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Twin transition and pandemic challenge Eurofound to increase expertise, strengthen partnerships, expand reach, says new Director

Eurofound welcomed Ivailo Kalfin to his new role as Executive Director on 1 June. After one month in the job, he reflects on the challenges facing the EU, how they will impact on the work of Eurofound and his priorities for shaping the Agency over the next five years.

You have twice been Deputy Prime Minister of Bulgaria, as well as a Member of the European Parliament. Which aspects of this previous political experience will you bring to the role of Executive Director?

My experience in politics is related to policy development and decision-making, sometimes in critical situations. These decisions usually affected many people. For me, an elected representative and, even more so, a member of the government is there to deal with emerging challenges, but their main role is to improve public policies. At the end of their mandate, politicians need to report that they leave the areas under their responsibility in a better situation, having produced better public services that are more resilient and better prepared for the future. To perform well and deliver results in this job, you stand on three solid pillars: first, reliable and timely information, considering different scenarios when appropriate; second, an able, competent and proactive administration, ready to engage with reforms; and third, a sufficient level of public and stakeholder support to guarantee the sustainability of the reforms.

And here the added value of Eurofound comes in. It is exactly this pillar of information, analysis and knowledge that is the foundation of sound decision-making. I know very well the potential of the knowledge provided by Eurofound and the high demand for its research. I know Eurofound’s work, for example, in supporting the European Pillar of Social Rights has been of critical value to policymakers at EU and national levels. And this is just one example. My goal will be to maximise the use of this unique knowledge. That means maximising the value-added created by Eurofound. However, this is not an easy task. Eurofound is an established organisation, at cruising speed. Its stakeholders – the EU institutions, social partners and governments – are active in providing the necessary guidance for its activities. Still, I believe that there are further avenues to explore to improve the provision of key knowledge, at the right time, in the right place.

What are your immediate priorities for the Agency?

Eurofound is a well-functioning machine, with motivated and capable staff. My first task is to assure a smooth management transition, to build confidence and to unleash the potential of the researchers. At the same time, I am aware that to have delivered results at the end of my mandate, I need to start working on them from day one. Eurofound needs to adapt to the rapidly changing environment and aim at making a bigger impact. That means adapting the knowledge it produces, based on historical data, to better prepare for and sketch the future. Stakeholders need to thoroughly understand and prepare for the immediate challenges presented by the bottom-up process of digital transformation and the top-down policy of greening.

Revealing the trends, the expected challenges and the possible solutions in its areas of research have to be the ultimate goal of the organisation. We need to rapidly adapt the research process to the latest developments and the possibilities created by digital advances. That means conducting research with the latest tools and testing new methodologies that will keep Eurofound at the cutting edge of the latest developments. That means having a superior capacity to respond rapidly to the needs of stakeholders, while insisting on maintaining the high quality and timeliness of the knowledge produced. And, finally, we need to maximise the reach of this knowledge. That means producing more comprehensive and accessible information and reaching out to a larger audience.

COVID-19 has dramatically impacted Europe’s economy, society and healthcare systems and the world of work. Do you think that it will change how Eurofound carries out its research and the areas that it focuses on for the foreseeable future?

Eurofound has proven that it is a mature, resilient and flexible organisation, capable of facing the challenges that arise. After the pandemic hit, Eurofound swiftly adapted, moved to teleworking and succeeded in delivering even better results. This is hardly a surprise, as the resilience of the labour market and the profound changes in the conditions of work are a focus of its research. Eurofound proved that it practises what it preaches. Having good ICT equipment and good skills allowed the researchers to adjust quickly to the situation. So, we have the assurance and the experience that adaptation is possible and, I would even say, desirable. We shall continue with a hybrid form of work after the pandemic and with greater use of ICT tools.

In terms of scope, COVID-19 created a clear necessity to focus more on issues like the positive and negative sides of teleworking, the accelerated creation of new types of jobs such as platform work, the impact of the catalysed digital transition, and health and safety at work. The good news is that Eurofound is already working on these issues and delivering valuable analytical data.

From a social and economic perspective, what do you feel are the main things that distinguish this current crisis that Europe is faced with from, for example, the 2008 financial crisis?

There is a huge difference between the reactions to the COVID-19 crisis and the economic and financial crisis of 2008. The 2008 crisis was triggered by the financial sector. Banks holding assets, including depreciated U.S. subprime mortgages, as well as increased country risks made the servicing of government debt more difficult. Then the EU Member States reacted with austerity measures – cutting public expenditure in order to consolidate budgetary balances. This led to a number of negative consequences, including closed businesses, a sharp increase in unemployment – especially among youth and vulnerable groups – poverty and expanding inequalities. The existence of the common currency was at stake, with possible devastating consequences if it collapsed. Only at the end of the crisis did the EU succeed in putting in place the missing blocks to create indispensable structures, like the banking union and the European Stability Mechanism.

This time it is different. COVID-19 caused the deepest economic crisis since the end of World War II. It led to previously unseen measures like the massive shutdown of businesses, social isolation and restrictions on many rights. The negative consequences such as increased unemployment, widening inequalities and pressure on national budgets are an unavoidable fact. Still, this crisis has been much better managed at EU level, and the recovery seems to be much faster. The difference is the decisive common actions at EU level – to assure both the necessary massive public spending to mitigate the negative effects of the crisis and the common management of vaccine production and supply. In this case, the EU used the enormous potential of common policies. The EU did more than any individual Member State could have done.

Europe has experienced a huge shift towards telework as a response to the measures implemented to control the coronavirus. How do you think this will change with the gradual reopening of the economy and businesses?

Well, we need to acknowledge that a limited share of all jobs can be adapted to teleworking. In general, these are positions in sectors such as administration, IT, science and academia. For these, teleworking will be there to stay, most likely in a hybrid type of work, combining teleworking with a return to employers’ premises. The adaptation to the COVID-19 restrictions proved that technology and skills enable teleworking to be adopted as a viable working arrangement. In many cases, workers would prefer it, especially if combined with more flexible working arrangements, allowing them to save on commuting time and to better combine working and private life. Employers might also prefer it, as it allows them to decrease costs and expand their geographical scope for hiring. At the same time, teleworking has drawbacks such as extended working time, psychological challenges due to isolation, increasing the gender gap, ergonomics, etc. These effects are still to be examined. I am pleased that Eurofound is at the forefront of research on the effects of teleworking and that its analytical evidence is used by decision-makers.

Indications show that the COVID-19 pandemic may have negative consequences on socioeconomic convergence in Europe, with southern and eastern Member States disproportionately negatively impacted. What do you feel can be done to address this?

Indeed, COVID-19 was a symmetrical external shock that hit all Member States but produced asymmetrical effects. The reasons are that individual countries had health systems with different capacities and levels of resilience, that they managed to mobilise different public resources and that they had different legacies from the previous crisis, i.e., in terms of structural unemployment or regional disparities. Crises usually increase disparities. However, the negative effects of the unprecedented crisis caused by the pandemic could have been much bigger, even devastating, if the EU had not reacted on a massive scale. Programmes like SURE, REACT-EU and NextGenerationEU have helped to mitigate the crisis and enable a faster recovery.

The setback in regional convergence will probably be the most difficult to overcome, and the green and digital transitions will put additional pressure on regions. For me, the key focus and ultimate goal of regional development should be to ensure good living standards for the people living there. If we allow a region to lose its population of active workers, young families and children, then this region will decline into increasing poverty and decreasing quality of life. So, we come back to the relevance of the knowledge provided by Eurofound, which allows policymakers to make informed decisions about job creation, quality of life and retention of the active population. Now, when the EU and the individual Member States are mobilising enormous amounts of public funds, it is of utmost importance to properly direct and efficiently spend every single euro, as it is borrowed from future generations.

How do you foresee that Eurofound will work with other agencies, EU institutions and international organisations in the period ahead? Are there areas for improvement?

Eurofound already has good cooperation with the other EU bodies and institutions. Our experts provide analysis and data on a regular basis to the work of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission. The unique and reliable data base Eurofound has built is used by other agencies and organisations like the ILO, the OECD and others. The exchange of expertise with these partners happens on a daily basis. Even closer cooperation takes place with our sister agencies, with whom we explore similar areas but from different standpoints.

I would like to focus my efforts on three areas. First, increased cooperation on projects where we could participate on a platform basis, where every partner has its share and a clear area where it contributes to the project with its particular experience and interests. Secondly, to increase cooperation with partners like the OECD and the ILO, allowing us to compare developments in the EU with those in the rest of the world, or at least to benchmark against other countries of interest. Thirdly, I would very much like to expand Eurofound’s knowledge and to use it to contribute to decision-making in particular partner countries – such as the candidate countries, southern and eastern neighbours, etc. This could be a very tangible contribution to the assistance the EU provides to these countries.

What changes would you like to have seen introduced in the Agency at the end of your first term?

My task for the next five years is to lead Eurofound with the goal to be at the vanguard in terms of research and communication capabilities, to further expand the use of the knowledge it provides, to deliver the necessary analytical support to our stakeholders to successfully manage the twin digital and green transition, to develop forward-looking capabilities and to assert its role as an agent of excellence, a reliable knowledge source and an attractive place to work. This can be done by building upon what has already been achieved, appreciating the work of all staff members and members of the governing bodies.

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