Although we are facing a global health and social crisis unprecedented in recent history, one must nevertheless ask the question – does this crisis bring with it new opportunities? Major disruptions usually create the necessary conditions for major changes in the way people and organisations function. Without intending to diminish or relativize the enormous negative consequences that this crisis will have on the entire planet, it also represents an opportunity to learn and to make certain positive changes for the future.
Public administration – a key actor in managing and resolving this crisis – can and should therefore learn some lessons from this major disruption. In Serbia, this crisis can have a positive impact on the work of the public administration by accelerating modernisation and changing established practices in the work of civil servants. For such organisations that are slow and difficult to change by nature, this is truly a unique opportunity to reform for the better.
Work from home during the pandemic and the adaptation of the public administration
After the introduction of a state of emergency in Serbia due to the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s government has taken a number of measures to control the spread of the virus. Recognising physical distance as the key instrument in preventing the spread of contagion, all measures taken have been essentially based on reducing the movement and mutual contact of citizens. This has had direct consequences on everyone’s life. Employers and employees have also found themselves in a completely new situation, as the government’s Regulation on the organisation of employer’s work during the state of emergency stipulates that employers are obliged to allow employees to perform work outside the employer’s premises, to work remotely or from home, whenever possible.
These measures also apply to public administration bodies. Thus, along with the basic problem of fighting the virus, the state is also faced with another: protecting the health of its employees while ensuring the smooth operation and functioning of the work of public administration bodies. Many institutions, in accordance with the previously mentioned regulation, introduced work from home as the default way of working in these circumstances. This posed a major challenge to state bodies and civil servants, who found themselves in completely uncharted territory. Numerous questions have been raised regarding how to conduct administrative procedures, the signing of documents, and the provision of basic public services, while respecting the statutory requirements of administrative procedures. Moreover, public authorities have had to make specific decisions for each employee (although collective decisions were made in some bodies) to formally allow civil servants not to come to work and to be able to work from home.
As civil servants encounter this new workspace for the first time, everyone – especially those in managing roles – is faced with new challenges. A few such issues include a lack of face-to-face communication and availability of colleagues (especially superiors, to sign a document for instance), poor internet connections, and a lack of office supplies and equipment (such as scanners and printers, to name a few). In addition to these problems that would be faced when working from home in any circumstances, the current crisis has brought about other disturbances as well, such as the care of children and their schooling at home, supplying groceries (which must be done during working hours), and the general psychological pressure of the lockdowns and lack of physical activity.
However, based on informal discussions with civil servants, it seems that the latter group of problems is much more pronounced. Civil servants often use the working part of the day to make phone calls and meetings, do household chores and perform commitments regarding children, and then devote their evenings to work responsibilities that require greater concentration, such as preparing opinions, drafting decisions and solving cases. An additional problem, especially present in the first days after the introduction of the new mode of working, was the organisation of meetings and time management. This was partly a result of the aforementioned problem of performing private duties during working hours and partly due to the lack of managerial skill in government bodies, since, unlike in large private firms, modern tools for managing processes and teams are not generally used in the public administration. The existing system for controlling and monitoring the organisation of work and employees is based on established practices of personnel management in the public administration, while modern tools for project and human resources management are in very early stages of development.
Learning from the crisis: towards more flexible arrangements for the work of civil servants
It is likely that the current crisis will work to accelerate and encourage changes already discussed in the past, though previously unpopular with decisionmakers. These changes include introducing more flexible work arrangements for civil servants. The public administration, like any employer, could implement new conditions for its employees, including remote work (work from home), flexible or sliding time, reduced working time, part-time engagement, compressed workweeks, and others. Some of these options have already been defined and envisaged by the domestic Labour Law.
Until this crisis, deviations from conventional work routines were rare in the Serbian public administration, partially used only for specific categories of officials, such as inspectors who spend most of their working time in the field. The main reason for this rigidity is the fact that the details of employment of civil servants are regulated in a fairly traditional manner by the Law on State Administration, the Law on Civil Servants, and accompanying bylaws. The basic format for employees is an eight-hour workday, from 7:30 am to 3:30 pm, with a mandatory “check-in” and “check-out”. However, the COVID-19 crisis has forced state authorities to find creative solutions for reorganising their work, including introducing telework, thereby opening space for more innovation in addressing challenges.
Despite the difficulties created by the pandemic, the new circumstances have also introduced many benefits for civil servants. They have helped to improve work-life balance and have promoted employee welfare, for example, by eliminating the stress of the commute to and from work, of getting lunch in the office, and of spending long hours in the office, away from family. Spending time at home allows employees to relax more, positively affecting their work satisfaction. Advantages can be particularly pronounced if management processes and methods are well-established, and staff are provided with adequate software and technology solutions to work from home. While managerial capacities and the hardware-related aspects of the administration’s technological preparedness are questionable and require deeper analysis, software solutions that can allow seamless process management and remote meetings are already available; Microsoft Office and all its functions that serve these purposes are already in wide use in the administration, for instance.
In addition, benefits from such change are not only reserved for employees, but also extend to the employer – in this case the state. The most obvious of these benefits for the state are the accelerated digitisation of processes and the modernisation of the work of officials, which reduce the costs of maintaining offices and office supplies, as well as increase the attractiveness of the public administration as an employer. This last advantage is especially important when considering the inability of the public administration to match private-sector wages, which causes the administration to lose its highest quality and often most-needed personnel. Developing policy to retain priority staff has been a persistent topic in public administration reform over the past two years, and the discussion of flexible working conditions for officials can be integrated into that discussion.
Given that a large number of civil servants are currently working from home, the opportunity has arisen to explore the potential of implementing new models for the work of civil servants, giving them greater flexibility in organising their time and completing tasks. In order to find the best solutions, it is necessary to carry out detailed analysis to determine how civil servants adapt and, in terms of work from home, what works and what does not. Prior to the institutionalisation of these new elements of HRM, it will also be necessary to address the security issues of the communications networks and data handled by civil servants, further highlighting the need for comprehensive study. The answers to all these questions may be relevant for potential future COVID-19 outbreaks, but their greatest importance is precisely in the possible long-term improvement of the flexibility of work and the attractiveness of the civil service as a modern employer in Serbia.
As is usually the case with change, it is likely that this one will be met with some resistance. Civil servants themselves, along with political-level management, may push back due to fears that increased work flexibility will lead to a reduction in employee control and discipline or simply slacking off. For this reason, therefore, it is important that future solutions be designed based on thorough study of the current state, the problems and benefits posed by the coronavirus crisis, as well as the fears and expectations that both managers and ordinary civil servants have in relation to such change.