Article 3

2020-02-26 Stefano Basaglia

How Work Changes at the Time of the Coronavirus

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) has two significant impacts on the organization of work.

The first regards the “open space” organization of offices, where workers may or may not have fixed workstations, designed to reduce costs relating to physical spaces and to favor interaction and the exchange of information.[1] The layout of such offices also favors contagion though, and thus the proliferation of diseases. This is true for the Coronavirus, but obviously also for the normal seasonal flu. So in order to address this problem, in the immediate term companies have been forced to limit the movement of employees within offices (for example prohibiting movement between one floor and another). The problem of contagion comes in addition to other negative aspects already known (lack of concentration, little/no possibility to personalize one’s workstation, presence of panoptic control, etc.). For the future, companies may have to review some choices which they have taken for granted.

The second impact regards the spread of smart working, that has become a necessity in these days. The “glamour” dimension is lost, the fashionable and hedonistic side based on an idea of progress (working when and where you want - in the park, the bar, between one private commitment and another), and the experimental dimension is also lost (limited in time, space, and regarding the number of workers involved). So it becomes a large-scale test in which we will see if businesses and workers are truly ready and prepared, apart from declarations and announcements.[2]

Smart working in the time of the Coronavirus substitutes one workplace (the office) with another (the home) at a time in which everyone is at home (husbands, wives, partners, children). How will the cohabitation in the same physical space be managed between people who work in different businesses with different work and family needs? And lastly, it will also be a test for IT infrastructure, because many systems supporting smart working will be used in homes with different connection speeds. This forced experimentation may unearth potentially positive aspects of smart working (such as the elimination of commuting times, greater decision-making autonomy regarding the time for performing activities, and so on) and also negative aspects (problems of coordination between workers, reduction of social and community links within organizations, conflicts between work time and private time, and adequacy of residences for performing work activities). So this experiment can help us better understand the organizations and workers who use smart working and what their effects are. Companies can determine if the solutions they have experimented with truly work, and if so, how to make them permanent; and if they don’t work, how to intervene to correct any planning/implementation errors.