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The issue with smart-working and “white collar” [i]

Του Basilio Antonio Toth, Διπλωμάτη του Ιταλικού Υπουργείου Εξωτερικών

The expression smart working has been used to refer to work performed outside the office in a smart way using advanced technology with the aim to increase productivity and personal satisfaction. Similar expressions include telecommuting, remote working, teleworking, working from home (WFH), mobile work, remote job etc. Smart working is the strongest of such expressions as it includes both not working from the office plus working with smart methods (using advanced new technologies). It also infers that the usual way of working was already in crisis (the opposite of SW: dumb-working? A bit harsh for the old office but I can see the point).

SW already existed before Covid-19 but with limited use, usually to accommodate special family or health concerns of workers. The UK introduced legislation in 2014 with the Flexible Working Regulation. The European Parliament adopted a resolution in 2016 and many European Union countries passed laws. But SW became popular only with Covid19 and lockdowns. Employers had to respect health measures while securing some productivity and SW was already in the books and so it was adopted widely.

During the pandemia many soon realized that they just couldn’t quickly switch to SW. Many “white collar” jobs just couldn’t be done from remote. At the same time many workers and managers found out their work was “not that important” for the organization or that the overwhelming majority of jobs could be done away from the office. Others experienced workloads three/four times bigger but no proper mechanism to readily reapportion personnel within the organization. The IT industry has reacted so did Governments, Companies, Public Administrations, employers, managers and employees. The result at the beginning, in most cases at least, was unsatisfactory. Things just couldn’t be rearranged or at least not fast enough. A useful thing that was done was to recall mistakes we commonly make when working remotely especially in terms of security.

Covid 19 is being contained and vaccination campaigns are ongoing. It is soon to say what the situation will be in the next few months but we have entered the phase where the “new normal” is designed. So, what’s next? Some factors will play a role in deciding what “white collar” work may look like in the next few months and years.

1) Availability of more and better technical options. Many of us during the last two years attended more meetings in VCT than ever before, including on sensitive issues. Many applications and platforms were disappointing. There was an urgent need for reliable and secure applications. We still need that. If this would not happen States, Organizations, Big Corporations etc., will prefer to go back to the old meeting room (familiarity with the meeting space, better confidentiality and understanding of the substance). The industry not only would need to provide the highest standard but also to convince that the products will be fit for the purpose and that the new solutions are available at an affordable price.

2) Evaluation. All organizations evaluate productivity and performance of their personnel. Some evaluation systems are transparent others are not. In an approach that gives importance to quantity rather than quality, SW seems to be a good solution (based strictly on results/production/output generally objective criteria). It also makes evaluation simpler and easier. But this is easier in results oriented organizations rather than in control oriented ones. It is also a reality-check for organizations that have formally embraced  result oriented guidelines but have not yet actually introduced them. The shortcoming of course is in the measurement of quality (employee A has achieved 1 result and employee B achieved  10, the problem is when the result achieved by A had such an importance that overshadows the 10 of employee B). The current narrative is in favor of results oriented systems but actual practice is another issue.

3) Recognition and visibility. In SW is easier to deny recognition even without giving explanations and its easier for work to stuck. Employer and employee may tend to speak or meet less. The boss may even get the feeling of intruding in the personal life if the employee works from home. In many organizations there is even stigma for individuals who prefer SW (perceived as less willing or less committed). In the old office system you could physically reach out and talk. Errors and misunderstandings were more easily avoided. This is the price to pay now but this could change with adjustment and better technical solutions.

4) Career opportunities. This is a key point in jobs of high responsibility and environments with strong internal competition. Here again communication can be significantly less or be oversimplified in SW. Simplification in “white collar” jobs may sound good but may lead to radicalization and conflict within the organization. Most probably those who have a high performance (and good familiarity with the system) will become even more performing or will easily keep their standard. Workers who need to catch up (think of a new employee) will face difficulties. In this latter case employees should be ready to go the extra-mile not only in terms of performance but also to defend their careers. This brings attrition and becomes costly for everyone.

5) Time management and time flexibility. SW gives greater flexibility yet respecting the general principles of classic work in the office (even usual working time segments like “9 to 5” can be respected). But it allows employers to recognize and put to their use the fact that different people have different peaks of performance in a day. It allows to management and employees to give the maximum according to their natural rhythm. This would bring higher productivity and greater satisfaction.

6) Time for the family and personal life. In SW there is more time to spend at home. SW also strikes a better balance in internal household division of labor in a family. It offers both to the employer and to the employee more quality time in both areas: work and family. However there are people who won’t adapt to the the new relation between “work” and “personal life”. The distinction between the two will blur and some experience discomfort and stress. Many workers are just hoping to “go back to normal” (something next to impossible given that many ask for the opposite: use SW as much as possible).

7) Control. Up until recently the common way to control production, motivate work, evaluate personnel was through control. Workers for example had to “check in” so that the employer knows how many hours and extras an employee has worked. More and more accurate systems were introduced IDs, cards, cameras. There was a somehow naïve assumption that being at the office also meant actually working. Organizations that are control oriented are not comfortable with SW. I met an important public manager who proudly told me that he now has recalled 70% of his work force back to work, obviously he just meant back to office.

8) Responsibility and accountability. Organizations know that with SW into the picture there is a new kind of responsibility and accountability for managers and employees. With SW control is less so the responsible and accountable behavior of workers becomes crucial. In SW flexibility has to be counter-balanced by self-discipline. Even the normal controls based on “peer mechanisms” among colleagues stop working, a colleague is not the same stimulus (positive or negative) anymore simply because he is not next to or in front of you. SW ends up promoting responsibility and accountability through self-discipline and this is generally something positive.

9) Economics and environment. SW offers to the employer possibilities for savings. Old work in the office was using facilities provided by the employer (buildings, offices, cleaning, maintenance, electricity bill, heating/air conditioning, telephone lines, internet). Today strong energy efficiency systems exist but in sophisticated places, not everybody can afford it. With SW many costs have just been transferred from the employer to the employee. Initially, these costs were not even visible as the worker accepted to pay the increased bill at home without complaint. Furthermore the worker was happy not having to pay for gasoline or any other energy to reach the office. Now add the time needed to go to work. A recent study showed that in 2020 the Region of Tuscany in Italy saved 240 million euros thanks to SW. The employer can even make fresh money (selling buildings hosting thousands of offices). The decrease in the use of cars, buses, lesser human presence have contributed to better environment and less pollution. There are good prospects for a new economy like the green economy we will have a smart work economy.

Conclusions. Three indicators lead to an inconclusive result (availability of more and better technical options, recognition and visibility, control). Recognition and visibility and control depend on the predominance of the results oriented paradigm over the control based one (there is no such predominance now except in sophisticated systems). Two indicators show a superiority of working at the office over SW (evaluation and career opportunities). Four indicators seem to show that SW can be a better way to work: time management and time flexibility, time for the family and personal life, responsibility and accountability, economics and environment. Two scenarios seem unlikely, SW: (a) will go exactly back to where it was and (b) will be the way we will be all working in the next few months/years. Both of them look now unrealistic and/or unpopular.

In an attempt to get the best of “two worlds”, in the short run organizations will adopt a hybrid solution with a significantly higher percentage of SW in the mix but with an important percentage of work still in the office (50-60% office). In the short/medium run however the mix should reverse moving towards a greater use of SW (60-70% SW) mainly because of: availability of more and better technical options, real shift towards results oriented methods (or at least better performance measurement) and last but not least the ability of individuals to adapt to all this (including the ability to unplug from work even if “the office” is a room at home).

Today we are more interested about environment, green economy, energy efficiency, sustainability, health, family and personal life etc. There is a unique opportunity for change and for rethinking work to fit such new needs without compromising on production and productivity.

Basilio Antonio Toth


[i] Disclaimer. The opinions expressed in this article are personal and cannot be reconducted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Italy.