Workforce Relationships – New Era

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This article was prepared for and first appeared in Which Lawyer in Romania 2021

Author: Roxana Abrașu

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the general opinion has been that we are witnessing a new reality to which we all have to adapt. This opinion has been expressed regardless of the topic under discussion. In the field of labour relations, the SARS-COV-2 virus has shaken up the classic employee-employer relationship quite badly with the myriad of challenges it has brought, including: the need to immediately adapt business needs to health restrictions, to maintain business sustainability and to manage employee involvement during remote working (telework). Moreover, employers’ plans to invest in technology in the medium term have become a priority at a time when the entire management of the business (including the work of employees) has almost entirely moved online.

It is still too early to talk about a new well-defined working model; this will take some time, but, given the huge leap employers have made during the pandemic in terms of adapting to remote working and technologized work processes, it is unlikely that in the areas where remote working is possible without inconveniences, we will see a return to pre-pandemic, predominantly face-to-face office working.

The real challenge in this context is faced by employees and employers, each of them having to make huge efforts to adapt to the new reality. Employees, faced with the uncertainty over the labour market and their jobs, had to adapt quickly to working remotely from the comfort of their own homes, with no clear distinction between work and personal life. The concept of ‘work-life balance’, which had however quietly crept into employers’ approaches before the pandemic, was virtually ‘abandoned’ during the pandemic. This led, in the first instance, to the full involvement of employees in their work, to the detriment of their personal life, followed by a phase of demotivation and disillusionment with the new way of doing things.

On the other hand, employers were forced to design and implement immediate solutions to ensure business continuity, and to trust their employees while working remotely. Before the pandemic, since employees worked together in the same place, on a daily basis, there was a general belief that the team’s purpose was being achieved and, because of that, there was no need to clearly define a purpose. In the pandemic context, when each employee was emotionally, physically or mentally alone, as well as isolated from colleagues, the need to define a clear purpose of what is to be achieved as a team, and why, became obvious in order to keep employees engaged and focused.

Moreover, remote work requires, in addition to clear provisions included in the employment contracts, a careful management of the situation by the employer in order to protect the business and the employees (e.g., in the area of health and safety at work, to avoid marginalization of other categories of employees for whom remote working is not possible, to apply equal treatment, to address mental health, etc.). Employers should also shift from a controlling way of supervising employees at work to a working relationship based on trust. This is why, although telework had been legally enacted before March 2020, very few employers chose to implement it.

In this new context in which remote working has been almost entirely implemented by employers, forced also by the restrictive measures imposed by the authorities, there is a need for new leadership skills. Leaders are expected to step up and find ways to engage and keep employees involved in the daily work, by clearly defining the purposes to be achieved. In practice, this new reality has made managers to do what they have not done (or have avoided doing) for a long time, namely to define priorities and to eliminate unnecessary, time consuming tasks which were affecting the whole team in an unproductive way.

The control-based management model embraced by most companies before the pandemic is transitioning, not entirely of course, but the steps are significant, towards the team management model, in which dialogue and transparent decision-making should be a priority.

The new way of working has shown that there is a need for flexible working, and the legislator has met this need by enshrining the so-called “work from anywhere” concept. Of course, this concept should not be seen in an absolute sense, but should be considered by reference to all relevant legal regulations. Thus, removing the obligation to expressly indicate in employment contracts the place from which telework is to be performed was very enthusiastically received by employees who are keen to work remotely from different locations. However, it should be noted that the employer’s obligations towards teleworkers remain the same, i.e., it is the employer who is responsible for health and safety at work, who has the obligation to keep records of the teleworkers’ working hours, who must determine the organization and operation of the business, etc. Therefore, the employer needs to be careful not to relax these obligations to the detriment of the employees, and to maintain a harmonious balance between the expectations of the employees and the business needs of the employers.

This period has shown that employment relationships are transitioning to a new way of performing work where there is a need for employers to focus on creating stability and maintaining the idea of teamwork – in order to increase people’s resilience and commitment, on promoting transparency and communication that are essential in times of change, and on being open to flexibility given the need to work in a dynamic environment that often requires immediate action.

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