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Trend 23 November Nov 2020 0707 23 November 2020

Smart working: a misconception in pandemic times

It’s become a common practice due to the Covid-19 emergency. But are we sure that taking our work home is really smart? It is an open debate among the experts

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“The theory of the homo faber marked one of the key moments in human history. As things stand today, it may well be that a new era is approaching where production will be fully automated and the only peculiarity of human beings will be consumption. The pandemic has brought us to a crossroads: what model of work do we want for the future?” Turin-based philosopher Maurizio Ferraris, Professor of Theoretical Philosophy in the Faculty of Literature and Philosophy, makes this analysis of the current moment in history where, due to the pandemic, one of the cornerstones of our lives – work - has undergone a major upheaval that is severely impacting our daily lives. At the centre of this revolution is a magic word: “smart working”. Which means that our offices have entered our homes. Ferraris argues: “It is said that this virus has accelerated a phenomenon that was already in progress. But we need to clearly understand what phenomenon we are talking about. What we are witnessing today is the ‘distribution of work’. The distinction between working hours and private life is becoming blurred. There is the belief that any professional or household task can be performed at any time. Today we have a duty: to analyse the phenomenon in all its complexity without attaching any ready-made labels, because we are on the brink of a radical change in the concept of work.”

Smart working or teleworking?

Rubbing salt into the sore point of smart working in pandemic times is Paola Profeta, Associate Professor of Public Finance at Bocconi University: “It is not easy to understand the differences between smart working, agile work or telework. We understand smart working as a way of providing flexibility as to where and when we work. In other words, work can be performed in a wide variety of places and at times that are not necessarily the same as office hours.” But this “has little to do with how we are experiencing it during the lockdown. This experience is closer to remote work but one piece of the puzzle is missing, and companies are responsible for that piece. I mean the ICT tools that should be provided to employees, for instance. There we have it, we could call it a widespread form of unplanned remote work. Before Covid, just a few companies had introduced limited forms of flexibility. As a result, we found ourselves having to deal with this emergency without a framework. Although this meant we could continue to work, many challenges have also risen to the surface.”

Smart working has little to do with the experience we have had during lockdown. It was, and still is, more like a form of telework.

Paola Profeta, Associate Professor of Public Finance at Bocconi University

Problems and challenges

In recent months, Professor Profeta has conducted a number of studies on behalf of the Bocconi University on the real form of smart working (pre-pandemic) and on teleworking (pandemic). “Our pilot study tracked a group of workers over nine months comparing those who practised forms of flexibility to those who did not. Before the pandemic, the positive impact of smart working on productivity, employee wellbeing and the balance between work and personal life was apparent. However, during the pandemic we observed significant decreases in productivity and commitment. These negative results were due more to improvisation and the lack of procedures rather than to the teleworking model itself. Then there were greater differences when it came to gender as women found themselves having to manage their work, children and household tasks within the same space and timeframe. And the result? Overwork, people had no energy left for their personal lives. That’s nothing like smart working.”

At home there is no free flow of ideas

In the opinion of Aldo Mazzocco, CEO and General Manager of Generali Real Estate and Chairman of CityLife “we are witnessing an acceleration in trends that were already in progress.” “The first time I heard talk of smart working was in Silicon Valley in 2005,” the engineer explains, “it was a good thing, it ‘released’ people from their desks thanks to seamless connectivity and the cloud. The evolution of Oracle’s HQ is a perfect example because in the various buildings that have been added over time, you can see just how the architecture has changed due to the evolution in the way people work. You move from the once traditional style offices with family and holiday photos on the desks to open spaces where employees connect with each other via laptop. This is really smart working because it is all based on the free flow of ideas. People no longer work in offices but in shared spaces where they have the freedom to form communities. This boosts creativity and the sharing of expertise.”

What I am seeing and hearing today has nothing smart about it. Let’s call it remote or teleworking or staying at home. And that is the negation of the free flow of ideas that is at the very foundation of smart working.

Aldo Mazzocco, CEO and General Manager of Generali Real Estate and Chairman of CityLife

Teleworking is the negation of agile work

What Mazzucco is seeing today “has nothing smart about it. Let’s call it remote or teleworking or staying at home. It is the negation of the free flow of ideas. Employees lose one third of their interpersonal skills. And the result is that workers become demoralised and no longer have the energy or the will to create or get involved. After all, this is about human beings: what happens to someone who stops shaving or putting on make-up? Not leaving the house surely has an impact on consumption but it mainly affects our state of mind and our personal care. The unexpected has vanished, we are becoming pieceworkers. Enthusiasm and ideas are dying.”

The future

Has smart working failed the test then? Anything but. “Before the pandemic, when smart working was genuine and restricted to one day a week, we saw a positive impact on productivity and meeting deadlines, but also on employee satisfaction thanks to a good balance with social and family life and, as a result, lower stress levels,” Profeta points out. She also notes: “With a form of smart working that is not an emergency measure, in the future we could see a paradigm shift where the focus is on results and objectives rather than on the time actually spent in the workplace. Much will depend on the context and on how results can be measured in each professional field.”

Last but not least, Mazzoco believes that there should be a focus on re-designing city centres: “It is important that there is a balance in how the spaces in our city centres are managed, they should be liveable and take into account security and cleanliness. There has to be the right mix between working in the office, at home or in the variety of urban spaces available. Ensuring neighbourhoods are safe, especially in city outskirts, and redesigning infrastructure will be one of the main topics for the city of the future. Only when we have cities that are accessible will we have a genuine form of flexible and stimulating smart working.”

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