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Inspiring Interview 6 December Dec 2017 1100 6 December 2017

Smart working: saying goodbye to the old work paradigm

Mariano Corso, Scientific Director of the Smart Working Observatory of the Politecnico di Milano: “The key to smart working is a result-driven culture no longer based on old employment paradigms. This is the only way to stimulate creativity and cultivate talent.”

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In Italy, smart working is an established fact. It has a dedicated law (no. 81/2017), private companies and public administrations are opening up to its merits, and corporate experiments are continuing to rise. According to the latest report issued by the Smart Working Observatory of the Politecnico di Milano, the number of workers who can choose how to organise their work independently has increased by 14% compared to 2016. Italy’s smart workforce has risen to 305,000 workers.

“In Italy, smart working has grown, not just in quantity but in quality as well,” says Mariano Corso, Scientific Director of the Smart Working Observatory. “Especially in large enterprises, it has become mainstream.” As many as 50% of Italy’s major companies have launched or are about to launch a smart working project (36% with regulated arrangements). But that’s not all. “Companies that had already started to try out smart working are now offering it to an increasing number of workers,” continues Mr Corso. “In the services sector, where work can easily be carried out remotely, almost 100% of workers opt for this work style. In the manufacturing sector, instead, the percentage is still low.”

The phenomenon is on the up in Italy’s small and medium-sized enterprises, although informal arrangements still tend to prevail: 22% of such enterprises have launched smart working projects, but only 7% have adopted regulated arrangements. But the big news is that the phenomenon is taking hold in Public Administration. Smart working has trickled into the administrative offices of the Council of Ministers, into the Ministry of the Economy, and into major Italian city councils. “The launch of highly regulated programmes leads us to believe that smart working is going to become a big thing in PA,” says Mr Corso. “Indeed, Minister Marianna Madia has issued a directive stating that over the next two years at least 10% of PA employees must have access to flexible forms of work.”

The big news is that the phenomenon is taking hold in Public Administration. Smart working has trickled into the administrative offices of the Council of Ministers, into the Ministry of the Economy, and into major Italian city councils.

But it’s not just a question of numbers. “The pioneers of smart working have understood the potential of this new work style; they have understood that it triggers an overall process of change management, stimulating creativity and commitment among workers,” explains Mr Corso. And the feedback is positive, right across the board. “Smart working creates engagement between workers, stimulating new ways of doing things and a greater corporate involvement in technological innovation. Thinking outside the box; looking at results, and not at the number of hours spent behind a desk; all this increases creativity and the climate of trust in the workplace.”

Whether or not to opt for a smart working style remains the worker’s decision; one that can help him or her to achieve a better work-life balance. Workers thus learn that endless face-to-face meetings can be a waste of time, and that a call from the balcony of their own home can be much more effective. “Instruments such as conference calls were once perceived as an imposition. People didn’t understand their potential. Now, instead, we try to exploit the technology available. And indeed, to improve it.” This promotes greater collaboration among colleagues, and “humanises organisations”.

Smart working partly owes its evolution to the Italian law on flexible work, which has a more modern outlook than the equivalent laws of other European countries. It is not that, before this law, smart working could not be adopted; it is just that the legislation has provided the necessary trigger for many employers.

The key to smart working is a result-driven culture no longer based on old employment paradigms.

Potentially, the social and economic benefits are enormous: the adoption of a “mature” form of smart working can increase a company’s productivity by about 15% per worker, which countrywide means an overall benefit of €13.7bn. From the workers’ perspective, even just one day a week of remote working can save them on average 40 hours a year of travel: for the environment, this results in a 135 kg reduction in carbon dioxide emissions per year.

However, adopting a smart working model does not in itself offer a guarantee of changing the work paradigm. Despite the growing numbers, there are still relatively few projects that truly redefine the way work is organised, extending the concepts of flexibility, autonomy and accountability to all workers. “The key to smart working is a result-driven culture no longer based on old employment paradigms and on passive workers,” says Mr Corso. “Smart working is not about teleworking or painting the office walls; it’s about engaging the worker in a climate of trust and talent development.” In other words, smart working is “not about working from home, but about agreeing a different work method: one measured on the achievement of results, regardless of where and how the work is performed; one based on the identification and development of talent”.

Managers, too, must be a part of the change: “They are no longer called upon to supervise, but to monitor results, stimulating internal talent also through learning projects and on-going training.” And all this, clearly, to the company’s benefit.