So-called ‘agile’ work is a topic frequently found in the pages on employment in national daily newspapers. How does this practice, increasingly widespread globally, influence the organisation of work and, in particular, the relational, information and planning flows that animate Italian companies every day?
The most recent peak of attention on agile work was in the middle of February 2017, at the same time as a dossier compiled by the International Labour Organisation and Eurofound (European Foundation for the Improvement in the Conditions of Living and Working) was founded. The report, entitled Working anytime, anywhere: The effects on the world of work, is on the role of technology in the progressive ‘dematerialisation’ of employment in Europe. Special attention is paid to the opportunities for work outside offices, mainly in terms of adequate technological equipment and new policies on the places and hours of work. The publication of the document was mainly used by the Italian press to convey the most immediate and newsworthy aspect in a document of about 80 pages, i.e. the classification of the percentages of agile workers for each European country.
As has happened for too long for ‘best in class’ classifications in Europe, the data sounds both usual and discomforting for the Italian reader – Italy is bottom of the class and static at around 7%, just preceded by Greece, the Czech Republic and Poland. There are few surprises at the top – Denmark, Sweden, The Netherlands and the UK lead with percentages between 25% and 35%. A careful look at the classification shows how the percentages indicated are summaries of three different spheres – teleworking, work outside the office carried out in highly mobile conditions (i.e. on several days a week from many places) and occasional external work, i.e. true agile work (which, it’s useful to recall, means, in any case, an additional opportunity with respect to normal office work).
Focusing on occasional work outside the office, the reading of the Italian context is more promising. Although there is little teleworking in Italy and there are few workers with the opportunity for high levels of mobility, agile work – particularly when it means occasional from home, has a dignified percentage, at least in large companies. Isolating this last parameter puts Italy at around the middle of the classification but what value does the position have?
The question implies another, centred on whether, in terms of value, the opportunity to work outside the office due to technology should be considered a value or not. In other words, since Italy can be ‘halfway down the list’, is there, beyond the mere technological data people often stop at, a relevance such that the new ways of working can be considered a significant improvement in productivity and the quality of work?
Notwithstanding the various observatories on the subject, it is still too soon to be able to make a reasonable assessment on the state of ‘smart’ work in Italy (‘smart’ envisages both work outside the office and the changes linked to tools, work spaces and, in particular, the way of living the work spaces). The projects for the introduction of smart work are, to all intents and purposes, paths of organisational change and, as such, mainly from the point of view of the impact on culture and daily habits and need a reasonable length of time. Although companies are often driven to obtain labels and awards on the subject ‘smart’ for communication, marketing and attraction reasons as soon as possible, the truth is that, if you really want to change the way of working, you should forget the word ‘haste’.
Perhaps the most important message at the centre of the new way of working can be expressed with a slogan – work is not a place, it’s what you do. There’s all the meaning of the ongoing working revolution in these apparently banal words which, on closer inspection, quoting dematerialisation and delocalisation, mainly talk about responsibility. The attention for ‘what you do’ implies a high level of awareness, autonomy and self-organisation at all levels of organisational hierarchy, with special attention to every aspect of the manager/co-worker relationship. It’s on these points, rather than technological investment or the technical training linked to it, that Italian organisations are currently quite unprepared.
In terms of professional maturity, the employment system, and large companies in particular, still has many weak points, mainly linked to an ethos of division of responsibility that no flat organisation has yet been able to overturn. On this point, the main example of a smarter organisation of work flows comes not only from technological solutions or sophisticated managerial models but also examples of independent workers or small companies that are apparently simple and taken for granted as the relationship between the bureaucratisation of work and individual responsibility has diametrically opposite dynamics to that of the large organisation.
As a concluding reflection, a very simple interpretative metaphor can be suggested. For Italian workers, starting to work in a smart way implies a passage similar to that from school to university. Just as a student needs to acquire better organisational ability and more responsibility in this educational change, the employee must grow, particularly in terms of awareness, self-motivation and commitment. The real promise, and challenge, of agile, smart work in Italy, from the point of view that has nothing to do with technology but the soft abilities, is setting up paths intended to achieve a ‘systematic’ macro-objective at organisational level – the construction of a managerial class and, in general, a working ‘critical mass’ with greater working maturity. Any organisation undertaking a similar path, with fairness, transparency and the above-mentioned patience, is worthy of merit and support.