Can't construction workers help fruit growers out?

Human Resources COVID-19 Strategy & Innovation

The distribution sector is worried about staff cutbacks, which could endanger supplies. Hospitals are calling for volunteers. Gardeners lie awake to the coming harvests for which they simply have no workers now that our borders are closed.

The corona crisis challenges us in many areas. It forces us to look further than we are used to and painfully exposes how much our way of life is based on habits. For no one today, work is "business as usual". The disproportionate distribution of work and workload challenges us to rethink our traditional way of working. Is the coronavirus the chance to help each other out across sectors? And are we laying the building blocks for 'the new normal' when it comes to workforce management and careers?


Internal mobility for a better balance

At company level, large differences in work pressure can be a reason to have employees from different departments help each other by temporarily accomplishing other tasks or joining another department. In 'pre-coronation times' such practices were referred to as innovative career initiatives for promoting internal mobility: internal traineeships, solving temporary replacements internally, 'butterfly time' (temporary assignments in another department), 'inplacement'.

Today, such initiatives can mean more than boosting internal mobility. They can be solutions to achieve an acceptable balance between work demands and pressure across the internal workforce. Colleagues who are experiencing less workload can be a much welcomed help to reduce pressure among overburdened colleagues. At the organizational level, this creates a dynamic that promotes knowledge transfer, breaks through silo thinking and promotes the employability of employees - a return that can also make a difference in the 'post-coronation era'.

Compensating staff shortages with staff surpluses

But these initiatives can also work between companies. Co-sourcing is an innovative practice in which companies have a service agreement such that the shortage of personnel in one organisation can be compensated by the surplus of personnel in the other.

Some first initiatives are beginning to take shape: the agricultural sector is looking for extra workers now that a lot of seasonal workers are unable to move to Belgium, and other workers drop out due to illness. The asparagus harvest, for example, is in full swing. In response, the VDAB successfully launched so-called 'corona vacancies'. The group of companies that need extra help will only increase in the coming weeks - while in other companies personal is set to temporary unemployment.

So why not set up ecosystems of companies where employees who are temporarily unemployed or at risk of becoming unemployed can work for organisations where the need is high? It simplifies the process of coordinating all the external help that is offered, it provides opportunities for meaningful work for employees whose jobs come to a standstill. It responds to an acute social need. 

Potential long term impact on career sustainability

Does this require extra work to set this up? Yes, of course it does. To stimulate internal mobility, an in-house digital platform can help to communicate and distribute tasks, roles or jobs internally. Communication about the why and how is essential. Questions from employees about what this means in terms of remuneration, working hours, etc. need to be answered. But consider it as an investment of which the return will run much longer than the current crisis.

External platforms for co-sourcing already exist. Such as "Experience@Work", a platform that enables the deployment of senior talent in another organisation via a service agreement. This is a triple win situation as it allow (typically non-profit) companies to bring in experienced personnel (employed by a typically large, for-profit company) at a limited cost, whilst those senior employees are given the opportunity to apply their experience in a new context, and demotivation, absenteeism and dismissal are avoided.

Over the past years, steps have been made to enable and regulate such forms of cooperation between employers from a legal point of view. This makes it possible to implement them to solve the current challenges. This requires attention to labour law issues, safety, agreements between companies and with the employees involved. But this crisis is not a one-day event and such forms of cooperation can be a solution ensuring sustainable business performance in the long term.

Corona pushes us into a tight corner, but also offers opportunities to organize ourselves structurally differently and to continue to benefit from this in the long term. Mobility on the labour market, for instance, is high on the Flemish government's as well as the European policy agenda. This is an excellent opportunity to put this new way of working into practice, and to build sustainable careers. At a time when the labour market is suddenly overwhelmed by the economic impact of corona, initiatives for sustainable careers are not a luxury but a necessity. And in the meantime, technically unemployed construction workers can give farmers a helping hand.

Do you want to contact the author of this blog? Or do you have a question? Let her know via ans.devos@ams.ac.be.