Adjusting the way we work during the COVID-19 pandemic

This is an excerpt from the new blog series of the United Nations Information Centres (UNIC), which includes comments from experts active in various fields, including senior Japanese staff members from the United Nations. This contribution is from Mito Tsukamoto, Chief of the Development and Investment Branch, ILO Employment Policy Department.

Comment | 25 November 2020
As with many other UN agencies, all staff at the International Labour Office (ILO), with the exception of “Essential Workers”, shifted to teleworking as of 16th March. The transition to telework was relatively smooth, especially since our Branch was already used to having one or two colleagues teleworking, so our Branch Meetings were usually already held in a hybrid fashion– with face-to-face and teleworking staff. However, one thing that became noticeable to many of us with child- and/or family care responsibilities was the need to balance these responsibilities and to be able to provide flexible working arrangements for those that required them. Parents often had to share their “office space” with the “learning space” of their children during the times of lockdown/curfews. There was hardly a clear division between professional and private time, which all became fluid, with parents desperately trying to find ways to ensure their kids would not pop into Webinars or the distant sound of piano lessons in the background. There is also a risk that what is saved in commuting time is often now invested into more hours “at work”.

Teleworking during COVID-19 pandemic (© World Bank Photo Collection)
Has COVID-19 changed our working practices? In a sense the Future of Work and the need to consider digital ways of working has been pushed to the forefront. We need to find the means to have a good balance of embracing the digital world and finding better ways of accommodating flexible ways of working. Despite many of these challenges, the impression that working from home would decrease labour productivity, in some ways was proven wrong. Productivity is not about the location of the working place. It is about the individual’s motivation and a healthy environment in which the individual can demonstrate his/her performance and skills.

"Occupational Safety and Health (OSH)" is a key element of the ILO’s foundation with several Conventions adopted by our Member states. The threat posed by the COVID-19 virus has brought further to light the importance of creating a safe and healthy working environment for everyone in the workplace. Employers and workers have a key role to play in ensuring everyone’s safety.

Now, some 26 years later, I find myself heading the Branch that hosts the Employment-Intensive Investment Programme (EIIP), a programme that started in the 1970’s to operationalize the ILO’s normative frameworks to create job opportunities through labour-based infrastructure development and environmental works. This current EIIP portfolio focuses on 6 thematic areas with an extended focus on social and environmental dimensions. The ILO has been implementing construction projects since its inception, creating jobs for the most vulnerable populations, increasing their employability with capacity development, and strengthening local institutions within the humanitarian-development nexus.

Drainage maintenance work under the road construction project “Kumba Mamfe” implemented in Cameroon (© ILO CO-Yaounde)

In response to the emerging needs in response to COVID-19, the ILO developed the OSH Action checklist for prevention and mitigation of COVID-19 at work, the Sector-specific guidance on “Stop COVID-19 at work!”, as well as the Guidelines on Adjusting Labour Practices that need to be followed in employment-intensive infrastructure construction projects. These Guidelines not only set out additional OSH measures, but also provide specific planning tools in the event of a lockdown or other business interruptions. These guidelines have since been reinterpreted in different contexts in over 20 countries where construction projects are being implemented by or with the ILO. In some countries, Governments and development agencies have adopted them as official instruments to ensure specific implementation procedures during the COVID-19 crisis, and potentially in the aftermath of the crisis when the virus remains a threat, as has been the case in Lebanon and Mauritania.

The impact of the COVID-19 crisis has required measures against emerging safety and health hazards. These include, ensuring appropriate distances between workers, proper wearing of masks, monitoring of workers' health status, strictly ensuring access to water and sanitation (WASH) facilities, as well as raising awareness on sanitation measures including frequent hand washing, and ensuring that disinfection equipment is available, among others.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed and continues to change the world of work, and the way we work. In this uncertain time, one thing remains certain – we need to put people at the centre of our response. Ensuring the provision of a safe and healthy working environment is one of the key responsibilities to which governments, employers and workers must all contribute. Conforming to the OSH standards at work does not have to be to the detriment of employment-intensive investments that create job opportunities. The OSH standards usually are, and can further be, highlighted through these kinds of works. As demonstrated by the ILO’s response to COVID and the repurposing of various employment intensive investment programmes, by adjusting our labour practices to emerging necessities, we can continue to provide our support to ensure that all workers, especially those that are vulnerable, are still able to secure their livelihoods. Such a human-centred approach is key to decent work.