“Business as unusual? Exploring the role of workplace innovation practices for shaping a sustainable future of work in the aftermath of a pandemic crisis

On October 21, 2021 a seminar was held in Brussels, Belgium, on the topic: “Business as unusual? Exploring the role of workplace innovation practices for shaping a sustainable future of work in the aftermath of a pandemic crisis”. The conference was organised by HIVA-KU Leuven on behalf of and in collaboration with the European Centre for Workers’ Questions (EZA), with the financial support of the European Union. The event was held in-person in Brussels, given the more moderate COVID-19 measures at the time, and it was attended by representatives of workers’ organisations of 12 different European countries; including the host country and one presenter who delivered a video presentation because he was unable to travel.


  • Opening of the seminar by the chair of the seminar, Dr. Ezra Dessers
  • Presentation by the guest speaker, Prof. Geert Van Hootegem
  • Expert presentations

In the morning: Prof. Steven Dhondt, Dr. Egoitz Pomares and Prof. Vassil Kirov (video)

In the afternoon: Dr. Majda Seghir and Dr. Ralf Kopp

  • Group discussion rounds (in sub-groups and plenary), led by Dr. Milou Habraken

In the morning, the discussions focused on workplace innovation practices and coalitions

In the afternoon, the discussions focused on social dialogue and whether business as unusual will become the new normal

  • Closing discussion, led by Dr. Karolien Lenaerts


Prof. Geert Van Hootegem, General Director of HIVA-KU Leuven (Belgium)

After welcoming everyone to Brussels, Prof. Geert made a substantiated plea to consolidate the positive changes in the organisation of work (in terms of increased autonomy, blurring of silos). He indicated that bureaucracy is already returning, and called on unions to not only preserve the realisations of the past, but also to actively invest in workplace innovation practices.

Prof. Steven Dhondt, Senior Scientist at TNO (Netherlands) & Guest Prof. at KU Leuven

First explained how we can measure workplace innovation, and make comparisons between different countries and companies. He showed that different levels of workplace innovation relate to different levels of readiness for crisis, and to a different approach of companies towards their employees.

Dr. Egoitz Pomares, Researcher at Sinnergiak, University of the Basque Country (Spain)

Talked about essential aspects of the design of innovation programmes as a way to establish frameworks for action in order to promote the adoption of workplace innovation practices by companies and their employees. He showed that hard regulation (e.g. laws) is rare in this domain, and that mainly soft regulation (e.g. action plans) is important.

Prof. Vassil Kirov, IPS - Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (Bulgaria)

In his presentation on the ICT ecosystem in Sofia, Prof. Vassil introduced an ecosystem perspective to analyse, interpret and explain how digital transformation in industry and services has taken shape and its impacts at the regional level. He indicated a lack of formal arenas for the negotiation and dialogue about new practices and needs in times of Covid-19 and beyond.

Dr. Majda Seghir, Centre d’études de l’emploi et du travail, Le CNAM (France)

Presented an EU scoreboard on employee involvement, technological and organisational changes. She illustrated the use of combined data on employers and employees in assessing the links between technological and organisational changes (measured from the employer side) and employee involvement (measured from the employee side).

Dr. Ralf Kopp, Social Research Center, TU Dortmund (Germany)

Talked about the age of uncertainty as challenge for leadership and labour policy. Dr. Ralf argued that participation and empowerment often go hand in hand with new forms of systemic governance, and alignment through use of concepts of positive psychology. Participation and empowerment appear as a substitute for an expanded democratisation. Using participation and empowerment as a driver for more democratisation of work life means to go a decisive step further.


Agreement existed on the fact that COVID-19 has accelerated digitalisation. Using the phrasing ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ to classify organisations, one sub-group showed that the focus of and approach to digitalisation differed per company. With participation of employees (voice) and the potential for rethinking work being located in the ‘good’ companies. While the chances of returning to normal or lost jobs is more prevalent within respectively the bad and the ugly ones. In addition, the other sub-group pointed out that the digitalisation acceleration, in combination with reduction in migration and other forces, will require organisations to transition to ‘high investment/high involvement’ (i.e. good). Especially those currently positioned as ‘low investment/low involvement’.

To facilitate the realisation of ‘high investment/high involvement’ companies and ensure that worker conditions improve, or maintain at acceptable levels, the need for laws was addressed by one sub-group. This statement highlights that though hard regulations are rare in the domain of workplace innovation – as stated in the presentation by Dr. Egoitz Pomares – they do appear to be essential. It was further mentioned that provision of information to and consultation of workers are key aspects to prevent threats to employment and the occurrence of inequalities, when introducing workplace innovation practices. As well as investment in studies on how to achieve change/agreement. Finally, it was noted that to change workplaces, trade unions need to come with ideas.

Regarding the topic of social dialogue, questions written down were: ‘what innovation are we talking about’, accompanied with the note that pilots are needed; ‘less tension?’ which connected to the statement ‘more common dialogue’, and ‘can management change’, accompanied by the mention of training. In addition, training was also linked to trade unions Like for workplace innovation practices, the importance of hard regulations was also evident in the discussion on social dialogue, as visible from the statement ‘legal backup’.

Hard regulations also featured in the discussion on coalitions through the mention of political support. Another aspect that was brought up here was the importance of communicating results between: state, trade unions, and research.


Workplace innovation has played a key role in addressing the challenges related to COVID-19, and the processes that were already ongoing and have been accelerating due to the pandemic. Those innovations that have proven their effectiveness should be continued, but more research is still needed to separate what works from what does not.

Workplace innovation requires a conducive context. This applies to both the types of measures set up to support it – hard (laws, collective agreements) and soft instruments – and the ecosystem of actors or the coalitions involved in it. Trade unions play a critical role, but also workers themselves and managers. The incentives to foster more inclusive workplaces and to have workers involved in making decisions is an advantage for all. Different actors should be recognised as key players, and a continuous dialogue between them should be fostered. This will result in win-win situations. To this end, all actors should be empowered, which requires capacity building and covering all workers and forms of work.