Rozena Crossman

Vaccines are slowly arriving, but many of the shifts COVID has created will be lasting. These reverberations are much deeper than just working from home or increased digitization — society's priorities have evolved. Thanks to the pandemic, people all over the world are completely rewiring their lives. They're leaving once-vibrant cultural metropolises for serene greenery and fresh air, turning away from foreign exports to support their local communities and embracing vacation time as an important tool for productivity.

This edition of Work → In Progress explores how these changes in ethos are manifesting in business and labor. In a world rethinking everything from agricultural models to freelance contracts, here are some of the latest trends in the workplace:


ENTREPRECARIOUS From Italy to South Korea, we've seen how the pandemic has fueled a freelance boom. But people may also be turning into entrepreneurs against their will. Silvio Lorusso, author of the book Entreprecariat, noted in an interview with French media Welcome To The Jungle that in Europe, many employees have been pushed to continue working as freelancers so companies can cut costs. He wonders if the post-COVID self-employment boom is really entrepreneurship, or just more "uberisation" of the workplace. He also warns that the "roll up your sleeves' attitude towards the crisis propagated by governments and companies is implicitly asking workers to do more labor for less pay, as their suggestions for adapting to the "new normal" have included mastering new digital tools, organizing their home office, coordinating modified hours with coworkers ... all activities that are seldom recognized as work.

AFRICA RISING If African nations were poised to become an investing hotspot before, the past year has only accelerated their potential. For starters, the pandemic seems to have had much less of an impact there than on other regions of the world, due to factors like a younger population and high public support for safety measures. An even more important factor, however, is the innovation currently taking place. According to the professional services network Ernst & Young, "A surplus of workers, more stability and technology are transforming Africa's economies, making it less dependent on extractive industries." Examples of African entrepreneurship include developing facial recognition technology for African populations, harboring the largest African genome bank in the world and, since COVID, a boost in locally-made pharmaceutics, the pan-African francophone media Jeune Afrique reports.

THE ODD JOB

AGRICULTURAL REVOLUTION Agriculture in India, which accounts for about 58% of the population's livelihood, is in distress. Farmers in the subcontinent have one of the highest suicide rates in the world, a symptom of conditions of extreme poverty. An op-ed in the Delhi-based news outlet The Wire argues that in order to improve the agricultural sector, governmental policies should "have a clear vision of what our future villages should be" and plan accordingly to ensure the stability of local populations. It's an idea that could ensure employment for farmers around the world, as many Europeans have been calling for the EU's Common Agricultural Policy to align with their Green Deal's Farm To Fork strategy, which aims to put small farmers at the heart of the food distribution system.

FROM STATIC TO AGILE In times of uncertainty and unpredictability, companies will accelerate the transition from static vertical structures to agile, self-managed teams. According to America Economia, the pandemic and the rise in remote work made companies realize the drawbacks of the traditional style of leadership, which sometimes verged on micromanagement. Throughout 2021, companies will seek to put in place new processes and structures, giving teams more independence and clearer fields of action. Leaders will be expected to create a safe space within a team, setting clear goals, roles and responsibilities and then limiting themselves to motivating and empowering autonomous workers, leaving them free to do the rest.

REMOTE VS. 5-DAY WORKWEEK Old habits die hard, and that includes the five-day work week and daily 9-to-5 grind. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, Fast Company argues, it's that standard practice isn't necessarily the best practice. For one thing, worker engagement and performance tends to start strong on Mondays but gradually drop during the week. Also, remote work and digital technologies mean we hardly stop checking our screens at 5 p.m. — and people relinquish hours of unaccounted work in the hope of some downtime in the weekend. What if companies instead allowed employees to get the work done "whenever they can," logging their hours when they'd like — including early mornings, late, nights, weekends? If done right, that would allow workers to live their lives not only a couple of days a week but every day.

A NEAT TWEET

URBAN ARRIVEDERCI An increasing number of young Italians are leaving cities and offices to rediscover a love for the countryside. The biggest farmer's association in Italy reports a 14% rise in the number of young farmers over the last five year. The group said the rise was partly propelled by the coronavirus crisis. Many of these young farmers came from different professional backgrounds, allegedly looking to reconnect with nature and a more genuine lifestyle.

PRODUCTION VALUE The way we think about productivity is changing, with more managers, workers and employers considering meditation, family time and vacation elements that boost productivity rather than a waste of time. While our society's decades-old obsession with productivity has seemingly worsened during the pandemic and remote working, the Brazilian weekly Epoca Negocios reports that it also taught some people about the importance of a more holistic approach to getting things done — boosting professionals' well-being and time spent off work, emails, and screens.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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