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The Case 26 June Jun 2020 0700 26 June 2020

Smart working – what to improve when the emergency is over?

Working hours need to be regulated, technology gaps need to be bridged and responsibility to be clarified – these are just a few of the issues highlighted in recent weeks by employees who have been working from home. Various solutions have been put forward. We look at two sides to the argument put forward by the Unions and Professor Mariano Corso of Milan Polytechnic.

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“Let’s not call it smart working, this was the application of Fordism within the four walls of home.” Condemning the flaws of remote working is Susanna Camusso, former leader of the CGIL (Italy’s largest confederation of trade unions). According to the CGIL the problem is that during the long weeks of the coronavirus crisis, various forms of smart working were devised from one day to the next. This caused problems for workers which have to be solved as the lockdown eases because many will still be working from home. This is why the CGIL maintains that “collective and enterprise bargaining tools should be used for this kind of work.” The meaning being that rules are needed that apply to everyone otherwise companies could take advantage of the situation. This is a much discussed and controversial topic in Italy. Mariano Corso, Scientific Officer at the Smart Working Observatory at the Polytechnic in Milan, is of the opinion that a collective contract would alter the very nature of smart working.

Let’s go back a step. In recent weeks, the CGIL worked together with the Di Vittorio foundation to compile a report on how workers have experienced working from home during the lockdown, pointing out it was indeed simply ‘working from home’ and not smart working at all. More than 6,000 people took part in the survey, responding to 53 questions. The majority were suddenly thrown into smart working without, the CGIL says, “a thought process to define how and where work would be organised, by objectives, in teams, with the right preparation.” As a result, 31% of the sample (imagine the outcome if this percentage were applied to the total number of over 8 million Italians who have been working from home) admitted that they lacked the necessary skills to work from home. For instance, they may have found themselves working with software without the support they could normally count on in the office.

Rather than smart working, this was the application of Fordism within the four walls of home

Susanna Camusso

A collective contract would clear the field of a number of misconceptions around smart working. Remote working certainly has its advantages: 94% of respondents recognised they would save the travel time to and from work and 55% experienced less work-related stress. However, removing the clear division between office hours and leisure time has created a grey area where companies can require extra work beyond what is permissible – is the warning given by the CGIL’s General Secretary, Maurizio Landini. “In new contracts we have to deal with all the issues that have arisen, from training to the right to switch off. Foresee breaks, make a clear distinction between working by day or at night, on Saturdays and during holidays, provide the necessary equipment and prevent gender discrimination.

Take the example of a business email received in the evening: bosses often expect a reply - or at least that the mail is read - despite the fact that office hours are over. This is emblematic of a typical misinterpretation of smart working.

In point of fact, most of those interviewed stated that their workloads had increased (23% more than those who said that there had been no change) and significantly, 71% reported that family responsibilities had also increased.

Mariano Corso also recognises these problems and believes that they have largely been caused by the lack of time available to prepare for smart working. “Let’s start from the assumption that smart working was vital both to contain the pandemic and to keep companies open. To date, the possibility of working outside the office has always been through a voluntary agreement between employee and employer. In this case there was no choice and work was still based on office hours rather than objectives. The job had to be done at home without considering whether the employee had the right technical equipment or skills to do so. Many of the problems arose because we introduced smart working as an emergency measure, but in fact it is something quite different.”

Many of the problems arose because we introduced smart working as an emergency measure

Mariano Corso, Polimi

However, at the end of the day the data collected from various sources concur that most people would be in favour of smart working also after the emergency. This is a clear sign that if the problems are solved, smart working is an all-round benefit. Professor Corso continues, “being forced to work from home was a huge culture shock. Preconceived notions about the world of work have been swept aside and we have learnt that many of the things we thought necessary are in fact superfluous or may require less time and energy than in the office.”

So, how can all these problems be solved? The trade unions maintain that a collective contract is the way forward. However, Mariano Corso believes the solution lies in individual agreements: “We should ensure that flexibility is not just to the advantage of companies that might take advantage, expecting work to be done in the evening or early morning just because the employee is at home. A collective agreement would be to the detriment of workers and would take away the true nature of a concept that gave a powerful boost to modernisation. If it were up to me, I would leave room for voluntary agreements on the understanding that the Unions have the right and duty to keep an eye on such agreements.”

If we just think in terms of an emergency (which we hope will be over in a few weeks) this will not help us to redesign a new model of work. “Take the example of a fashion house that has discovered in recent weeks how new collections can even be designed from home. The challenge they face for the coming year will be to choose between going back to the way things were or to imagine a new way of working.” However, this should always be on a voluntary basis: “Smart working is not a welfare solution, it is an organisation template. Both sides need to be flexible and to think through the benefits of working by objectives, giving employees the freedom to decide when and where they work, which may not necessarily be from home. Then we will be able to make the most of our learnings from this pandemic.”

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