A few words about smart working

The first thing to do when it comes to smart working is not to call it smart working. From the advent of the smartphone onwards we have been overwhelmed by an Orwellian Newspeak based on "smart things" and "smart concepts" where the smart label is assigned after having overloaded the original object with technology (real or only potential: think of the "smart cities"). The scam naturally lies in the fact that the term "smart" suggests an incontestably positive attribute and therefore prevents any debate on the actual goodness of the initiative and reduces the exchanges of opinions about it to the simple fandom: naive techno-optimists on the one hand, naysayers variously philosophizing on the other.

We are therefore going to talk about something more circumscribed and therefore easily identifiable, which I would call "agile work", that is, teleworking from its simplest to the most flexible methods. So, we’re talking about office work, already digitized or digitizable.  Actually, I remember that we started talking about "smart working" before the normalization of teleworking, using the term to justify a sort of phase 2 of the dismantling of traditional office spaces: after introducing the open space (which is to an office as an Oktoberfest tent is to a restaurant) some companies had the brilliant idea of eliminating workstations altogether giving the "free for all" to the daily hoarding of chairs, desks or assorted perches as needed but above all if and as available. Fortunately, this barbarity didn’t take root, thanks to the advent of Internet bandwidth finally able to reliably support connections to the corporate network, thus avoiding having to cram the entire workforce into the office.

Teleworking has allowed, among other things, the explosion of the presence of global (which is a euphemism for "American") technology vendors in many "second-tier" European countries such as Italy, where the lack of market maturity or unsustainable bureaucracy would never have justified the opening of a physical office.

I have been working in this mode for almost 17 years and I have always maintained that agile working is a challenge for management even before for employees. Since the pre-smartworking of deregulated open spaces, these initiatives were motivated almost exclusively by supposed economic optimizations and were marked, organizationally speaking, by anarchy. Predictable result: total de-responsibility of managers, moreover totally unprepared on the subject, relative panic and reckless reactions, chaos and collapse of productivity. Ironically, webex-based telecommuting and instant messaging have brought some order back, while continuing to clash with managers without the faintest idea of how to manage these new types of work groups.

We could spend many pages describing the type of discipline required of the teleworker, and it would certainly be useful and necessary, even though almost all influencers, motivators, gurus and evangelists in possession of at least one account on a social network have already expressed themselves in this regard. Let's just say that the teleworker is precisely required the discipline to reliably follow a working time all in all "standard", to equip himself with a workstation all in all "standard", and to present himself on video in a "standard" outfit, combining these general requests with the benefits of the flexibility of this way of working.

I find it more interesting, however, and at the same time less explored by the gurus/motivators mentioned above, to highlight the challenges that agile working presents to managers and leaders of work groups. Unfortunately, periodically I still read, with discouragement, someone say that without work in presence "it is not possible to create team spirit" or it is not possible to achieve high levels of productivity or creativity. Reality tells us instead that these things are possible, and those who claim otherwise do so only because they do not have the imagination or skills to picture a way of managing an office other than the pre-Internet one.

The leader of the "agile" or "hybrid" working group is required not only an excellent understanding of the company's objectives (something that unfortunately is not obvious even among "traditional" managers), but superior communication skills and an excellent mastery of the technological tools available, accompanied, ideally, by direct experience of agile work.  The benefit you receive in return is a sharp increase in team productivity.

At this point it is necessary to spend a few words on the term "hybrid", which is also somewhat abused. By "hybrid" work I mean two dimensions of the same phenomenon: the first refers to the working methods of the employee, who sometimes works from home, sometimes in the office, sometimes in coworking spaces, sometimes by the customer, sometimes perched on an improvised desk at the airport or at the bar. The second refers to companies where part of the workforce mainly uses the remote modes described above, and another part works mainly in the office in "traditional" mode.

The team leader inserted in these "hybrid" environments must therefore on the one hand adapt their management and communication methods to the "nomadic" and individual reality of remote workers and on the other hand must keep the communication channels to and from the sedentary and community world of offices open and lively. Remote workers need - of course - regular face-to-face meetings, but these acquire a particular importance: they cannot be reduced to simply being together in the same place. As disruptive elements of routine, they must be associated with specific goals and content, whether related to business, leisure, or a mix of both. The value provided by in-person events must be greater than the breaking of routine and temporary loss of the flexibility provided by teleworking. Similarly, the risk of disconnecting the "office tribe" from that of teleworkers must be avoided: unfortunately it is not uncommon for company managers to be those who adopt the most traditional working methods, often going to the office and giving life to the so-called "corridor" or "coffee machine" management methods based on the informal interactions possible in a shared environment. While acknowledging the obvious effectiveness of this type of communication, it carries with it two serious risks: the first is that of taking over more formal relationships, eventually generating confusion and misunderstanding; The second is to exclude teleworkers from decision-making flows. It is therefore evident that the success of hybrid workplaces is borne even more by the "traditional" senior executives who have remained in the office than the leaders of teleworker teams.

Unfortunately, I don't see any particularly innovative changes in managing the "new normal" of post-pandemic agile working. "Smart working" is increasingly synonymous with fixed schemes pre-packaged and parachuted on workers, more similar to the vertical / horizontal part-time of the past than to an "agile" job. Very common phrases such as "my company lets me do two days of smart working" are dramatic oxymorons that have the effect of debasing the practice of teleworking, cancelling the benefits of the flexible approach, and depriving managers of the real management of their teams. Adding up these effects, the results will be, at best, the elimination of the increase in productivity that would have been possible thanks to true flexible work, and in  many cases, knowing the Italian character,  a mountain of grumbling and discussions between those who prefer two days in smart and three in the office and those who side with three in smart and two in the office.

The risk we run in the near future is therefore that for simple laziness and unpreparedness many companies will end up going back to indulging in the luxury of throwing hours on commuting every day that could instead be dedicated to the well-being of employees. The explosion of availability of coworking environments could be the sad conclusion of this journey or the first step towards a new way of making community at work.

The other variable, for me imponderable (but you can find countless peremptory opinions about it on any social network), is the approach to agile work of the workers themselves. Is there really a "generation" of workers who see telework as an acquired right and a foregone characteristic of any workplace? And if it exists, will it have the strength and the possibility to make its voice heard?