We are experiencing an unexpected experiment of working outside the traditional constraints of time and space. This is an experiment activated in exceptional conditions due to the emergency: it has not been prepared; it suddenly involved a very large part of workers, regardless of the characteristics of the work and of the companies in which they operate; it takes place in conditions of almost complete deprivation of freedom of movement and, conversely, of maximum proximity between the people of the same family unit.
Despite or perhaps thanks to the exceptional nature of these conditions, we have the opportunity to reflect without rhetoric on a way of working which we have talked a lot about so far but which has not been practiced. In Italy, in particular, before this emergency the numbers of the phenomenon were very limited, lower than expected and compared to many other countries. According to the Observatory of the Politecnico di Milano, there are an estimated 570,000 smartworkers in October 2019 (and these numbers also include all those who use this mode with minimal intensity).
It is likely that the forced experimentation of these days, aimed at protecting health by containing the contagion from COVID-19, favors a more rapid spread of smart working when we return to normal. But it is unrealistic to believe that this diffusion automatically produces positive results and that these positive results affect all jobs and all businesses. To intentionally choose how and to what extent to invest in smart working when the emergency is over, a critical discussion is useful starting from what is happening in these days.
A reflection on the definition
The l. 22.5.2017, n. 81 regulated agile work in Italy as the ” modality of execution of the subordinate employment relationship established by agreement between the parties, also with forms of organization by phases, cycles and objectives and without precise constraints of time or place of work, with the possible use of technological tools “(art. 18, par. 1). After an initial measure limited to companies in Lombardy, Emilia Romagna, Piedmont, Liguria, Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia, envisaged with the DPCM of 25.2.2020 , the 1.3.2020 decree has extended the possibility of activating agile work to the entire national territory with a simplified procedure establishing that “the agile working method (…), can be applied, for the duration of the state of emergency (…), by employers to any subordinate employment relationship, in compliance with the principles dictated by the aforementioned provisions, even in the absence of individual agreements provided therein. The disclosure obligations pursuant to art. 22 of the law of 22 May 2017, n. 81, are acquitted electronically “(art. 4). If the need to make the tool operational immediately is clear, it is also clear that one of the key principles of the 2017 law has been blown up – albeit temporarily and exceptionally: the need for agile work to be the subject of programming and negotiation Between the parts.
It is reasonable to believe that in the current emergency work from home has mainly been activated, more or less mimicking the activities that were carried out in the office, and there are no guarantees that work transferred home in urgent conditions is taking place in a “smart” way . Behind the choice of the “smart” attribute, there is clearly the aspiration to a better, indeed “socially desirable” way of working (Corsi, G., How smart is Smart Working? In Neri M., edited by, Smart working: a critical perspective,Tao Digital Library, 2017, 36-42.). But it is equally clear that the fact that this, like any other way of working, produces positive results or not cannot simply depend on the place and time in which the service takes place. Smart working needs organizational choices and it is these choices that create the conditions for generating positive results.
Thanks to the development of technologies, an increasing number of jobs can “distribute” and not be bound within the physical confines of the company and the rigidly pre-established working times (McLuhan M., Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man , already said this . 1964, Berkeley). But today it is clear to us that the availability of technology must be considered a necessary but not sufficient condition. Even the digital divideafflicting the country were canceled (not only between North and South, but between cities and provinces, between large and small businesses, between people in different socio-economic conditions), the effective distribution of work over time and space would not take place automatically. Therefore it is necessary to accelerate the process of growth of the managerial culture necessary to effectively manage the organizational changes made possible by the technological transformation.
The apparent paradox of smart working: is it good or bad?
In the debate of these days, the support of empirical studies is sought that highlight the beneficial effects of smart working. But the most attentive will not have escaped an apparently paradoxical situation: the available data show very different effects, some clearly contrasting.
This paradox can be solved by evaluating two elements.
First of all, it is necessary to consider the variety of phenomena on which smart working affects (or on which we would like it to affect). Not all the desired results for this way of working are mutually compatible. A situation arises in which, for example, the positive effects of greater employee satisfaction or greater perceived flexibility occur to the detriment of the effectiveness of his work performance or to the detriment of his relationship with bosses and colleagues. It is necessary to be aware of the existence of possible trade-offs between the aims that are set with the introduction of this working method.
Secondly, it must be considered that the results of smart working do not manifest themselves equally in all conditions. So it happens, for example, that smart working produces positive results for some types of jobs and not for others, for people with a certain type of experience and skills and not for others. It is necessary to analyze the characteristics of the works and the conditions in which they take place before proceeding with the change.
Overcoming the win-win rhetoric
The win-win rhetoric is originally inherent in the “smartness” that we have attributed to this way of working and has resulted in the belief that smart working should “do good” to everyone, simultaneously producing positive results for people, businesses and even communities.
There are empirical studies that focus on the implications of smart working for workers and that have found positive support for the hypotheses of perception of greater discretion and flexibility in carrying out the job, of greater satisfaction, of transfer of positive energies and resources from work to family, of greater reconciliation between work and private life (including, McNall, LA-Masuda, AD-Nicklin, JM, Flexible work arrangements, job satisfaction, and turnover intentions: The mediating role of work-to-family enrichment, in The Journal of psychology, 2010, 144 (1), 61-81; Shockley, KM-Allen, TD, When flexibility helps: Another look at the availability of flexible work arrangements and work – family conflict , inJournal of Vocational Behavior , 2007, 71 (3), 479-493.).
Fewer empirical studies focus on the implications of smart working for businesses. Some of these have found positive support for the hypotheses of increased labor productivity and (in a smaller number of cases) of the effectiveness of work performance and a reduction in the turnover rate of workers (including, Greenberg, J., Roberge, ME, Ho, VT, & Rousseau, DM (2004). Fairness as an “i-deal”: Justice in under-the-table employment arrangements. Research in personnel and human resources management , 2004, 22, 1-34).
Finally, there are studies on the implications at the community level, which highlight the positive effects of smart working in terms of traffic reduction (and the related pollution) and the reduction of some social costs due to the carrying out of a greater part of the care for children and the elderly within families (including, Allen, TD- Johnson, RC-Kiburz, KM-Shockley, KM, Work – family conflict and flexible work arrangements: Deconstructing flexibility , in Personnel psychology , 2013 , 66 (2), 345-376;).
At the same time, however, other empirical studies report negative effects, especially at the level of people and companies.
From studies at the firm level, possible negative effects emerge in terms of reduction of productivity and, above all, of the effectiveness of work performance; reduction of organizational citizenship behaviors; higher costs of formalization and planning of work; of greater overload for people who work in standard mode and reduction of the perceived equity between those who work in standard mode and those not (including, Golden, T., Co-workers who telework and the impact on those in the office: Understanding the implications of virtual work for co-worker satisfaction and turnover intentions, in Human relations , 2007, 60 (11), 1641-1667).
From the studies at the level of individual analysis, cases emerge in which negative effects have been recorded in terms of greater frustration in the performance of the service; reduction of the quality and frequency of interaction with colleagues and, to a lesser extent, with bosses; increase in social isolation; increase in perceived monitoring and reduction of discretion; of greater difficulty in disconnection and increased stress; reduction of visibility and career block; increase in the conflict between work and private life due to the permeability of the boundaries between family and work and the related amplification of the gender gap for women workers, more exposed to permeability (including, Leslie, LM-Manchester, CF-Park, TY-Mehng , SA,Flexible work practices: A source of career premiums or penalties ?, in Academy of Management Journal , 2012, 55 (6), 1407-1428; Thatcher, SM-Bagger, J., Working in pajamas: Telecommuting, unfairness sources, and unfairness perceptions , in Negotiation and Conflict Management Research , 2011, 4 (3), 248-276).
The coexistence in studies of both negative and positive effects does not constitute a true paradox, but rather highlights that smart working produces effects that are not necessarily connected to each other by a positive circle (Gajendran, RS-Harrison, DA, The good, the bad , and the unknown about telecommuting: Meta-analysis of psychological mediators and individual consequences , in Journal of applied psychology, 2007, 92 (6), 1524.). The “working hard” can happen at the expense of the “working smart”: you work longer, but you work worse by not having access to the necessary resources and skills. The improvement of the “task” performance can take place at the expense of the “contextual” performance: the work performance is performed better because there are fewer distractions and interruptions, but contributes less to the social climate of the company. Improving work performance can occur at the expense of the quality of relationships with colleagues or bosses and at the expense of career opportunities. And, similarly, greater flexibility in private life management can come at the expense of the quality of private life itself, as well as at the expense of job performance and career opportunities.
Beyond the hopes, it emerges that the effects of smart working may not all be mutually compatible. Being aware of this is fundamental, because – back to normal times – we can be in a position to intentionally choose which levers to invest in, even with an explicit compensation purpose. As evidenced by the practices of some virtuous companies, if – for example – the priority purpose is to improve the reconciliation between work and family life, then the company needs to simultaneously invest in actions to safeguard people from an excess of permeability between work and family (such as financial support for expenses related to nursery school, pre and post school activities, babysitting activities).
Overcoming the rhetoric of the optimal solution
A second aspect that generates the apparent paradox of data on smart working is connected to the contexts of use. The effects of smart working do not manifest themselves equally in every condition, but depend on specific contingencies. There is no empirical confirmation of the effectiveness of this modality for all organizations, for all jobs and for all people. Smart working is not the best solution to be used in the rain and the need for a choice is determined to identify contingent situations that favor an effective implementation.
First of all, there is a structural contingency connected to the intensity of use of the “smart” mode. Studies show that work begins to be reorganized after a certain “distance” threshold (first, only a reorganization of the agenda is carried out, moving activities that do not require interactions to the days at a distance)