A May Day for flexibility

After a complete stoppage of all May Day rallies last year in the midst of the first Covid-19 outbreak, a more pandemic-experienced Sri Lanka witnessed a bit more activity this year, albeit mostly in the virtual space. This year’s May Day celebrations were less colourful than those of 2019 and before though, as most political parties and trade unions had organised simple, virtual rallies and discussions online.

The struggles behind what we call May Day, or International Workers’ Day, today, date back to the 1880s, when workers in the US launched large-scale, organised strikes over several demands including that the work day be limited to eight hours, as opposed to the 12 to 16-hour shifts that were the norm back then. Even though it took a long time, the strikes led to good results. However, the workers’ issues did not end, as every day, they keep facing newer and more complex issues.

Most of modern-day workers’ issues are much more complex, and finding solutions to their issues require legal, political, and financial interventions. The same goes for the issues faced by employees and employers due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and in this day and age, Covid-19 has become a major, inseparable factor that influences how workplace policies are formed.

Covid-19-conscious workplace policies can help achieve two things, namely, a Covid-19-free workplace and workforce, and a work culture that does not affect the role of the employees and employers. In fact, having such policies in place became a topic of discussion last year, when thousands of employees were laid off, while thousands more had to manage their expenses with a small portion of their salary.

Authorities recently took several measures to look into the plight of those who had lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 pandemic last year, and one such measure was the decision taken by the Department of Labour to conduct a survey to identify them. However, that is merely one way of addressing this issue, and it focuses on just one aspect of the issue. In addition to providing relief to those who had lost their jobs, taking policy-level measures to protect and upgrade existing jobs is also vital. It is always better to be pre-emptive than reactive.

Sri Lanka’s work cultures have, in fact, gone unreformed for a long time, and concepts such as “work from home”, which were embraced by other countries due to their timeliness, became famous in Sri Lanka only after the Covid-19 pandemic. However, this can be a start of a new, mutually beneficial and more effective work culture, and to do that, workplace policies need to be updated.

The work from home concept became famous in Sri Lanka last year, and it is not only an effective way of continuing operations without exposing any person to Covid-19, it also saves a considerable amount of resources and time for both employers and employees. Also, unlike in the case of conservative work culture, the work from home concept gives priority to the amount of work, not how long a person spends at office. That is not all. The work from home culture, in turn, highlights the need for flexible working hours, which promotes quality over quantity. Instead of requiring employees to waste their time and resources just to be on duty even when they have no real work, it is time to understand that the amount and quality of work is what matters.

In fact, new work cultures, especially those mentioned above, lead to a win-win situation, where employers receive the service of employees even during a pandemic and employees get to keep their jobs and enjoy perks with minor/zero deductions. It also entails a number of indirect benefits – it saves a considerable amount of utility costs for employers and at the same time gives employees a more relaxed work environment at their homes, with their families. Well, is that not what all parties want?

Having to suffer losses during a pandemic is inevitable. However, introducing new work cultures is the best way for both employers and employees to come out of the pandemic with at least one win.