SGI Europe Brussels Workshop

Social partners supporting anticipation and management of change after COVID-19

29 September 2023, 9:30-14:00, Brussels


The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted labour markets, from job losses to workplace transformation. Employers have been faced with the challenges of ensuring business continuity by re-organising work entirely remotely where possible, preserving employees’ health and safety, and ensuring well-being, while facing financial constraints, uncertainty in planning.

Ran by the Malta Employers’ Association with the support of SGI Europe, the project “Social partners supporting anticipation and management of change after COVID-19” addresses the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on the labour market and workplaces. It addresses more specifically the anticipation, preparation and adaptation of business strategies and workplaces caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the instruments of social partners to accompany this transformation. The project focuses on the sectors of hospitality, tourism and travel, wholesale, retail and other commercial services and other professional services.

Hospitality, tourism, and retail have been some of the most affected sectors as their operations were reduced by lockdowns and social distancing measures such as forced closures or reduced activities. However, other sectors, such as professional services, also went through changes, with many companies implementing remote-work policies.

The management of the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of digital tools, technologies and new processes including  remote work, transforming how people work and collaborate. Remote work became the new normal and was accepted across various sectors, leading to changes in work-life balance and the need for new skills.

The pandemic also accelerated the demand for specific skills, such as digital literacy, remote collaboration, and adaptability. Furthermore, the pandemic brought significant attention to workplace safety and health. Companies implemented new protocols and measures to protect employees, such as social distancing, personal protective equipment, and increased sanitation.

A workshop organised in Brussels by SGI Europe allowed for the collection of expertise and experiences from the EU cross-sectoral and national social partners, and the drawing up of the lessons learnt during the pandemic and further improving procedures for the consultation of social partners to manage change.


Moderated by Valeria Ronzitti, General Secretary, SGI Europe

9:45-10:00 – Introduction and welcome addresses

  • Welcome address by Valeria RONZITTI, General Secretary, SGI Europe
  • Introduction by Joseph FARRUGIA, Director General, Malta Employers Association

10:00-10:30 – Presentation of the findings of the primary research, by Robert Debono, Project Expert

10:30-11:00 – The transformative role of the pandemic on employment and labour markets

Introduction by:

  • Agnès PARENT-THIRION, Senior Research Manager, Eurofound

Followed by an open discussion with participants.

11:00-11:15 – Coffee break

11:15-12:00 – The role of social partners: EU, national and cross-sectoral perspectives

Discussion with:

  • Michael DE GOLS, vice-chair of Social Affairs Board, SGI Europe; Directeur, UNISOC (Belgium)
  • Ignacio DORESTE, Senior Advisor, ETUC
  • Isaline OSSIEUR, Adviser, BusinessEurope

Followed by an open discussion with participants.

12:00-12:15 – Conclusions

Key messages

9:45-10:00 – Introduction and welcome addresses

Valeria Ronzitti:
  • Crucial meeting in the context of the project run by Malta Employers’ Association, with the support SGI Europe, as it paves the way to the final conference to be held on 31st October 2023 in Malta.
  • Acknowledging the importance of the support given by the European Commission, which – through its support – allowed the collection of practical insights on the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, beyond the emergency response.
  • The pandemic impacted the way in which certain services are provided, and how it impacted the management of the workforce, accelerating which in many instances innovation and new processes which were already planned, but were not fully managed or were thought that we would have more time to integrate into management.
  • The final outcomes of the project will be something very practical and useful for many employers across the EU and assess how, in consultation with trade unions, they can manage these new trends.
  • Also a very topical moment to discuss, as we anticipate future discussions at European level on many of the topics touched upon by the project, such as the revision of European Works Council (and the right to information and consultation), the regulation on Artificial Intelligence and the need to ensure the “human-in-control” principle or the ongoing negotiations of the social partners on “telework and the right to disconnect”.
  • What started as a reaction to the pandemic will have implication on a much broader perspective, and it will be important to manage and add tools to manage those trends in the long run.
  • This project, triggered by the COVID management, evolved into a project about anticipation and management of change.
Joseph Farrugia:
  • The repercussions of COVID are still being felt, in particular on labour organisations and with implications now on the various actions that are being taken at the EU level.
  • The pandemic accelerated the need for meaningful transformation of workplaces, the creation of new forms of work, new processes, communication tools, and diverse modes of training, delivery, and service.
  • During the pandemic, necessity has driven innovation and creativity, with employers and employees showing resilience and ingenuity to continue operating.
  • COVID helped us realise that change is central to ensuring resilience, competitiveness and sustainability, with the need to adapt to the new normal creating opportunities for employers and employees to embrace change and for all to benefit from the twin transitions.
  • With respect to the transformational workplaces caused by the restrictions imposed, MEA tried to strengthen tripartite discussion on the modernisation of work organisation and the development of new business strategies.
  • Through the project “Regeneration plan for workplaces” which is co-financed by the European Union, the MEA and its partners – SGI Europe and General Workers’ Union, the largest union in Malta – have joined forces to conduct groundbreaking research on the identification of bottlenecks and business transformation that can be caused by replanning and communication. Serious bottlenecks can sometimes impede transformation projects from taking off the ground, while others deprive the employer from reaping the full benefit of change.
  • It included interactive roundtable discussions with sectoral dimensions and the participation of 40 companies, as well as the collection of data through an extensive survey covering 175 companies in Malta and more than 200 employees (which, given the size of Malta, is quite significant).
  • The last meetings should become stepping stones for future activities to further exchange practices, both with other employers and employee representatives.
  • The research conducted and the outcomes of the roundtables will be collated, analysed and processed by the project to help enterprises in shaping and designing solutions for enterprises for strengthening adaptation and management of change. We want to suggest new strategies and steps for sustainable workplace transformations, and gaude the demand for them.
  • The project will also support the preparation and dissemination of a dedicated toolkit, addressing both challenges and opportunities. It will provide a step-by-step guide for companies to utilise during their business transformation and upgrading processes. It will enable users to learn from the pitfalls of others and to benefit from success stories that have been shared. The European Commission support for the realisation of this project and enabled us to serve on the frontline in the challenges faced by businesses in implementing transformation and change.
  • By means of this project, we hope that employer organisations all over Europe will be better armed and better placed to provide tangible value to their members and communities by means of anticipation, preparation and adaptation strategies.

10:00-10:30 – Presentation of the findings of the primary research

Robert Debono
  • Mr Debono presented the main findings of the primary research conducted, on the basis of the slides, tables and charts from PowerPoint presentation annexed to this report. These results were submitted separately in the reporting of the project.
  • As the presentation expanded beyond the allocated timeslot, it was agreed to gather all the questions and comments at the end of the second presentation by Ms Agnes Parent-Thirion, Senior Research Manager at Eurofound.


10:30-11:00 – The transformative role of the pandemic on employment and labour markets

Agnes Parent-Thirion
  • This presentation provided an opportunity to grasp the “fuller picture” at EU level, through the expertise of Eurofound, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (the EU agency whose mission is “to provide knowledge to support the development of better informed social, employment and work-related policies. Its vision is to be Europe’s leading knowledge source for a better life and work.”)
  • The intervention of Ms Parent-Thirion was based on the presentation of the last European Working Conditions Telephone Survey, carried in 2021 (for the first time over the phone, due to the social distancing restrictions in place in 2020 and 2021). The EWCTS being a “probability-based survey”, highlighting that the findings from this survey can be extended to the overall population.
  • The EWCTS consisted of over 70.000 workers interviewed from 36 different countries, and also fed into the Eurofound reports “Working conditions in the time of COVID-19: Implications for the future” (November 2022) and “Living and working in Europe 2022”, published in May 2023.
  • Through the responses to the different questions of the survey, Eurofound researchers have identified the core factors which characterised working life in 2020-2021:
    • Different non-pharmaceutical interventions in the Member States
    • Sectors and occupations restricted in their activities
    • Furlough
    • Temporary contracts not renewed
    • Places of work change
    • Occupational gender segregation remains a long-standing feature
  • Based on those criteria, they have divided the workforce in four “COVID-19 groups”:
    • Frontline workers (20% of the workforce)
    • On-location production (24%)
    • On-location service workers (20%)
    • Home office workers (34%)
  • Challenges faced by those groups were dramatically different, with:
    • “Frontline workers” reporting the highest proportion of strenuous job quality, the longest duration of paid and unpaid work but also the highest level of engagement at work;
    • Home workers adapting to new ways of working, faring overall better despite issues regarding long working hours;
    • Online production workers and onsite production workers confirm lingering challenges, with online service workers expressing employment insecurity, a willingness to work more in a less intense environment and with less frequent access to employee representation, and online production workers working the longest hours with the highest physical demands.
  • On the basis of the findings, Eurofound also determined factors influencing “job quality” during the pandemic, by identifying “job demands” (such as physical demands, intimidation, high work intensity and/or unsocial/long hours) and job resources” (autonomy and influence, freedom in time management, support system, recognition).

  • They also assessed how the current twin transition is affecting job quality through this “Job Quality Index”, with a core finding being that “new and emerging” jobs are of better quality than those with facing small or no transformation.

  • The pandemic – both the immediate management and the long-term effects – had very different consequences on “job quality”, depending on the sectors of activity, types of jobs and the possibility to adapt to the new reality. It also emphasized that the importance of “job quality” in the new labour market dynamics, with:
    • Link between job quality, quality working lives and productivity;
    • Need to decreasing exposure to job demands and increasing increasing access to job resources, while still addressing exposure to “traditional” risks;
    • High involvement in the work organisation and employee representation can be crucial in that end;
    • Correlation between occupations experiencing persistent labour shortages and poorer job quality, as highlighted in the latest Employment and Social Developments in Europe (ESDE) of the European Commission.

Q&A with participants

  • Bjarte Romark, KS (Norway) on the high level of strain faced by workers in the health sector, and how to redress the situation to prevent long-term effects from the pandemic on these sectors. Response focused on the fact that this trend is not totally new, but was more the continuation of something which was already there and was made worse by the pandemic. Eurofound will publish a specific survey on the care sectors on the 10th
  • Delfina Bucci, Rubes Triva (Italy) on the need to adopt agile, adaptable and inclusive strategies to manage transformation of the workplace, and that COVID-19 (especially in the the sector of activity of Rubes Triva, which is the utilities and environmental sector).

11:15-12:00 – The role of social partners: EU, national and cross-sectoral perspectives

Michael De Gols
  • When the pandemic started, the social services and care sector had to be very flexible and implement changes quickly, both for the enterprises, the workers and the patients.
  • Healthcare already facing issues prior to COVID, including staff shortages, fundings difficulties and psychosocial risks (including burnouts). The pandemic simply further depreciated an already existing trend.
  • In Belgium, supported by a long-lasting tradition of social dialogue, social partners – including the employers of the social non-profit sector which is active in the cross-industry social dialogue – have been extremely involved in shaping the response to pandemic through the National Labour Council (NLC)[1].
  • A new dynamic emerged during the pandemic at the NLC, with a more “informal” approach to the mission of the social partners and “speedier” processes.
  • The regulatory response by the government – on the consequences on labour relations – was greatly shaped by social partners, including the definition of essential and non-essential sectors (which faced different regimes for, a.o., the application of social distancing on the workplace), the extra-flexibilisation of work arrangements, the mobilization of people out of the workforce to support essential sectors (including retired people or students), specific and temporary unemployment schemes or “COVID medical certificate”.
  • Belgian social partners also agreed a dedicated collective agreement on telework during the COVID-19 pandemic (Collective Labour Agreement no. 149), complementing the regular framework and the collective agreement on occasional (Art. 22-28 of the Act of 5 March 2017 on workable and agile work) and on structural (Collective Labour Agreement no. 85) telework.
  • In the sector of social services, staff shortages were numerous during the pandemic, while a greater flexibility regarding working hours was a core request by the society.
  • Amongst other initiatives, Belgian social partners have prepared and issued a “guidance document” on COVID-19 on the workplace, featuring advices and recommendations to adapt the workplace/workspaces to the new reality of the pandemic. The guide was also adapted and translated in other countries.
  • Belgium also passed a “pandemic law”, and directed campaigns and mobilized fundings in support of the healthcare sector, backbone of the response to the pandemic.
  • At SGI Europe, an exercise of collection of best practices and examples of adaptation to the reality of the pandemic was initiated. EU social partners also joined their voices, calling for unity in the face of adversity. A platform of EU partner associations was set up, the “SGI Facing COVID-19 Platform”, with examples of practices being collected from across Europe. SGI Europe also had several meetings with key EU leaders, including Charles Michel, President of the European Council, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, Valdis Dombrovskis, Executive VP of the European Commission, or Nicolas Schmit, Commissioner for Social Affairs.
  • SGI Europe’s Social Affairs Board was the primary body within SGI Europe for this exchange, with a dedicated focus on the new reality of the world of work and the emerging prevalence of telework.
  • SGI Europe is also currently involved in the negotiations of the EU cross-industry social partners on “telework and the right to disconnect”, expected to conclude in October 2023.
  • The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are still being felt in Belgium, and especially in the care and social services sector:
    • A strong focus is now being put on the psycho-social risks and the management of workers’ mental health;
    • Labour shortages are very prevalent, with people deciding to change professional pathways while the workload continued to be very high in the sector (including to recover from the delays and backlogs accumulated while the sector was focused solely on the pandemic).
Ignacio Doreste
  • An important takeaway from the pandemic is that, despite the challenge, employment remained high across the EU, thanks to the retention and short time schemes prepared by the social partners across the EU and the SURE financing mechanism put forward by the European Commission.
  • Targeted policies were also needed for some segments of the labour market, with a specific focus on vulnerable workers (like young people, women or migrant workers) who were overrepresented in many sectors most exposed to the pandemic and are often left outside of collective bargaining (such as domestic work).
  • There is also a need to prepare for future similar crisis, and to anticipate through targeted policies for some sectors. A mechanism like SURE was very relevant and, moving forward, should come accompanied by guidelines to improve its implementation and uptake across the EU (and reflect on eventually expanding its scope to, for instance, include economic shocks).
  • ETUC also calls for expansionary fiscal and monetary policies, and avoid repeating the mistakes from the management of the 2007-08 crisis.
  • During the pandemic, many sectors continued to be present in the workplace, especially for the so-called essential workers, while social dialogue proved to be effective instrument to identify different measures at the national and at workplace level to preserve health, including through social distancing to the provision of hygienic measures and of and personal protective equipment.
  • Social partners were also well involved in designing the return-to-work strategies after, both at national and at company levels.
    • In the Spanish company Telefonica, social partners jointly designed the strategy to ensure the safe return to work for more than 120,000 employees nationwide.
    • In Austria, social partners signed the first cross-sectoral agreement (with a focus on masking and testing policy), which was the first since the 1970s-80s. While Austria is a country with a strong tradition of social dialogue, most agreements are concluded either that the sectoral or the company level, and not at the cross-industry level.
    • In Italy, social partners of the private sector agreed a common protocol, including the obligation for employers and workers to ensure the daily cleaning operations and sanitation of the workplaces and tools, including the provision of personal protective equipment.
  • Health – including the psychosocial risks – is a long-standing demand of the trade union movement, and the issue has been further exacerbated as a result of COVID-19. We now call for enacting legislation on the prevention of psychosocial risk and limiting the prevalence of diseases stemming from it (as it already the case in some MS), and also including the management and return to work of workers with long COVID.
  • Finally, there is a need to work on preparedness for future pandemics, including through a solid framework on occupational health and safety (OSH) putting the lessons from the pandemic at the centre of the table.
Isaline Ossieur
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly provided a renewed focus on OSH as a pillar of the EU labour markets. A key element we have achieved, as social partners, was the introcution of COVID-19 under the umbrella of the 2003 recommendation on the European schedule of Occupational Diseases (with the caveat of course, that there needs to be a clear link with the performance of work, and a clear focus on the social and the care sectors).
  • A lot has already been said about the essential and frontline workers, which in many cases are active in services of general interest, but not only. I think the biggest one that we were all faced with on a day-to-day basis was the retail sector, but also the agriculture, the energy sector, of course, and the logistics sector,
  • The EU OSHA guidelines developed by the tripartite agency during the COVID-19 pandemic really helped those sectors move forward in a productive, constructive, and most importantly, safe way.
  • When we look at the impact of COVID-19 on our labour markets, the biggest long-lasting impact is the development of telework, which was only marginally used in certain sectors for certain types of occupations
  • The nature of teleworking in COVID-19 was vastly different from the nature of previous or current telework. Therefore, it’s important to underline that the COVID-19 situation cannot be used as a blueprint for any type of discussion on the organisation and regulation of telework.
  • The current negotiations of the EU social partners on telework and the right to disconnect have the potential to give a much-needed impetus to social dialogue at EU level and really showcase that EU social partners can take up initiatives and deliver.
  • Another important issue for BusinessEurope in the post-COVID is the need for better skills matching, as the nature of many jobs has changed, especially in lights of the “Great Resignation” witnessed in the US (and to a lesser extent in Europe), with people switching jobs or looking for new opportunities after the pandemic.
  • BusinessEurope has been calling for a proactive approach on the topic, and actively asking for an EU action plan on labour and skills shortages. It is essential to have better skills-matching between potential workers and potential occupations and to find ways to make certain sectors more attractive to retain the workforce.
  • On social dialogue, COVID-19 re-emphasised the need for personal, interaction needs personal interaction for social dialogue to deliver. Social partners in MS and/or sectors with limited social dialogue traditions and history of collective bargaining have really struggled to deliver through electronic means, recalling that face-to-face interaction is crucial to work out details and agree on sensitive matters.
  • BusinessEurope has been running COVID-19 technical assistance project, which aims at providing coordination and support to their national members in improving their capacity-building in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Some BusinessEurope members have also been running their own projects on specific topics linked with the management of the post-COVID-19 pandemic, such as:
    • Greece, with a focus on telework and the right to disconnect and the implementation of the 2021 legislation on the issue.
    • Hungary and Lithuania, with a focus on capacity-building and reinforcing industrial relations systems and collective bargaining
    • Romania Belgium, with a focus on skills needs, skills matching, the barriers to lifelong learning and adult learning, and how best to attract and retain talents.
    • BusinessEurope also organsied two workshops for their members, with a focus on “collective bargaining and COVID-19” and on social partners’ involvement in the European Semester in turbulent times.


12:00-12:15 – Conclusions

Robert Debono
  • In Malta SMEs have been particularly hit on various levels imposing risks on the availability of resources and on business continuity. Management needed to introduce changes in a timely and reactive manner.  This is another key finding from the project. Many small organisations have been struggling, particularly when we discuss implementing telework policies and ways to operate remotely.
  • The response to the COVID-19 pandemic was driven by a sense of emergency, and things being done to address gaps. These organisations now need to build consistency and business continuity/stability in this new flexible reality and assess risks about eventual future pandemics. Going forward, transformation and change needs to be more proactively driven as opposed to reactive.  This is why the MEA and SGI Europe believe strongly that this EU-funded project to support companies’ anticipation and management of change is very topical and much required.   Both entities strongly believe that companies’ capacity in the anticipation and management of change needs to be enhanced in the years to come not least through this project.
  • It is also crucial to broaden our understanding of the context about which skills will be needed and critical in the future, which were also identified in the research.
  • Smaller organisations, which represent 98% of the Maltese businesses, need help and assistance needed to face the ongoing transformation and stay alive.
Joseph Farrugia
  • It has been a very fruitful event, especially the last part involving the sharing of experience and best practice amongst European social partners, it highlights the power and importance of social dialogue.
  • A key takeaway is that we have seen throughout the crisis that countries with established social dialogue structures evolved in an environment conducive to finding solutions to mitigate the impact of the crisis.
  • In Malta, for example, social partners were involved in shaping the “Relief Fund”, which enabled the government to subsidise wages of the sectors and companies which were the most affected by the crisis and helped stabilise the economy.
  • The Maltese economy relies on tourism, which was severely affected. Health and the retail sectors are also significant, and face shortages of employees. Those arise from demographic challenges, but also because the sector is increasingly being perceived as being a very stressful sector to work. Efforts are needed to make those sectors more attractive to prospective employees.
  • Ageing is an overarching trend across Europe. The pressure on the health sector is set to increase with time, with expectations from that sector changing in the context of an older population with shortage of employees.
  • Our project addresses change and tries to anticipate and manage change is all the more important because we are living in an increasingly dynamic environment, with new ways of working and managing the labour force to address a shrinking labour force and the “Great Resignation”.
  • Improving work organisation without sacrificing productivity and competitiveness can be reconciled. Well implemented, digital tools can, for example, help improving process without impacting productivity.
  • There are many questions arising from today’s discussions. And while one cannot expect to have all the solutions from such an event, we see consensus on what the main issues are as well as clear indications on the priorities for a way forward.


Participants which we were able to confirm

In-person at SGI Europe:

  • Valeria Ronzitti, General Secretary, SGI Europe
  • Joseph Farrugia, Director General, MEA
  • Robert Debono, expert
  • Maxime Staelens, Senior Advisor for Communications and Policy Coordination, SGI Europe


Speakers (online):

  • Agnes Parent-Thirion, Senior Research Manager, Eurofound
  • Michael De Gols, vice-chair, SAB, SGI Europe, Director, Unisoc (Belgium)
  • Ignacio Doreste, Senior Advisor, ETUC
  • Isaline Ossieur, Adviser, BusinessEurope


  • Dorianne Azzopardi Cilia, MEA
  • Kevin J Borg, MEA
  • Camille Boulat, France
  • Delfina Bucci, Rubes Triva (Italy)
  • Benoît Cassorla, Policy Officer, SGI Europe
  • Cecilie Dalhoj, Denmark
  • Sébastien Darrigrand, France
  • Bjarte Romark, Norway

[1] The Belgian National Labour Council is a social dialogue body, gathering 13 representatives of employers’ organisations and 13 trade union representatives, whose mission is to give opinions or formulate proposals concerning employment and social matters to the attention of the Belgian Government and/or Parliament. It also issues opinions on the conflicts of attribution that may arise between the joint committees at the sectoral level. It was established by the law of 29 May 1952, and its role was expanded since, notably by the Act of 5 December 1968, empowering it to conclude collective labour agreements either for all sectors of economic activity or for one of these sectors.