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Books 16 September Sep 2020 1354 16 September 2020

How the relationship between employers and employees will need to change in the wake of coronavirus

A new book published by Franco Angeli entitled “Basta chiacchiere! Un nuovo mondo del lavoro” (Enough Talk! A new world of work) identifies the key challenges that every business sector is facing in the wake of the pandemic, from agile work to the need for new models and improved labour protection. We take a closer look with Luca Solari, Professor of Organisation Theory at Milan University.

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In Italy, the health crisis has uncovered a large number of inconsistencies and delays on the work front: smart work, digitalisation, productivity issues, the North-South divide and more besides. There are many issues to tackle, but as activity picks up again it appears that old-school thinking is guiding the recovery plan rather than the need for real revolutionary change.

To address the issue, publisher Franco Angeli has gathered together the opinions of various experts in the book “Basta chiacchiere! Un nuovo mondo del lavoro” (Enough Talk! A new world of work), identifying the main issues and casting light on how the future world of work will develop. A chapter by Marco Bentivogli focuses on smart trade unions and digitalisation, while women in the workforce is the topic for Paola Profeta. The key contribution of young people is described by Alessandro Rosina, family-run businesses as the ‘backbone of Italy’ are covered by Elena Zambon, and Ermete Realacci provides his views on the economy and green jobs.

The basic premise is that the challenge set by Covid-19 is without doubt a complex one, but it also opens up a new field of play. “Our aim in publishing this book is to shun the over-simplifications of commentators who maintain that all over the world work is disappearing, that this is a disaster, or even that work is dead. Such opinions undermine the intentions and words of those who withhold that ‘an end to work’ is unlikely. There is work in this world, it is transforming, taking on a new form, a new value and quality, it has become the real priority for governments and ruling classes the world over,” the book’s editor Walter Passerini writes in his introduction.

The chapter on the evolving relationship between employers and employees by Luca Solari, Professor of Organisation Theory at Milan University, is key to redesigning the future. It focuses on four main ideas, four great truths to be reckoned with. The first is that “distinctions between deliberate and emergent strategy, and between strategy and tactics are pointless”: standardisation and organisation are no longer the foundations for the success of enterprises, Solari writes. In an increasingly fluid and mobile world, management should instead “look for simpler solutions and increase the level of internal as well as operational responsibility”, “to make the labour market more transparent.”

During the pandemic, we saw that horizontal management is possible. We need to come to terms with this fact because it will not be easy to tell people that we are going back to the way things were before

Luca Solari

This is especially true for things like smart working, which rapidly became commonplace during the pandemic. “With all the limits it imposed on our lives, the recent past has revealed how certain traditional elements of management are now being challenged. In 2019, it seemed unthinkable to let an employee work remotely, but recent data show that companies managed to maintain productivity levels,” Solari explains. “The concept of an organisation being located in a physical space is also being called into question. Then there is the issue of power: for so many years, we have lived in accordance with an inherent vision whereby people cannot make an organisation work unless someone is coordinating, controlling and supervising. Yet during the pandemic, we have seen that horizontal management is possible. We have to come to terms with these changes because it will not be easy to tell people that we are going back to the way things were before.”

The second idea is that “organisations will become frameworks that manage their independent players using a wide variety of contracts.” In Solari’s opinion, the new set-up in the relationship between people and enterprises will no longer be characterised by hierarchical authority and control and be based instead “on the skill in connecting people and resources through continuous innovation.” In this respect, “managers will be very open to the world around their organisations and become the axis around which evolving, flexible organisations can be built.”

With the exception of a few great innovators, this future is still a long way off. Just think of the challenges coronavirus has set us: on the one hand, the pandemic has led many companies to give up using their offices even well beyond lockdown, on the other hand mechanisms like remote work have only granted partial empowerment to workers and have even created further issues, such as blurring the boundaries between work and leisure time.

It is shocking that some managers today worry about people working from home: this occurs because the belief still exists that when you employ a person, this means you also own their time

To put an end to such misbeliefs, Solari maintains that the terms of the debate need to change. “We are currently in a transition phase comparable to the industrial revolution, which also had dramatic consequences as we moved away from craft work to a non-regulated model of work. However, as long as the interpretation is left to those who designed this set-up, it will not be easy for a different model to prevail. We need a new approach, starting with a debate on the right to disconnect, which will have to become a key element of workers’ rights,” Solari continues. “The geographic location of work has negative repercussions as far as anonymisation is concerned, but it opens up an opportunity for other forms of socialisation and shifts people’s centre of gravity. It is shocking that some managers today worry about people working from home: this occurs because the belief still exists that when you employ a person, this means you also own their time. Though this may have been true in the past, it is unlikely to continue to be so in the future.”

New models will also be needed for freelance and gig economy workers, who in Solari’s opinion are destined to become more numerous and more commonplace even within companies. As people switch from being ‘employees’ to being ‘contractors’, the task of these new models will be to make the new world of work sustainable and prevent a situation where people are officially independent and their own bosses, but at the same time they lack labour protection, and this is unacceptable.

Solari maintains that it will therefore become increasingly necessary for companies to be more transparent in how they treat their employees, and people purchasing goods or services will need to shift toward a more ethical consumption: if the price of an item or service is too low, we need to be conscious of the fact that this hides forms of exploitation. “The traditional model of protected work we have experienced until now has led to double standards, with workers benefiting from labour protection on one hand and those who do not have this protection on the other,” Solari says. “The new model will need to rectify these double standards and establish a set of basic rights that apply to everyone. In 2020, it is unacceptable that accident insurance depends on the type of employment relationship.”

Social responsibility and more openness towards the outside world are likely to change an organisation’s core values

The third idea Solari outlines is that “organisations will emerge as relatively stable structures with multiple relationships in which the traditional role of official ownership will be less relevant”: the dynamism and involvement of a greater number of stakeholders will lead companies to become more horizontal and less vertical to such an extent that even the ownership structure will be challenged, making decision-making processes much more complex but also much fairer.

As Italy went back to work, it became clear that the varying degrees of social security protection were still an issue: whereas a subsidy of 600 euro was paid to the self-employed, regular employees were protected by a ban on dismissals and a furlough scheme (called cassa integrazione) lasting months. “It would be unfair to say that the ban on dismissals was totally wrong given the times, but we will have to see what happens when the ban is lifted,” Solari says. “Organisations will make the decisions they would have made months ago, and it is unthinkable that we will be able to maintain the status quo with the Next Generation EU funding. Does anyone know what the unemployment rate is estimated to be when the ban is lifted? In which parts of the country will the job losses occur and in what professions? Does anyone have solutions for those who will be pushed out of the labour market? There is always only one answer: there are no accurate data - and when the data do exist, they are not part of public policy.”

Though the consequences of coronavirus on the world of work are largely unforeseeable, any vision for the future has to position companies as the main agents of change. Solari’s final idea is that “organisations will have to integrate a social role into their set of business goals. “The growing importance of social movements will further condition both corporate governance models and the role of management,” he explains. This will make it “more difficult for companies to put up a barrier and isolate themselves from the external environment, one of the behaviours that has ensured the stability of companies based on the principles of Taylorism and Fordism.” Social responsibility and more openness towards the outside world are likely to change an organisation’s core values.

The example of the Business Roundtable, a manifesto by hundreds of CEOs who have declared that profit should no longer be the ultimate goal of companies, is a timely example. “Theirs is a symbolic rather than a practical statement because today most investment choices are triggered by profit. But as people become more aware and acquire a greater right to information about the things they use, then things will change more rapidly,” Solari says.

Last but not least, if companies become agents of change, then students and workers also have a responsibility to ride this wave of change: “Whereas in the past we asked ourselves ‘what do I want to do’, now it is more efficient to ask ‘what do I have that is unique and what can make me happier’. Some people will have highly specialised skills, but we all need to develop our communication and interpersonal skills. We all need to be aware that it is possible to have different jobs within the framework of a boundaryless career, in other words a self-service career that each one of us can build for ourselves.”

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