joanne bondin mea

As the pandemic ripped through Maltas economy, leading companies to adopt remote working practices, latent and long-standing issues in the labour market came to the fore, exacerbated by an exodus of foreign workers.

The new Malta Employers’ Association president, Joanne Bondin, brings to the role a wealth of experience through her long career in human resources with local consulation company Misco, where she rose through the ranks to become director in 2017.

BusinessNow.mt sat down with Ms Bondin to get her views on the local labour market and employment relations.

Ms Bondin has previously said that Malta needs to take a look at its workforce, and retrain and upskill individuals to meet local demand. This begs the question, however, of how the local workforce can be adapted to meet demand for labour that far outstrips the native resources.

“The importation of labour, although necessary, will not solve all the labour market problems that we have,” says Ms Bondin. “We need to keep that in mind. We need to rationalise our domestic human resources and channel them to areas where they are needed more than others. In this way you can deliver the highest value added.”

She turns to the shortage in students following STEM subjects, calling for more promotion of these subjects, and especially more equal promotion across genders.

Ms Bondin states that there needs to be a stronger bridge between education and industry, and highlights the MEA’s efforts in this regard by pointing to the good relations enjoyed between the Association and MCAST.

“We need to deal not only with the immediate requirements, but also think for the future, about what we need for the digital transformation of our economy.”

For Ms Bondin, upskilling is required not only in technical but also soft skills.

“It is very evident for me that people might be trained in the technical side but they are not trained fully in how to relate to each other, how to communicate successfully, how to work together. We need to keep in mind that soft skills sometimes get people further than technical ones.”

She believes the education system needs to work harder at instilling in students the values necessary to be a good employee.

“I’m not talking about the highest ranking, but about being an employee who can contribute to the company in a way that satisfies them.”

Thanks to her long background in human resources, Ms Bondin is unequivocal about the importance of job satisfaction, noting that satisfied employees are happier and perform better.

“Of course,” she continues, “it’s not only about the work. It’s also about how engaged they are with the company, with the culture, whether they feel like they belong.”

Therefore, she believes that companies need to communicate their employer brand throughout, from the initial recruitment stages and throughout the employee’s term with the company.

“Each company has certain values, a certain culture. What I like to call a personality. How effectively are you communicating these values and culture to your employees? It’s about how much you can make them feel like they belong, like they are part of something bigger.”

One effective way to make employees feel a sense of belonging to the company’s mission, Ms Bondin says, is to create a learning culture.

“People who are constantly learning, who are constantly growing, do not feel like they are stuck, and this helps nurture an innovative and entrepreneurial culture. Employees need to feel like they can contribute and grow and create together.”

However, this is not as simple as drafting a memo.

“It takes a lot of effort from teams within the company to keep that going, to create the space and time for learning. Sometimes you simply get overloaded with operations, so you really need to carve out that time.”

She also believes that this innovative culture should be present throughout the organisation.

“It’s not like you can have an innovation team and that’s it. It needs to be ingrained.”

Finally, turning to the COVID-19 pandemic and the effect it had on employment relations, Ms Bondin says that it presented several challenges to employment relations, with the issue of trust being a frequent sticking point thanks to the rise of remote work.

Asked whether trust issues reflect management flaws or individual faults, Ms Bondin says that both play a role.

“I think that trust issues can be caused both by inflexible management practices as well as by employees who cannot be trusted to work without direct supervision.”

“However,” she continues, “we sometimes assume that everyone is able to do this. In my experience, there are people who do not have the right skills to work remotely, or don’t have the right framework, or space, or environment. Working on the kitchen table with 12 distractions around you isn’t necessarily conducive to productivity.”

The solution, she says, lies in having a management team who is open to changing work organisation, and contends that a certain element of flexibility and adaptability is required from both employers and employees.

“If you have an employee you cannot trust, I think the first thing to do, as an employer, is to consider the reason why. People can underperform for many reasons. It can be the employee, yes, but it could also be the situation.

“Employers need to ask themselves: Is it because something happened? Did something change? Is it because we’re working from home? Or is about the traits of a personal nature? Or is it about a change in the organisation?”

“So,” she continues, “you first need to ask, ‘What did I do to impact the situation?’ Once that is eliminated, you need to communicate with that person, to find out whether the underperformance comes from a lack of a particular skill, and whether they can be trained.”

Ms Bondin believes that trust is based a lot on communication, and advises employers to find the right balance to reassure each other through the relationship.

“All the dynamics changed with remote work. So there’s a lot of dimensions you need to keep in consideration. The important thing is that you take things case by case, and keep in mind what the individual is going through.”

“I believe that understanding and empathy are very important, and employers have shown this during the pandemic, as have employees.”

“I really hope that this human element will be maintained for the long term,” she concludes.

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