a similar right could result in a series of conflicts and inequalities between workers. As a matter of fact, not all employees are available or able to work in the same way from their home office.

A separate mention is deserved by more vulnerable categories of employees, for whom stricter regulation and the creation of a right to telework could indeed be beneficial. People suffering from disabilities or maternity women are categories in whose interest the integration of a right in this sense could make working conditions more acceptable. However, in the temporary absence of infrastructure suitable for remote working and versatile regulations applicable to several professional contexts, there is no point in calling for the implementation of such a general right.

Extending the scope of existing gender equality legislation, as well as including anti-discrimination clauses in collective labour agreements, are key actions that can help reconcile digital and social progress. Achieving a fairer professional environment is one of the challenges accompanying the expansion of teleworking; the possibility of remote working to turn into an economic advantage for the benefit of a few is to be rejected in principle. Inequalities and gaps between categories of workers must be bridged by equipping all home-based workers with appropriate tools, making their objectives accessible, and offering them additional guarantees to perform their activities on a par with presence work.

Enhancing home-working facilities while ensuring excellent infrastructure: businesses and governments have each other a role to play

Benefits such as greater independence of the workers, the possibility for parents to take care of their children while keeping up with their careers, and the establishment of collective agreements that make work more flexible and fairer, are however accompanied by equivalent concerns. Precisely: the difficulty of juggling different time zones, the lack of real-time collaboration, isolation, misplacement of information, the risk of non-respect of private life boundaries and the difficulty of training staff at a technical level.

Governments should direct their efforts in improving the connection speed of Internet networks made available to workers at home; wide-range public investments may represent a good tool in this regard. On a policy level, a possible step to undertake is the broad implementation of regulations encouraging employers to respect standard working hours; French and German recent enabled measures are meaningful examples.

Trade Unions, on the other hand, should make sure that decisions at company level are taken in order to help employees benefit from the new way of working. As a more effective and pragmatic measure — a measure that also makes perfect sense in terms of productivity enhanced-is pushing corporations to provide all the necessary tele-facilities and tools. Especially when older managerial practices are involved, the intermediation play is crucial.

Concrete examples of other policies may include helping employees to set up one or more workplaces suitable to the type of work to be carried out, as well as the provision of ergonomic equipment and software support. Making remote and office work interchangeable in terms of tools and accessibility, also allowing the employee to mix private and corporate IT facilities, are equally important aspects. On a practical level, the optimal solution to the settlement of a workspace at home might be to have the expenditure incurred for teleworking up to 100% borne by the employer, or at least 50-50 deductible (as facilities are often of mixed use).

Limits to resilience: a stronger future lies in new managerial approaches. Trade Unions should double down on that.

In order to safeguard business and revenue continuity, while providing employees with the tools to cope with change, companies have rapidly pivoted to different business models, often at the cost of new, less-then-excellent operational configurations. At the same time, an often unprepared and unequipped workforce had to adopt a radical new approach to work — combined with social distancing and national lockdowns — left many individuals physiologically exhausted. The so-called “Zoom fatigue,” from the popular video-conferencing platform, clearly mirrors the problem.

In this panorama of new challenges for all companies, a key mediating role between employees and company management should be played by TUs, which are asked to support workers whilst opening up profitable spaces for companies. An increasingly sectoral and innovative approach, necessary to keep up with professional evolution, is what Trade Unions shall take. The protection of workers from exploitation and misuse of contracts is to be achieved by designing appropriate sets of boundaries, that will also help companies to create a win-win situation for their employers and employees.

For the Unions, it is first and foremost important to invest in relations with company executives and managers, who are often undervalued at the expense of an exclusive focus on employees. Rather than having trade union elements within companies, it would be more appropriate, to use training to help managers to develop more modern management models. These models, based on smart working rather than teleworking, would directly benefit the workforce. The essential difference here lies in offering the worker autonomy of action, through the management of activities by objectives rather than by fixed working hours. An OKR (Objective and Key Results) methodology could be useful in this respect.

Trained managers are able to implement innovative methodologies, which in turn enable employees to work better, as well as company owners to feel satisfied with their results. Only an effective innovative leadership can as a matter of fact generate a Win-Win situation for all the stakeholders.

A specter is haunting Europe: policy levers for reconciling social protection with the future of work and advanced automation

Speculating further into the future, increased automation could also pose a threat in terms of job losses. In many cases the transfer of jobs from one industry to another is possible, in others it is, if not impossible, at least complicated. Transferring staff from one business sector to another is not only complex in terms of tools, but also in terms of workers’ skills.

With a view to continuous learning and adaptation to increasingly autonomous working conditions, it would be desirable for corporations to engage in retraining. In principle, any employee affected by the digitization of work should be supported in acquiring new skills, whilst job losses due to digitization should be covered by opening up new spaces for affected employees. In unavoidable situations the intervention of special protections and state subsidies may still be necessary. A paramount goal is to make sure that legislators will continue to bridge the gap between labour supply and demand.

In an even broader panorama, at European level, a social protection plan that includes minimum wages, basic income security and policies to combat the erosion of the employment relationship, is indispensable. Another response, that has yet to be trialled fully at the societal level, and from which there are currently mixed results, remains UBI, or Universal Basic Income.

From a strategic point of view, enterprises will certainly need new tools to address workforce migration within their sectors. The increasingly digital innovative nature of the tools offered to workers requires companies to invest in technologies that are accessible to all their employees. Mass re-skilling, where permitted, does not pose the same degree of difficulty for everyone; while for some, digitizing their own operations may mean making their jobs easier, for many others it does not. Low Code and No Code technologies are ideal examples for all corporate actors who want to bridge the gap between digital accessibility and protection of their employees.

The final step: equipping trade unions with the necessary tools to remain relevant in the 21st century

Taking stock of the situation, Trade Unions will be asked — if the wish to remain relevant — to design a new way of brokering the construction of solid labour relations. The main challenge is adapting to digital development and workers’ demands for protection. New ways of dealing with members will also have to replace traditional face-to-face meetings; equally, the services offered will not be able to forego innovation.

To avoid risks in terms of representativity, i.e., continuing to gain the support of new members — especially among the youngest — Unions should start thinking about new ways of reaching for new associates. Improving visibility on the web and using tools such as social networks (increasingly important in labour relations) are changes that need to be addressed to keep up with innovation.

As highlighted throughout this article, the digitization of work represents an opportunity for all parties involved: employers, managers and employees. The more or less instrumental role of Trade Unions in the process will be observed by the ability to draw up regulations with flexible boundaries, capable of adapting in a plurality of situations, and above all protecting workers — without necessarily relying on ideological approaches or beliefs.

The future of work is relentless and pragmatic. Trade Unions should be, too.

Author: Andrea Latino, Digital Transformation Consultant | Innovation Manager | Forbes Under 30 | WEF Global Shaper

The article was originally written for the German Civil Service Federation – Beamtenbund und Tarifunion (dbb)