MM024 – Smart Working: just a fad or a new philosophy?
As the Italian Government tries to face the sanitary emergency through increasingly restrictive acts that limits production activities and movements across the Country, more and more organizations are resorting to Smart Working in order to keep some of their functions still operative.
This new practice is proving to be essential in this period, but the current lockdown has also shown that many Italian firms were not ready (neither under the technological nor under the cultural point of view) to embrace this still emerging paradigm. In this article, we examine some of its features, alongside with advantages and downsides, as well as its diffusion in Italy compared with other European countries.
Smart Working (or Agile Working) is aimed at granting more flexibility to employees and autonomy in terms of space, time and tools to use. It does not simply mean working from home, but rather empowering people and allow them to be free to choose where, when and how to work. In this way, given a goal to reach, employees feel more responsible and involved in their job. This means, in turn, defining work towards objectives (i.e. being a Result Based Organization), rather than on an hourly basis and developing planning capabilities, both from managers and employees.
Despite it may sound a bit exaggerated, it means questioning the traditional working relationship among employees. Allowing your team to decide whether to work from the office, rather than from another place, at their most suitable time, requires, in fact, trusting your colleagues and believing they can get their job done even though they are not under continuous surveillance at their office desk.
Overall benefits of Agile Working range from a better work-life balance to economic advantages. While it is estimated that annual savings from fewer commutes amounts around a monthly salary for employees, also firms might save money for food stamp benefits and travel allowances, as well as from differently designing office spaces. Moreover, Smart Working might help reducing the environmental impact, as just one day per week might reduce by 40 hours the annual commute time, with a consequential reduction of the aggregate carbon footprint.
Pros & Cons
As everything, however, even Smart Working has advantages and downsides for employees. Let’s point out some of the main pros and cons of this working philosophy.
Among the pros, studies have shown that employees working from home not only enjoy more their time with relatives and kids but also have a better lifestyle in terms of diet and physical form. Besides, managers report increased productivity and motivation of their team, leading to increased overall satisfaction with their job and less burnout probability. Not to mention, stress reduction due to less commuting during the most chaotic hours of the day. Flexibility allows a better distribution of the workload over the day, as employees can have a break when they feel they need most, without fearing to upset the boss.
On the other hand, working at home might cause people to perceive a greater sense of loneliness and isolation, especially for those who live alone. We must cite also the dominant role played by distractions that constantly surround the worker, as it is much easier to be undetected while being on socials and so on. Finally, Smart Working makes sense only if there are handy ways and proper tools that enable communication between colleagues. If talking with each other becomes difficult, or digital and technological instruments to perform the required tasks are unavailable, the risk is to slow down activities and to be unproductive.
Now, some figures. As for Italy, Smart Working is a pretty recent phenomenon, whereby after a significative impulse in 2016, mostly due to large firms, the share of workers that had the opportunity to work remotely has increased every year, but at a decreasing rate. According to some research, in 2019 in Italy were estimated more than half a million smart workers (+20% with respect to 2018) and generally, they were more satisfied with their job than their colleagues. Despite this growth in numbers, also among SMEs and public administration offices (which traditionally have been among the most reluctant to switch to the new paradigm), our country is still a ladder if compared with figures across Europe.
One of the main barriers to the introduction of Smart Working projects is management’s resistance. Agile Working is in fact still perceived just as “working from home” and clashes with practices that require the physical presence of workers (e.g. manufacturing activities). Moreover, many bosses still fear that the lack of direct control over employees might cause a decrease in their productivity. Also, the technological barrier plays a significative role, as several activities, especially in PAs, are not digitalized yet and still tightly linked to the use of paper documents.
According to research carried out by the Polytechnic of Milan, just considering white collars, in Italy there are potentially 5 million smart workers. However, considering the technological advancements (like 3D Printing or Artificial Intelligence) that could disrupt the way many jobs are designed today, numbers will dramatically increase, as physical presence of workers in manufacturing plants could be unnecessary. Therefore, Agile Working could be also extended in the future to a great share of blue collars.
To sum up, in order to carry out a successful Smart Working project, three pillars must be taken into consideration:
- Technology: as mentioned, to be Smart, you must be digital. Communication and coordination between colleagues, customers and partners, as well as a proper level of security are necessary factors of success.
- Competence: not only organizations should have instruments to allow Agile Working, but it also essential that employees are able to use such tools in order to collaborate with colleagues and get their job done.
- Culture: for most organizations, Agile Working is simply a way to work from home. This hinders the real advantages employees may get in terms of autonomy and sense of fulfillment with their job. Empowering people should be the real goal of the project, which in turn will generate positive results in terms of productivity and team involvement.
To conclude, if embraced in a proper way, Smart Working will be much more than a fad. Its positive outcomes on lifestyle and employee empowerment will be durable and concrete. This does not come without disadvantages. The sense of isolation might be something one does not really want to deal with. In the end, that’s always a matter of equilibrium. Smart Working does not mean stop seeing your colleagues or stop being a team because now you work alone. Of course, most of us were not used to spend so many working days at home, and this might feel weird and confusing sometimes.
However, for those firms that really believe in teams and cooperation, the office is not just the place where you work. The office is also a place where you meet friends and learn the most, and hopefully, with the end of the lockdown, many of us will realize that.