Ivana Damnjanović Trifunović, Human Resources Director at CCIS: Great challenges lie ahead of the HR sector

The flexible forms of work should be considered from the aspect of potential challenges arising from adjusting employees to their new reality

In an interview for Diplomacy&Commerce magazine, Human Resources Director at the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Serbia (CCIS), Ivana Damnjanović Trifunović, speaks about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global labour market, the most affected industries and challenges ahead.

Ivana Damnjanović Trifunović, Human Resources Director at CCIS

How has the pandemic affected work productivity and quality? 

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused global health, social and economic crises. It has, inter alia, resulted in disruptions in the functioning of the labour market, has impacted not only the level of employment but has also led to changes in terms of how work is organized. In order to protect the health of their employees, companies have implemented certain changes by sending their employees to work from home, on paid leave, shortening the working hours and the like.

Working from home has certain benefits in terms of flexibility in the organization of work, working time, as well as behaviour and dress code. Furthermore, there is a higher level of freedom in interpersonal communication. There are also challenges associated with remote work. Firstly, work and private time overlap and people do their work in the presence of other family members who sometimes distract them. As for the employed women, working from home very often entails taking care of children, as well as the increased volume of chores.

“Working from home has inevitably resulted in the increased volume of work in some professions, as well as the qualitative changes in the work methods”

People working in the education sector may serve as an example, as well as people working in the service sector, such as IT, communications and e-commerce. Measuring the work productivity of employees working from home should not be different from people working on company premises. The well-oiled teams who work from home can also be equally productive. Productivity should be measured by the work results based on measurable indicators, and not according to the time employees have spent online.

How do you see the future in terms of workplaces, and will remote work continue?  

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, working from home is quite important, because as such it provides a high level of flexibility and is a good precautionary measure to prevent the spread of the virus. Given that the pandemic is not over yet, despite all the implemented measures, it is obvious that this form of work will continue in practice. Irrespective of the pandemic, the development of science, information technology, economic challenges, as well as the need for companies to make significant business decisions in a short period of time create increasingly flexible forms of work and employment such as working from home, remote work, and the like.

Whether and how much working from home will be profitable in the future depends on many factors. In the first place, its application depends on the structure and type of work. Working from home is not a viable option for the largest number of employees in the sectors such as production, public utilities, agriculture, healthcare and construction. Additionally, working from home is mainly reserved for highly educated workers and far less for those people with lower education levels. The introduction of remote work as a dominant form of engagement requires big changes in terms of business processes and significant human and material resources.

I believe that when deciding to allow remote work, companies will primarily be guided by financial motives and will take into account the satisfaction of their employees as an important factor affecting productivity.

How has remote work affected employment? 

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the global labour market, which has resulted in a drop in the production of many sectors. Numerous companies were forced to stop their production processes and temporarily lay off their employees or resort to working in shifts with a reduced number of employees. In the long run, this has led to the reduction of the number of employees in the aforementioned sectors. On the other hand, where possible, companies changed their usual work forms and resorted to working from home, remote work, and the like. Working from home is dominant in the sectors of education, information, communication, scientific and technical activities. The employment rate has mostly remained at the same level in these sectors. Remote work has a positive effect on labour migration.

“To a large extent, the pandemic has changed work methods and conditions, thus redirecting many employees to work from home”

During the pandemic, many people have returned to their homeland from abroad, or they have migrated from big cities to smaller places. The phenomenon of labour migration has social and economic importance, particularly in the countries facing the brain drain. Furthermore, remote work provides persons with disabilities easier access to the open labour market. Although there are certain limitations to this form of work, this remains a dominant form of work among highly educated workers that have developed digital skills.

As such, it is unavailable and inapplicable for those workers with a lower education level who mainly belong to risky groups and vulnerable population categories who are at high risk of poverty, because of not being able to get a job. In order to avoid more serious polarization in the labour market, it is necessary to invest in additional training programmes to ensure that people from socially vulnerable groups, who are seeking employment, are given the opportunity to work from home.

Given that many sectors, such as tourism, hospitality, and transport, have almost been devastated by the pandemic, how has it affected the labour market?  

 Due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global economies have closed down to tackle the spread of the virus and protect the population, which has resulted in serious disruptions in certain industries, particularly in the service sector. Our country has implemented a set of measures to support the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic. This support has been granted in the forms of subsidies, tax benefits, subsidized interest rates for loans, deferred payment of payroll tax and contributions, subsidies for salaries for companies to avoid layoffs during the pandemic, as well as guarantees for loans under more favourable terms than the current market ones, short-term export insurance, and covering some of the fixed costs.

How has the entire situation affected employees whose nature of work requires them to go to work and be in direct contact with people?   

 To a large extent, the pandemic has changed work methods and conditions, thus redirecting many employees to work from home. Remote work was used in almost all sectors where the structure and type of operations allowed it. However, people employed in healthcare, production, retail, agriculture, construction and public utilities, could not perform their work remotely. The workers who had to physically show up to work and were in direct communication with others were highly exposed to and at risk of being infected. Except for symbolic financial incentives, the living standard of these workers has not improved at all. On the contrary, it seems that the pandemic has further deepened the current social inequalities. This fragmentation and individualization of the workforce have led to new gaps in the labour market between those who work from home and those who cannot.

What should the HR sector take into account most in the upcoming period? 

Great challenges lie ahead of the HR sector. Given that the pandemic is still going on, our priority is to organize business processes in such a way as to provide the maximum level of health protection of employees while these business processes are smoothly carried out. The introduction of flexible forms of work has given results and raised many questions such as the issue of the formal and legal stipulation of these relations, reimbursement of employee expenses and, occupational health and safety. It seems that due to the flexible forms of work, the employment status of employees has become “flexible”, which is an additional source of their frustration. Also, there is the question of the operational organization of work, productivity and employee efficiency, as well as the evaluation methods of such work. In the post-COVID period, a certain number of employees will experience post-COVID symptoms like the prolongation of their absence from work or substantial reduction of their work efficiency and performance.

The flexible forms of work should be considered from the aspect of potential challenges arising from employees adjusting to their new reality. In addition to the benefits, the flexible forms of work also have certain disadvantages. Professional isolation has impacted the mental health of a certain number of employees. They complain of disruptions in their everyday life, loneliness, sleeping problems, depression, anxiety caused due to uncertainty of their job in the future and the anger they express towards their housemates. Many of them lack contact with other people. It is quite certain that mental hygiene is today a more important HR topic than ever before.

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