Flexible hours, rearranged offices, a new way of organising work. In just two words, this is smart working. Or, as the Italian scholars’ society Accademia della Crusca prefers, “agile working”. The phenomenon is increasingly prevalent in Italy, with 305,000 employees already taking advantage of it (according to data provided by the Observatory on Smart Working at Milan Polytechnic). It is mostly large companies that make use of it, but smart working is increasingly visible in smaller ones. According to a survey carried out by Industree Communication Hub and TBS Group, the biggest advantage is the opportunity for employees to establish a better work-life balance.
The survey involved more than 5,000 Italian professionals from the Human Resource Management, Internal Communications and General Management departments, with the intention gaining an understanding of what companies think smart working means, how it could be developed in the future and the key tools for promoting its use.
The data collected shows that the number of companies offering this form of working is continuously increasing. As already mentioned, employees perceived a better work-life balance to be the biggest advantage, with 77.8% of those interviewed responding to that effect. In second and third place were, respectively, the benefit of employees enjoying more responsibility and independence and having new objectives-based performance assessment process. Finally, 40% saw smart working as an opportunity to optimise how they use their time and increase their company’s productivity.
As already mentioned, employees perceived a better work-life balance to be the biggest advantage
In terms of what is needed to effectively incorporate smart working into a business, training is the factor to which most value is attributed. This applies throughout the company hierarchy. The second most valued factor is the need to restructure performance evaluation processes. It is only after these two factors that the next two come into play: the need for a company to have up-to-date technological systems and the need for internal communications devoted to walking employees through the new approach.
In 44.4% of the companies included, employees and contractors already have the opportunity to work from home. Of these, 43.9% only offer such an opportunity once a week. There are instances, however, of unlimited smart working, where it is left entirely to the employee to decide how they work towards their objectives and within their specific role. In any case, it is rare that the opportunity is offered for less than three days a month.
In a large 61% of instances, employees take the company up on their offer. In 36.6%, agile working is offered but, in effect, it is only occasionally that employees can make use of it and only under specific circumstances, rather than it functioning as a new system of working.
So what are companies doing to allow smart working to take effect? Firstly, they offer their employees the technology to be able to work remotely. Secondly, they focus their internal communications campaigns on clarifying the motives for change management, walking their employees through the process. The next most common offering from companies is training courses. Meanwhile, there are very few examples where the readjustment process includes an overhaul of performance assessment processes, to make them more objectives-based. This would bring them in line with the principles of smart working, where more tasks are delegated to employees and they are granted more independence.
Most companies identify employee satisfaction as the key result that smart working achieves, followed by better results in terms of the company’s sustainability
However, despite some resistance, the effect in most instances is a positive one. Most companies (65%) identify employee satisfaction as the key result that smart working achieves, followed by better results in terms of the company’s sustainability (due to a lower staff turnover and generally increased efficiency in terms of work). Following this, they also revealed improvements in performance and an increase in the company’s appeal to new candidates and potential talent.
Of course, there are also many who have their doubts. The main difficulty in introducing smart working lies in effecting a cultural change required by the transition from a dynamic based on employees being together and the ability to control them, towards a dynamic founded on delegating responsibilities and objectives-based assessment. But employees are also concerned about the difficulties they may face in meeting and coordinating with their colleagues, as well as the possibility that “bringing their work home” could make it difficult to separate work from their private lives, leading to stress.
Given the nature of the doubts cited, the survey concludes that companies need – as they are already doing – to work on the technology they make available to employees and even more so on the culture around them, using ad hoc communications campaigns to make the motivations behind and benefits of smart working clear. It is equally as important to align the tools for employee performance assessment with these new ways of working. This, instead, has only been done in a limited way thus far. There is also a need to introduce assessment criteria to evaluate a project’s process and allow its effectiveness to be clearly measured, so as to improve both the quality of the work, as well as that of the outcomes. As wonderful as smart may be, it needs to be done right.