To Smart Work or Not to Smart Work? That Is Not the Question
OPINION |

To Smart Work or Not to Smart Work? That Is Not the Question

THE PANDEMIC HAS ACCELERATED THE SPREAD OF SMART WORKING. AN EXPERIMENT SHOWS THAT IT IS A MISTAKE TO THINK OF TELEWORKERS AND NONTELEWORKERS AS SEPARATE. WE NEED TO REDESIGN PROFESSIONAL EMPLOYMENT AS A SINGLE ENTITY

by Valentina Mele, Associate Professor of governance of public services, Bocconi University

Among the most visible effects of the pandemic on public organizations is certainly the unprecedented spread of smart working and its variants that some use as synonyms, including teleworking, working from home, remote working and lean working. Although the first experiences of remote work supported by ICT in public offices began over thirty years ago, in most OECD countries this innovation never really took off. Save for a few exceptions, before the pandemic smart working was typically considered an experimental working mode, reserved for groups of public employees who encountered mobility problems for various reasons, or as a welfare tool that allowed a better work-life balance. We know from various studies what the critical issues are for teleworkers, for example the potential isolation that many of us experienced in the pandemic phase. We also know how non-teleworkers perceived negatively the fact of not having the right or not having access to remote working, leading to higher turnover rates and lower professional satisfaction. However, we did not know much about the relational aspects between teleworkers and non-teleworkers.

A study conducted together with Nicola Bellé and Maria Cucciniello by means of an experiment showed there was a marked resentment on the part of non-teleworkers towards colleagues who carried out their activities in smart working. The subsequent exploration allowed us to understand the reasons for this resentment, which offer useful insights even in a post-emergency phase when it is possible to imagine that in the public administration and beyond, it will be difficult to return to the previous situation. Although scaled down, smart working is expected to be part of the range of options of an increasingly modular employment relation that undermines the unity of time and space that has characterized bureaucratic organizations and their control methods.

In light of the results, the reasons underlying the resistance to teleworkers do not have much to do with the perception of organizational injustice or an increase in workload due to the physical absence of some colleagues. Rather, the main reasons are to be found in the alteration of the dynamics in a collective space that includes both those who are in the office and those who work remotely.

Among the critical issues encountered that it is important to consider is the tension between the greater personal flexibility guaranteed by remote working methods and the flexibility of office activities. In fact, it has been found that processes that cannot be planned in advance, such as unexpected cases or decisions that require high levels of discretion and improvisation, are likely to be managed less effectively if there isn’t the informal exchange between colleagues that is normally facilitated from face-to-face communication. Furthermore, collective learning within an office or organizational unit risks being frozen and the organization reduced to the sum of individual skills. Finally, also from the point of view of socialization, the work-life balance is altered not only in the case of those who stay at home but also for those who no longer find the same kind of human exchange in the office.

The implications that can be drawn certainly include the fact of analyzing and designing activities and relationships by considering both those who are in the office and those who work remotely as a single entity rather than as two separate groups.

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