Social dialogue in the digital age : a chance for Europe

In the light of growing social and political inequalities, Europe is facing enormous challenges. EU institutions, member states, social partners and civil society actors share responsibility in shaping the digital revolution sustainably. To that end, codetermination, social partnership and inclusive leadership are more important than ever. They counteract the growing social divide, pool knowledge and experience for developing new digital business models and can make a positive contribution to social policy. Countries with a strong social dialogue system have stemmed the crisis better than others by adapting flexibly to its circumstances.

Considering that codetermination in the digital area is often still in its infancy, CEC investigates as a project partner the role of European Works Councils in the digitalisation of multinational companies and their potential role as model. In another project with the think tank CEPS, CEC enquires how “traditional” social partners and new actors react to the sharing economy.

Despite the widely appraised and documented advantages of social partnership and codetermination, they are increasingly loosing relevance. New self-employed in the sharing economy, old, confrontational structures of the industrial age and a growing multitude of social and employment-related regulations at different levels: the successful European social model is under pressure. How can Europe use the opportunities of digitalisation within these structures to create better working conditions, foster sustainable growth and innovation?

First of all, the diversity of today’s and future labour relations has to better be accounted for. The needs of legally self-employed, but economically dependent, are insufficiently taken account of – as well as those of other “outsiders”. Social dialogue has to become more inclusive and cooperative: managers, self-employed and other occupations need to be able to participate and contribute. To awaken that awareness, managers, as networkers and bridge builders beyond traditional industrial relations structures, are particularly relevant. More than others, managers acquire diverse professional experiences and are therefore particularly qualified for sharing new knowledge and practices.

As regards policies, it is about developing social security nets sustainably, defending workers’ rights and good working conditions, as well as operating economically in a way to preserve our (natural) living conditions. As the IMF and the OECD have noted, the growing social divide represents, besides climate change, one of the biggest threats to our common wealth. Therefore, CEC still considers standard forms of employment as indispensable for social security systems, attenuating these effects. Growing flexibility and corresponding working models have to go hand in hand with basic social security, work-life balance and qualified leadership.

Good leadership has to increasingly consider the multidimensionality of the world of work: for instance, the legal-political context, the needs of employees and the potential for the future development of the company. Managers connect ideas, people and processes. For CEC, leadership includes the “traditional” individual leadership qualities, as well as the participation of employees in decision-making and the embeddedness in further networks of the companies or organisations. Through this integrated definition of leadership, a contribution to more economic, social and environmental sustainability shall be made for the organisational and macrosocial levels.

On that basis, CEC European Managers has conducted a European-wide survey, in the framework of the European Managers Panel, on management in the digital era. It has unfortunately shown that the digital transformation is often not used to (re)position the organisation strategically and to shape the technological development of the company together with employees, customers and external partners (fig. 10). The technological development cannot be considered in isolation, as innovation can only be stimulated through human creativity, cooperation and visionary leadership. The results show that work needs to be made in the domains of individual leadership skills, working conditions and strategic orientation. Nevertheless, more than half of respondents indicated that their company is providing trainings on digitalisation (fig. 10).

With digitalisation, stress and information overload levels raise serious concerns which have only been dealt with by few companies taking measures to improve work-life balance, for example through flexible working models.

Codetermination on company-level and a more inclusive and diverse social dialogue can contribute to finding innovative solutions to shape the digital revolution. However, managers have to identify their own individual and collective margins of action – despite or because of the introduction of IT management systems, partially automating decision-making processes. Responsibility in digital times is not disappearing, but becoming more complex and thus requiring the elaboration of common solutions, adapted to the specific context. For all that, the individual responsibility and decision remains foundational in the end – no robot can answer ethical questions for us.