Smart working, wrong thinking

smart working
Fausto Caprini
30 Jun 2020

Stop smart working, let’s get back to work. The cave effect is harmful.The words of the mayor of Milan, Beppe Sala, fuelled the comparison of the choices to be made after the partial easing of the health emergency. Beyond the words chosen, Sala’s concern is understandable for those who, like him, have to worry about the social and economic prospects of an organism as complex as that of a metropolitan city.

SMART WORKING, FOR WHO?

I believe that the first thing should be to give the right dimension to this practice. Although smart working is among the topics on everyone’s lips, it does not affect the entire community but only a small part of it. It is impossible to think of ‘home office’ or telework as the new norm for the great majority of Italian workers. It would be interesting to see it implemented for those driving a bus, for doctors and nurses, for those working in factories or a supply chain, who deliver goods or provide services of various kinds, from barmen to plumbers. And the list of necessarily direct activities would, of course, be much longer.

According to the Italian Ministry of Labour, as of 29 April 2020, the number of employees in smart working mode in the private sector was 1,827,792, of which 1,606,617 as a result of the anti-COVID-19 measures. According to ISTAT (National Institute of Statistics), on the same date there were 25,520,000 employed people in Italy. I find difficult to believe that these are in large part journalists, video makers, consultants, online traders and bloggers.

WHAT NORMALITY?

The first citizen of Milan expressed concern about the possible negative consequences of smart working. I believe this should be understood as an opportunity, pursued during the health emergency, which cannot indiscriminately replace normality. The reference is, first of all, to the constraint that derives from the lack of direct relationships (not replaceable by any technology) among the persons constituting a corporate body, and, consequently, to the risks of marginalisation deriving from it.

The reduction of costs, as a result of the effect of smart working, appeals to many, who view it as a mandatory and definitive organisational model. Currently, however, this is achieved through a pure and simple transfer of costs from the company to the employee. I believe that, where there is an obligation, the very nature of smart working which requires first of all trust, freedom and responsibility aimed at maximising the employee’s contribution, is called into questioning.

Ultimately, I can think of the theoretical benefits of this practice for the workers: flexible working hours, greater autonomy, cost and time savings (e.g. reduction in travel and commuting times). As for the already mentioned companies’ interest, I am convinced that behind the immediate lures of smart working there are also serious risks of instability and ineffectiveness that ought to be considered.

THE RISKS

For example, extended working time (availability without actual limits), the harmful mixing of professional and private life (in concept and in terms of physical space), the weakening of the tutoring and training mechanisms typically enabled by personal and team relationships.

And, what is more, the difficulties in reconciling the daily routine between work responsibilities, home and family, the various distracting factors, the impact on family life with more users connected with different devices in unsuitable places (from the bedroom to the kitchen), and connection speeds often very low, widening even more the gap elements of digital divide between class A and class B workers.

Not to mention, as said before, the impossibility of applying this employment model to the vast majority of workers.

THE RECOVERY OF NORMALITY

Nor am I convinced by the idea of a company imagined only as a number of connection points. I believe that the often-dogmatic enthusiasm for smart working greatly underestimates some elements that prior to the COVID-19 outbreak were relevant, such as work-life balance or team building or, simply, the quick exchange of ideas in the hallway or during a coffee break at the vending machine. I would find it quite unnatural and harmful for the company itself and for those working for it underestimating these aspects.

Smart working, from an option restricted to specific professional groups, runs the grave risk of becoming ideology and a deceiving perspective by reason of a crisis. Now I would like to bring my feet back to earth and maybe figure out how to best use such model. I would therefore regain a normality, not to be confused with ‘new normal’, a fashionable term applied, I think superficially, by various parties.