In the last fifteen months words and acronyms such as quarantine, social distancing, PCR, ffp2, asymptomatic, antibody, AstraZeneca, and contact tracing have become part of our everyday vocabulary. Words that we use even more than theater, concert, cinema, barbecue, friends, art, culture. This is neither normal nor healthy.

How will we emerge out of this pandemic, individually and socially? Will we be more resilient? Will we be more aware of our vulnerabilities, of how we need to live and organize our societies differently? Will we ask ourselves whether we have been valuing the right things? Whilst still not able to put the pandemic behind us it might be premature to give or seek an answer to some of those questions, which only social scientists will someday determine with the necessary time perspective, but starting to think about it is a matter of public responsibility in everybody’s respective field of competence.

The times they are a-changin’…  The pandemic is being used by our administration at the European Commission to implement structural changes of far-reaching consequences: no more individual offices, hot-desking for all – or the vast majority – of the personnel of this institution, a new HR strategy for the next ten years, reduction by half of the buildings and canteens, no investment in the European schools, and a radical change in the conception of telework with a wide and generalized use… all this while the personnel is at home, overcome by fatigue, exposed to digital overload, dreaming more than ever of their next trip somewhere… anywhere…  true, with a new screen and a new chair.

Is this being done correctly, comme il faut? Our administration is persuaded that this is very much the case. Hopefully they are right. They are convinced that these changes will be beneficial to staff, their careers, and their well-being, and that they will raise the attractiveness of the EU civil service turning it into a « World class administration », as stated in the principles of the new HR strategy.

It our view, changes of such a far-reaching nature need to meet two conditions: 

  1. staff need to be actively involved in their shaping (collective ownership/corporate pride), and

  2. perhaps more importantly, the actions envisaged must place the personnel at the very centre of its conception; this is an essential pre-condition for these changes to be defendable both individually and collectively as an institution, and even more profitable in the long run for the service that the European Commission delivers to the citizens.

It is doubtful that the level and quality of staff participation so far can truly be considered adequate. For instance, the move to hot-desking that was communicated to staff of a number of DGs took them by surprise, with social dialogue on the matter being limited to one “informative session”, in a process that seems guided only by the pursuit of savings (apparently between 280 and 440 M€ by 2030).

The flurry of fast-track polls that have been launched lately also do not constitute adequate consultation. Ex-post ‘pedagogical’ efforts are much welcome, but that is not a real consultation, let alone a negotiation with staff representatives.

It is even more doubtful that the staff – the human factor – is being placed at the centre of the concerns in these on-going transformations. We are in the middle of an historic public health emergency that keeps us all at home. In the current circumstances it is just not possible for staff to have direct, quality exchanges, be it formal meetings or spontaneous chats over a cup of coffee in the cafeteria. Nor are encounters at general assemblies possible. This unfortunately gives the impression of an unjustifiable rush to push through measures without suitable scrutiny.

Our administration can still improve the quality of this process. The decisions have not yet been implemented, and there is a great deal of work of fundamental importance that is pending. For instance, regulating – as TAO-AFI is calling for – the right to disconnect; to tackle Zoom fatigue; to understand how to deal with the emerging problem of telework burn-out; or to ensure that the future new work environment arrangement respects individuals in their diversity and the varied nature of their work. In short, the necessary time should be taken to study all the far-reaching consequences of the envisaged changes. 

We hope that our administration will have the wisdom to do so in our collective interest, not only for the staff as individuals but also for the institution as a whole.

“Maybe the future is not any more as it used to be”, as Paul Valery said, but the new normal at the EC will clearly not be as we knew it fifteen months ago.

Raúl Trujillo Herrera

TAO-AFI President