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How to free smartworking from ideological debate

The Covid-19 pandemic catapulted us in to a massive work experiment: we suddenly found ourselves working in “smart” mode, without the traditional restrictions on when we work (established working hours) or where (offices, factories, etc.). It was an experiment we had not prepared for that involved countless people, regardless of the kind of job they did or the type of company they worked for. Basically, we moved our work into our homes, without having the time to redesign methods for doing our jobs or for coordinating our work with others.


The data clearly show that this experiment is truly an exceptional one. Before the pandemic, smartworking only ever impacted a minority of employees. In fact, according to Eurostat, in 2019 smartworkers counted just 3.6% in Italy and 5.2% in the EU, with peaks of 13-14% in some Northern European countries. With the pandemic, those figures escalated abruptly and exponentially: ISTAT, the Italian statistics institute, data reveal the peak intensity for Italy occurred during the national lockdown in March-April 2020, with around 47% of all employees working remotely. Later that number declined, but levels are still far higher than pre-pandemic (around 30% of employees).


Now that conditions are gradually returning to normal, many are wondering how and how much smart working will figure in to the daily lives of millions of people. But to try to find a serious answer to this question, we need to move past the ideological debate of the past few months with its two opposing tribes: on one side, the people who assert that smart working “is a good thing always and for everyone, and we’ll never go back to the office,” and on the other, those who claim “it’s bad for us, we have to get back to the office as soon as we can, all together, every day.”


Once free of ideological debate, smartworking becomes a tool that companies can use to foster managerial growth. But before that happens, we have to start with the basics, with the name we give to this work method, which Law 81/2017 specifically defines as “flexible” – but which was immediately dubbed “smart.” Underpinning this choice is all our human aspiration to find a better - some would even say “socially desirable” - way to work. But unfortunately, simply calling it smartworking doesn’t make it “smart.”


Today it’s important to point out the fact that like every work method, smartworking may or may not produce positive outcomes, depending on how it’s designed. Its spontaneous proliferation doesn’t magically generate positive effects, either for workers or for companies. We have to be aware that questioning the traditional limitations of the time and place for work has tremendous repercussions on the lives of companies and their employees alike. These repercussions must be handled with evolved managerial knowledge and tools, which exist and must be utilized.


First of all, the effectiveness of smartworking depends on the kind of job we’re referring to. Decades of organizational studies have taught us that we can categorize workers based on myriad characteristics (the degree of discretionality they enjoy, the variety of tasks they handle, their level of specialization and interdependence with other workers, and so forth). This means that it doesn’t make sense to imagine overwhelming an organization with smartworking. Instead what companies have to do is to analyze the characteristics of the work that needs doing and then to go back to the drawing board of job design. Only with this sort of analysis can they build readiness indicators, which give them the basis for gauging the right intensity for introducing flexible work methods.


Second, we know that managing flexible work leads to questioning some of the methods for dividing, controlling and coordinating work. Different organizational mechanisms are possible options here, and we can choose the ones that best compensate for the fact that there is no longer a limitation on when and where we work. Back in the 1970s, mechanisms were introduced to minimize coordination by proximity and control via direct observation. Some companies achieved this by designing jobs that allowed a high degree of discretionality and low interdependence, or by monitoring individual performance with respect to outcome objectives for each employee (management by objectives). Other companies focused on group results, activating mechanisms for control, evaluation and compensation based on team performance (gain sharing).


When we introduce flexible work methods, we can choose between different ways for dividing work, and different forms of coordination. Examples here include customized jobs characterized by very specialized objectives and a high degree of discretionality. Or jobs where results are distributed throughout a virtual, semi-autonomous group. We can choose between different methods for monitoring work, for instance by controlling contribution behaviors remotely, or keeping tabs on individual outcomes, or tracking the results of virtual groups. And last of all, we can choose between different coordination methods which, while respecting the right to disconnect, establish working hours and tools so that company performance is more than the mere sum of individual performances. But if we’re talking about contract employees (“subordinate work,” as specified in the law), we can’t do without managerial tools to divide and coordinate work and monitor results.


We have the knowledge and the organizational tools to maximize the value of smartworking, making it an opportunity to design better jobs and encourage managerial growth in companies. This would benefit the companies themselves, the people who work for them and the community at large. But to take advantage of this opportunity, many companies need major investments. Those who claim that introducing flexible work methods is a cost cutting move are looking at the question in the very short term, imagining people doing their work from home the same way they always did in the office. This is a dangerous approach that risks making workers poorer and more isolated, and work more repetitive and less productive. On the contrary, flexible work can turn into a lever to boost productivity and the quality of work, but only if today this goes hand in hand with at least three types of investments.


1. Redesigning jobs and job training. To prevent jobs from becoming uninspiring or irrelevant, companies must come up with meaningful work, characterized by a variety of tasks and requiring rich competence. This is why job design is so fundamental, but even more important is training, to enable people to do jobs that are of higher quality and greater complexity.


2. Redesigning coordination and monitoring mechanisms. Especially for companies that leverage forms of tacit coordination and related monitoring of behavior, the risk is replacing the latter with monitoring hyper-specialized individual outcomes in the immediate short term, which inevitably leads to the “gigification” of wage labor. Instead, companies need to expand and hybridize the types of mechanisms they use to adapt them not only to differentiated jobs but also differentiated methods for doing the same job. This could be done in person sometimes, at other times remotely, and still other times using a hybrid approach.


3.Redesigning space. The less time we spend in traditional workplaces, the more time we should spend primarily on coordination, to share knowledge, for training and for socializing. We mustn’t forget that companies are also places for community, social spaces that fill the need to feel like a part of something, a member of a group, where social learning and growth happens, where people build their professional and personal identities. So in individual offices what’s key to consider is a greater need for gathering space, for sharing and generating ideas together, and for the newcomers to the company for socializing too.


What we’ve listed here are the relevant investments, and not only from an economic standpoint. But we need to acknowledge that not all companies across the board possess the culture and the expertise in organizational technicalities that serve to tackle these investments. And here is where the issue of support for less managerialized companies comes up. As for the debate on the effective introduction of flexible work methods (as with many other management tools), it must dig deeper, with a reflection in operational terms on the methods with which strict, impartial supervisory bodies can favor the growth of manageriality in companies.


With regard to this point, the German Fraunhofers are often cited to support the growth of German firms. And in recent months, the British government too, with the help of a number of business schools, launched the “Help to Grow” campaign, offering management training all over the country, targeting SMEs in particular. In Italy, now is the time to invest in the same direction.