First study — building contrasting scenarios and identifying themes for reflection

For the first study, to produce contrasting scenarios, six variables corresponding to major uncertainties for the years to come in the area of work were defined during the first meeting:

  1. 1.

    What role will remote work play? In what way?

  2. 2.

    How will work collectives and their leadership evolve?

  3. 3.

    How will the rules governing work relationships evolve?

  4. 4.

    What form will automation take in industry and services (robotization, automata, algorithmic work management, etc.)?

  5. 5.

    Will the criterion of social utility have an impact on the development of remuneration, recognition, and the valorization of jobs?

  6. 6.

    What developments in worker training can be envisaged?

The hypotheses for the evolution of these variables, the combination of which leads to the creation of four scenarios, are summarized in Table 2. The four scenarios are as follows:

Table 2 Construction of scenarios by combining hypotheses

The crisis is marked by the destruction of many jobs. After the crisis, these jobs are replaced either by automation or by hiring under precarious contracts, encouraged by regulatory changes. The aim of companies and public bodies is to become increasingly agile and able to adapt their workforce quickly. This is taking place in a context where large companies are adopting a project-based approach to which their subcontractors must adapt. These large companies are drastically reducing their own workforce and retaining workers considered essential.

After a health crisis lasting several semesters, the choices of the companies are very contrasted: some of them return to the previous model; others continue and deepen the changes initiated during the confinements. A number of workers refuse this choice and engage in initiatives aimed at building alternative models: cooperatives, freedom-form companies, etc. Inequalities and tensions increase in the social body.

A broad consensus between the state, companies, workers, and consumers, all committed to ecological transition, is reflected in the implementation of a flexicurity system, inspired by the Danish model [21]; it combines high mobility between jobs with a comprehensive income safety net for the unemployed and an active labor market policy, including an intensive educational policy. The labor market is more inclusive, and certain key occupations are upgraded.

The health crisis translates into a major economic crisis, the most violent of the industrial era, accompanied by a high-conflict social crisis. Companies adopt a day-to-day policy and resort to flexible solutions: the development of subcontracting and self-employment. White-collar workers are facing global competition through the development of remote work. Intermediation platforms and undeclared work are developing. In this context of strong economic crisis, some local authorities are promoting circular economy initiatives to maintain minimum cohesion in the territories.

A reflection on these four scenarios led the project group to identify four key issues on which companies may find it worthwhile to reflect in the coming years because these issues could have a strong impact on the structure of their functioning and organization.

Remote working

Not very widespread in France before the health crisis, it has taken off significantly since. The development of ICTs, as well as urban congestion and environmental concerns, makes it a tool that can meet the aspirations of certain employees and also public policies aimed at reducing congestion, air pollution, and housing prices. They also generate savings for companies (office property). The productivity gains that seem to result from this may well be offset by difficulties in ensuring team cohesion, integrating new recruits, and maintaining the capacity for innovation [22].

Worker and team autonomy

Up to now, organizations in silos have been in the majority, even if more and more project-based operations are introducing a little cross-disciplinarity into corporate functioning. Numerous normative processes (quality, labels, etc.) have increased the number of formal instructions that must be followed. The health crisis has shown the willingness and ability of many workers to take charge of lean systems, particularly regarding decision-making. At the same time, more and more companies are tempted by increased outsourcing and recourse to freelancers: the experience of confinements has shown their capacity to operate at a distance in a context of lean work monitoring.

Social and environmental responsibility policies — the issue of global value chains

The crisis has shown the difficulties of managing value chains based on massive subcontracting in countries with low labor costs. This can result in technical and economic vulnerability. Many voices have called for the relocation of certain strategic production activities, some of which could be advantageously automated. Similarly, certain professions essential to the functioning of society are the subject of debate: automation and/or better recognition. In this context, corporate social responsibility and good environmental practices (reduction of carbon emissions) are no longer just window dressing but an integral part of economic strategies.

The evolution of workers’ skills

Although it is not enough to explain the high rates of unemployment, there have been problems for years in France in matching the needs of companies with the qualifications available. Despite the fact that with the end of the health crisis we are witnessing an acceleration in the transformation of jobs, considerable efforts will have to be made regarding training schemes. It could be more difficult for smaller companies to solve their labor problems insofar as they have fewer levers for action than larger ones (attractiveness, organization of continuing training).

Second study — consequences for occupational risks

Initially, each expert made one or two proposals for topics. A number of these proposals were common to two or more experts. Others dealt with related topics, often generating common occupational risks that could be grouped together, for example, those concerning logistics and trade. Finally, some dealt with the same subject but seen from different angles, for example, the subject prevention policy and its actors, considered from the point of view of occupational physicians, employees’ unions, employers, or dedicated government and social security services. The latter proposals were also grouped together. This resulted in nine topics: four thematic and five sectoral.

Thematic topics:

  • Topic 1: Risk perception (through reflection on risks with deferred effects)

  • Topic 2: Prevention policy and its actors

  • Topic 3: The issue of monitoring workers’ health

  • Topic 4: Remote work and psychosocial risks

Sectoral topics:

  • Topic 5: Secondary sector: industry and public works

  • Topic 6: Airport activities

  • Topic 7: Logistics and trade, including last-mile delivery

  • Topic 8: Personal assistance and care

  • Topic 9: Nursing homes for dependent elderly people

The analysis of the summaries carried out for each of these topics has made it possible to identify five main issues that will largely determine the evolution of occupational risks in the next 5 years:

  1. 1.

    The use of technology, as a tool for communication and collective work and for automating production (industry and services)

  2. 2.

    The modes of work organization, in particular notions such as working hours, task instruction methods, and agility

  3. 3.

    The employment status of workers

  4. 4.

    The ability of workers to deal collectively with work issues, particularly through the formation of sustainable work collectives

  5. 5.

    Controls of work interfaces multiplied by the fragmentation of tasks

A sixth issue is also likely to have a strong influence on the evolution of occupational risks, but it will not be discussed in this article since it is very specific to the French context: the national prevention policy and its actors.

The use of technology, as a tool for communication and collective work and for automating production (industry and services)

The health crisis has greatly accelerated the use of certain technologies, such as videoconferencing, certain modalities such as medical teleconsultations, and certain sectors of activity such as e-commerce. Many workers have found themselves confronted with new ways of performing their jobs in conditions for which they were not (or were insufficiently) prepared. This has led to exposure to occupational risks that could have been avoided if the transition had been made gradually (over several months or years). One example is the various disorders linked to psychosocial risks (PSR) for some workers suddenly called to do telework. In the logistics sector, the sudden increase in orders combined with the sudden break in certain supply chains has led to exposure to risks that can result in falls or postural disorders (musculoskeletal disorders) due to the excessive pace of work, particularly in activities that are more or less robotized.

The consequences for health and safety at work will depend very much on the trade-offs that are made, but experience shows that the temptation to increase productivity at the expense of working conditions is often strong [23].

The question of the fragility of certain supply chains, in particular for certain goods considered strategic (medicines, computer components, primary metallurgy, etc.), could also be considered in the years to come. The reshoring of these production activities will inevitably be accompanied by automation, which will be all the more necessary as these activities will result in occupational exposure (e.g., exposure to metals and toxic compounds) to compounds whose presence had contributed to the decision to relocate. The developed countries might have lost the habit and competence of managing these risks. In particular, exposure during maintenance or cleaning operations, which are difficult to organize in satisfactory safety conditions, comes to mind.

The modes of work organization, in particular notions such as working hours, task instruction methods, and agility

Remote work has helped to accentuate some of the developments that have been taking place for several years. In particular, working hours have become much more flexible over the last few decades, especially in commercial activities; the aim has been to extend opening hours (including on traditional non-working days) to facilitate consumption. During the health crisis, many teleworkers were led to adapt their working hours more or less spontaneously to the needs of the moment, resulting in a strong increase in productivity [22]. Even more revealing has been the difficulty of separating personal and professional life. It will be interesting to see whether the postcrisis period will see a return to the situation that existed before or whether new regulations or new social agreements between employers and workers will ratify the new situation and under what conditions. Here too, the transformative nature of the crisis will have to be assessed.

For several decades now, we have also seen the rise of two demands that are sometimes difficult to reconcile. On the one hand, there has been an increase in work instructions linked to standardization and quality assurance policies which have flourished in the context of more subcontracting and legal security. On the other hand, there is an increasingly strong demand for agility expressed by companies towards their workers; the latter must therefore adapt to change and promote it rapidly, develop multidisciplinarity and collaboration, and focus on creating value while ensuring the sustainability of activities. Periods of containment have shown the difficulty of achieving a number of these sometimes conflicting objectives. The likely development of remote work will certainly require adjustments to these rules. Otherwise, difficulties could arise in a context of impeded relational quality, reduced room for maneuver, inability to have objectively justified requests taken into account because of the difficulty of dialogue, and conflicts of values.

Certain deleterious situations can give rise to self-exploitation or the masking of emotions that is difficult to sustain over time. They can also lead to a generational divide; the conditions of remote work are more often unfavorable to young workers, both on the material level (inadequate housing) and on the professional level (isolation, lack of network and mentoring, etc.). Nor should we overlook the difficulties in adapting to new technologies that older categories may encounter. Similarly, gendered approaches may be relevant, for example, in relation to the education of children or the distribution of tasks. All of this can contribute to a feeling of insecurity and a mental burden detrimental to working conditions. Psychosocial problems may result.

The employment status of workers

After a sharp decline after the Second World War, the status of self-employed worker has been revived with the development of the digital labor platform economy, in particular on-demand platforms such as Uber (Eats), Taxify, and Deliveroo. The health crisis has made clear the fragility of this status, particularly in terms of social protection, including occupational risks. This is illustrated by the case of bicycle delivery drivers, who are supposed to organize their own occupational risk prevention without having the means to do so; their activity is dictated by an algorithm that takes no account of the realities of the moment (weather, accessibility of the road network by two-wheelers, traffic conditions, etc.), which is why many accidents occur [24]. The high time pressure that these workers are under, in a context where a bad rating by the client can deprive them of their job, is also a factor of PSR.

In the care sector, where the use of temporary or even freelance workers is increasingly common, their lack of knowledge of the environment in which they are working on an ad hoc basis also results in the increased proceduralization of work for all staff (in conjunction with the development of lean management). This can result in quality hampered (the fact that the worker is unable to do his or her job properly due to lack of time or resources), a lack of recognition, and a reduction of margins of maneuver, all of which are potentially harmful for the quality of the service (including its relational aspects with patients) and for the worker (PSR).

The risk of hiring freelancers in certain activities involving assembly line work has also been identified, when it has the effect of increasing the pace of work for all those involved in the chain concerned.

The development of telework could change the legal relationships governing professional activity. An employer who meets an employee only occasionally because the latter’s work can be carried out mainly remotely may consider substituting a commercial relationship for the employer/employee relationship. The performances of ICTs now allow these contracts to be concluded across borders in countries with low wage costs, with a downward effect on wages. We are also seeing the proliferation of collaborative work platforms in which the expert, with the status of a freelancer, can intervene only for very specific missions [25]. The risk is that they will be forced into self-exploitation and will have to work in a context where they will sometimes only have a partial view of the cases they are dealing with, with all the possible consequences in terms of mental health (loss of meaning of the work) and physical health (exhaustion).

However, the self-employed status in itself may appeal to workers who are concerned about a chosen work/life balance and who, either because their high skills are in themselves protective or because they envisage such status for a limited period of their career, are not handicapped in their integration in the world of work. This situation may also be protective in terms of occupational health.

Cooperative experiments could perhaps take off in the coming years. The question of working conditions often occupies a significant place in the vision that these cooperative workers have of their work. This is obviously favorable to the prevention of occupational risks.

The ability of workers to deal collectively with work issues, particularly through the formation of sustainable work collectives

For several years now, some employers have wanted to establish a direct and individual relationship between themselves and their employees. The aim is to bypass the intermediation provided by the trade unions but also to individualize professional objectives. These measures can have the effect of weakening work collectives, which associate workers through the sharing of job rules and work quality criteria. These collectives are built through the recognition of skills, trust, and exchanges on values [26]. They have a protective effect on workers’ health, in that they encourage consideration of real work (all the actions carried out and strategies deployed by the employee to carry out his or her activity) rather than prescribed work.

It is to be hoped, however, that the experience of the health crisis will give some impetus to “virtual” work collectives. For example, discussion forums have been set up by certain companies or spontaneously by the workers themselves on certain social networks. In the context of increasingly fragmented work, they offer a minimal alternative.

There are other parameters in the organization of work that can have a disruptive effect on these work collectives. We have already mentioned the diversity of employment contracts, especially the most precarious ones, and the use of self-employed workers. The subcontracting of activities such as maintenance, supplies and product packaging, and cleaning is another important factor. In some cases, solidarity and a common understanding of work appear over time, when external workers remain for a significant period of time in the subcontracting company, but this phenomenon is not automatic. Similarly, automation, also mentioned above, can also cut workers off from contact with their fellow workers when the relationship with the machine becomes exclusive; this is a situation in which it is often difficult to give meaning to one’s work, with possible consequences in terms of occupational risks. All these situations are likely to result in an increase in occupational risks: PSRs, of course, but also all other potential risks (chemical, physical, biological, mechanical accidents, falls, etc.).

The issue of new recruits should also be mentioned. Their integration in the company was difficult because of the health crisis. As we have seen, the transmission of knowledge is largely done informally through work collectives, regardless of the quality of the procedures used by the company. The next few years will be decisive in ensuring that the shortcomings suffered during the crisis can be eliminated.

The control of work interfaces multiplied by the fragmentation of tasks

The previous four issues highlighted a number of parameters that strongly influence working conditions and the resulting occupational risks. These include the following:

  • The diversity of employment statuses (permanent staff or fixed-term contract workers or self-employed workers, main company or subcontractor, etc.) which results in a weakening of work collectives

  • Quality assurance policies and the growing trend towards instructions and standardization, while more and more companies are demanding agility.

  • Automation, which sometimes places the machine at the center of the production process, with workers having to adapt to the work pace and processes that do not take sufficient account of the capacities and limits of human work

To the above can be added the gradual shift of proximity managers from production tasks to reporting tasks linked to the increase in instructions and administrative tasks.

All these elements contribute to making it even more essential to manage the interfaces between the various actors of production, an essential factor in the prevention of occupational risks [27]; it makes it possible to avoid accidents, chronic or acute exposure to pollutants, difficult postures, etc. This control implies that reflection is carried out on every activity and its phasing, and that it goes beyond the prescribed aspects to also consider real work, formal and informal communication, adaptation, and appropriation of the work instructions by the group. If the post-Covid period was to see the perpetuation of a certain number of measures taken during the crisis, such as easier recourse to temporary workers or an acceleration in the use of new technologies or automation, the risk would be that if these changes are too rapid, the real importance of this issue of interface management might be ignored. Gray areas would then appear, i.e., places of interaction where the risks linked to co-activity are significant but where the responsibilities of each party are not clearly defined. This would hinder the implementation of effective prevention (insufficient feedback on incidents, failure to record occupational exposure, lack of transparency of actions, etc.).

Assessment of the relevance of a remote operation compared to usual face-to-face practices

This remote prospective study was imposed by the health context. It showed very good involvement from the actors (presence at meetings, active participation in the drafting of the different documents). However, as with the face-to-face exercises, it is not possible to draw conclusions about the relevance of the different elements produced (scenarios and issues) even if, at first sight, the output products seem to be of comparable quality. Only a follow-up over time with bibliographic benchmarking will allow assessing the results of such a format.

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