Project Description

Crisis
Management

When I was very young, in the early ‘70s, I used to proudly help my father in the photo lab that he improvised in the tiny kitchen of our Communist-style apartment. Thinking back on my childhood memories, little compares to my fascination of seeing the black and white images appearing little by little on the photo paper that we hung on my mother’s laundry line to dry, as they ultimately became cherished family memories.

Working from home over the last months sometimes raised similar feelings – everything around seemed to be an immense photo lab in which yet unseen images were revealed little by little from their big dark room. Amidst the tragic and heartbreak of the pandemic, Carl G. Jung’s words “Only the paradox comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life” were starting to reveal their deep meaning to me.

When we were only a few weeks into the crisis, we could not help but start nervously figuring out how the “new normal” would or might look like, a safer and more peaceful place than the turmoil and unpredictability of the present. The idea of a “new normal” was not new, it has been around for many years, at least since the digital transformation started to be a hot topic for enterprises. In 2007, Peter Hinssen, one of the rare European experts regarded as a worldwide reference, published a book called “The New Normal” in which he talked about life and economy in a society without digital limits. More recently, in a few talks in the first part of 2020, he explores what he coins as “the Never Normal”, acknowledging that we are entering an age of accelerated change, “the part of the 21st century where society and technology are colliding”. In this “never normal” we expect the word “digital” to become the norm, together with another word that we will have to make friends with – “disruption”.

Today, we are increasingly and painfully aware that the “way we have always done things” has stopped working. My generation generally believes that in order to improve outcomes, you have to learn from experience. It sounds like a good idea: assess what worked best, what worked less and next time do more of the former and less of the latter. This mental model brought us more and faster computers, higher buildings, more cars, cheaper plane-tickets and lower mobile phone bills. It also brought us, at an increased speed, more single-use plastic, more fast food, more fast fashion and relocation of work to venues that are at the same time cheaper and less constraining in terms of work regulations.

The impact is huge, despite the overall economic activity being slowed down in the first part of the year, in 2020, the humanity has consumed the resources for the year in 234 days i.e. before August 22, only 24 days later than the previous year when the “Earth Overshoot Day” fell on 29 July. It may seem counterintuitive that we have still consumed resources at a worrying pace and we need still 1.6 planets to cover humanity’s demand for resources for the whole year. This is a good indication that “true sustainability can only be achieved by design and not by disaster”, as it is written on the cover of the dedicated website (https://www.overshootday.org/).

The pandemic has shown us once more how interconnected we are across the world, but also how much we depend on the internet for our basic needs. It has demonstrated how essential it is to achieve the digital transformation, which has a number of prerequisites that might not be directly related to technology, but rather to the human factor and to the strategy, to fostering an adequate and inclusive culture and building new dimensions of the digital experience.

A recent study on the digital transformation after COVID-19 (Deloitte, 2020) notes that the crisis brought “a rapid acceleration to digital transformation plans and organisations are showing an incredible adaptability”.

On the less positive side, “the pandemic’s redefinition of the entire nature of work has revealed how underutilised digital technologies really are and – perhaps even more worrying, how much the human element behind digital technologies has been neglected.”

Digital success requirements in the space of public administration might not look very different from those in the industry. How we managed to operate in the Commission from the very beginning of the crisis showed not only that going 100% digital was possible, but also that the resources were already there, and ready to be deployed. What made the difference was not technology, it was how the human energy flowed quite smoothly around it, and I will try to describe this.

Before COVID, people perceived me already as “siding with the geeks”, as I was constantly looking to deepen everybody’s digital experience, not only my own. I had been training productively for more than one year in an exclusively digital environment, I was a fervent fan of online meetings and I could easily connect to their friendly, positive features. I became surprised and increasingly frustrated that my attempts to attract more people to the digital side were treated in general with a polite, “thank you, maybe some other time”.

Now looking back at what I have learnt from stepping in and explaining so many people over the last months how to translate a “normal” meeting into a digital one, I understand better the reluctance, the uneasiness many people may have felt. Having them plunge literally overnight into the digital pool might have been quite frightening and this is something that any new HR strategy needs to address with care and consideration.

If we are to learn the lessons of these last months, we need to understand that we will be operating in a completely different paradigm. This is the birth certificate of a new administrative culture as “digital” is not going to be anymore a mere “backup” for the “physical”, but there will be a streamlined experience of both. The need for inclusiveness is paramount here. According to Hinssen (2020), two terms seem to be practically the core terms attached to almost everything in this new paradigm. The first one is “smart”, and we are more and more talking about smart products, smart cities, smart homes and smart designs. The other one is “user-friendly”, a key concept for the future as technology will have to be accessible virtually to anyone.

In such a context, so rich in reflections and insights, the invitation last June from DG HR to all staff to contribute to a new HR strategy appears to be a timely initiative and a good indication of the intention to inform the new strategy directly from the source.

The literal success of the initiative shows, in my view, that the staff received the message properly and positively, most probably because the recent experience of how things worked during confinement contributed to a renewed engagement and reinforced the levels of trust in the organisation.

The pandemic acted like litmus paper and revealed several topics worth raising in the discussion, including the current one on the new HR strategy of the institution:

What has also contributed to the success of our experience during the pandemic was the clear connection to our core role and mission in Europe. For many of us it mobilised a direct connection to our mandate as members of the European public service and I believe that the time has come to encourage some philosophical reflection on the scope and the substance of this mission for the decades to come.

What is the European public service going to look like in the future? What mandate for the next decades? What paradigm would allow us to make sense of the recent experience as a clear indication on the future? What kind of conversations do we need and want in this new paradigm?

The lessons from the past might not be particularly helpful to find meaningful answers to these questions and, actually, “sometimes, they are the very obstacles that keep a team from looking at a situation with fresh eyes”. In order to understand and operate this new context, we need to learn to “sense the potential” and “lead from the emerging future”, shift from the “ego-system” to a “generative eco-system”, suggests Otto Scharmer, senior lecturer at Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and chair of the MIT IDEAS program for cross-sector innovation. Here, the key is the word “generative”, meaning “we […] enable a level of conversation that creates new possibilities for action that neither party had thought of or even expected before starting the conversation” (Scharmer, 2018).

As a large organisation, the Commission expects to reinvent itself cyclically and meaningfully, realigning practices to its fundamental mission in order to remain relevant to the Union and to European citizens who are its “main customers”.

A culture of trust

The main topic seems to be developing a culture of trust in the organisation, embodying the promise for a new model of partnership between staff and administration, based on trust rather than control. This is a far-reaching change in the operation model as it touches most of the processes, from teleworking to the career development reviews.

An ecosystem of meaningfulness

“The key to meaningful work is to create an ecosystem that encourages people to thrive”, suggest the researchers, who have found that meaningfulness is an intensely personal experience. On the other hand, meaninglessness at work depends mainly on how people are treated. Cultivating an ecosystem of meaningfulness happens at several levels (Bailey and Madden, 2016): organisational, job, task and interactional level, all of them requiring a good management by the organisation of the potential sources of meaninglessness (as repetitive, tedious tasks, negative working environment, bullying etc.).

Finding work meaningful is an experience that reaches beyond the workplace and into the realm of the individual’s wider personal life. It can be a very profound, moving, and even uncomfortable experience. It arises rarely and often in unexpected ways; it gives people pause for thought — not only concerning work, but also a reflection on what life itself is all about. In experiencing work as meaningful, we cease to be workers or employees and relate as human beings, reaching out in a bond of common humanity to others. For organizations seeking to manage meaningfulness, the ethical and moral responsibility is great, since they are bridging the gap between work and personal life (Bailey and Madden, 2016).

From this perspective, talent development and talent management, recognition of the work in the interest of the institution are valuable levers to enhance the personal perception of the contribution that each member of the staff has to the common purpose – at team level, as well as at a wider level.

Many colleagues have several “hats”, most of them on a voluntary basis given their personal skills beyond their specific job description, and they fulfil a specific role which adds essential ingredients such as empathy, active listening and brings perspective to the social fabric of the institution. The field is wide – participation in EPSO selection boards, staff representation, volunteers in the various charities and self-help groups active in the Commission (or outside) or skilled people interested in various work-related working or reflection groups. There are two aspects of this – on one hand, it is worth noting how these colleagues find a way to add meaning to their “normal jobs” by serving broader organisational purpose, on the other hand, opening such possibilities to everyone who would be interested and removing the administrative obstacles may provide a more generous source of meaningfulness at work.

Developing a staff-centric approach in the long term

The challenges during the confinement highlighted the need for deepening the ongoing reflection to ensure the wellbeing and, particularly, mental wellbeing of staff. Clearly, it would be good to have in place reliable mechanisms of prevention and early warning indicators in the area of psychosocial risks, particularly burnout and harassment. It is also worth looking into the policies and practices of some private companies in this respect. The examples are abundant and do not come necessarily at a significant cost. A first step would be making the available resources more visible on IntraComm and easy to find and including, possibly, a direct line for information and support on the topic of mental wellbeing. It would be equally useful to increase awareness at HR and hierarchy level regarding mental wellbeing of staff and equip them with the proper resources to offer support when needed. Some policy measures like streamlining email usage and encouraging colleagues to take regularly “digital sabbaticals” could be useful measures in the context.

Renew the social dialogue

There have been several reforms of the Staff Regulations, which brought several new approaches into the HR landscape, but there is one aspect that has systematically escaped any significant reform in nearly 20 years. This is social dialogue and, very closely related to it, the staff representation. If we are to have meaningful social dialogue, conducive to a fair, respectful, responsive and adapted working environment, a reform of the current social dialogue measures must be an inevitable step.

Mutual trust in the administrative triad “administration – staff – staff representation” depends largely on the transparency and the perception of social dialogue as a genuine instrument to improve human resources policies. To push creativity a bit further, maybe it is time to assess objectively to what extent the current model of social dialogue based on staff representative organisations is serving efficiently the purpose. If need be, maybe we could consider giving a more formal role in this dialogue, including visibility and resources, to the genuinely specialised and dedicated groups created in the Commission that defend now specific interests of vulnerable staff.

Conclusions

We live in a period of many changes and challenges on so many levels, professional as well as personal. We are together on a road sprinkled with fear and ambiguity – there are so many unknowns, so much uncertainty, but there is also much to learn and build upon, if we wish to stay together and reconnect to our mission in the European public service. We will find ways to learn in the face of disruption, we will find the resources to connect to the emerging future and we will be able, if we manage to build trust first, to respond to challenges ahead with clarity and agility, daring greatly.

Literature

Hinssen, Peter. The Phoenix and the Unicorn. Newton Engineering, 2020

Scharmer, Otto. The Essentials of Theory U. United States: Berett-Koehler Publishers Inc., 2018

Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline. The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization. Cornerstone Digital; New edition (March 30, 2010) (Kindle book)

Gerald C. Kane, Doug Palmer, Anh Nguyen Philips, David Kiron and Natasha Buckley, Research Report “Strategy, Not Technology, Drives Digital Transformation”, MIT and Deloitte, 2015 (https://sloanreview.mit.edu/projects/strategy-drives-digital-transformation/

Digital transformation after COVID-19 – Acceleration with control (article) (https://www2.deloitte.com/nl/nl/pages/enterprise-technology-and-performance/articles/digital-transformation-after-covid-19-acceleration-with-control.html)

Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden, “What Makes Work Meaningful – Or Meaningless”, MIT Sloan Management Review, Summer 2016, pp. 52-61. https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/what-makes-work-meaningful-or-meaningless/

Paul J. Zak, “The Neurobiology of Trust”, HBR, January-February 2017. https://hbr.org/2017/01/the-neuroscience-of-trust

Videos

Peter Hinssen, How to thrive in a VUCA world? Youtube, 2020 (https://youtu.be/SEqbL464YKo)

Peter Hinssen, The Day After Tomorrow, Youtube, 2019 (https://youtu.be/0XLzSv-xbA8)

Otto Scharmer, From Ego-systems to Eco-systems Economies (talk at Google), Youtube, 2016 (https://youtu.be/RftTYFU4DTw)

Websites

Daniela Simionescu

Daniela works as a translator in DG Translation since 2007, is active in the staff representation and president of the Commission’s Cancer Support Group. Before joining the Commission, she had worked as a diplomat in the team that negotiated Romania’s accession to the EU. She has a certification as a coach, specialising now in health coaching.

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