Article 3

2020-05-20 Simona Cuomo and Zenia Simonella

Trust as the Basis of Smart Working

The relationship between businesses and workers must increasingly be based on trust. Leaders will have to abandon their own management style, shifting to one that favors collaboration, active engagement, autonomy, and individual responsibility in reaching goals. In this context, communication becomes central to avoid losing contact with employees working remotely, and creating a situation of isolation.

"In addition to relaxing the pressure for balancing life and work, smart working favors the recognition of trust on the part of the employer, that is, the awareness of making an investment in people, their ability to achieve results; the time spent in the office is no longer all that counts."[1]

We have seen in previous blog posts[2] that smart working, as we are experiencing it, is not exactly what was promoted by the authors of the law before 2017. This was also pointed out a few days ago by Susanna Camusso, who defined it "Fordist work within the home."[3]  

The original spirit of smart working, a practice to be appropriately integrated with traditional work, was to expand the tools available to the worker, who should be placed at the center of the organization. In fact, the space-time flexibility that characterizes smart work ("working at any time and from any place") is only the most visible aspect of this practice, born of the necessity to listen to and respect the identity of workers and their needs.

In a situation of dematerialization of work activity, the new psychological contract between business and workers, underlying this practice, should be based on trust, and a leadership model constructed based on this assumption. From an executive style, with top-down flows of information and methods of management linked to command and space-time control of people's operations, there should be a shift to a style that favors collaboration, active engagement, autonomy, and responsibility of the individual in reaching goals. To construct this model, we can be inspired by those leadership models that are now consolidated in the literature, that place the emphasis on emotional intelligence, the authenticity and transparency of the leader, and the idea that the leader is a coach oriented towards people's development. Therefore, the spread of technologies that favor collaboration, fast connections, and digital skills, are not sufficient to correctly spread this practice. It is necessary to work on culture and the boss-employee relationship.

There will no longer be work that is "elbow-to-elbow," in the same spaces, every day, for 8 hours in a row. If, when work is smart, activities must be organized by looking at the goals to reach, to be defined in a clear and shared way, establishing priorities and planning portions of time dedicated to each point on the agenda, then it will also be necessary to review the role of the boss: in particular, it will be necessary to work on processes of feedback, favor the participation of every employee and monitor the cohesiveness of working groups. Technology provides the possibility for an immediate response, reducing the risk of omissions, overlapping, and suspension of issues to be addressed. If the smart rethinking of the relationship with a group starts with a review of work processes, even the most routine ones, on the other hand, in order to avoid managerial action that is distant, cold, and thus does not provide motivation, it is necessary to create routines: for example, establish check points for updates with the employee, supporting them during their work. Communication becomes central to avoid losing contact with employees working remotely, who risk isolation.

With respect to this direction of cultural change, the most widespread worries, that for example emerged in the global Remote Leadership Survey conducted among 225 managers who manage groups working at least in part remotely,[4] are linked to the question of control: "What are people doing?," "Where might they be?," "Did they understand my message?," "Will they respect the schedule?"

This survey indicates the demand for performance assessment tools that in a changed situation, guarantee the boss (obsessive and constant) control over the worker's actions, to make up for absence from the workplace. In fact, although well over half of those surveyed state that the work is completed, and an additional 28 percent define their group as highly productive, the managers interviewed admit that they have some difficulty managing smart working; we see the desire both to control the activities of their employees, lacking full trust, and low familiarity with new digital tools, that makes them feel inadequate, increasing the level of stress and control, generating a vicious circle. During the lockdown, for many organizations the principal barrier to the spread of smart working is linked to the culture of control, as can be seen from the comments of the workers who participated in the event MINE "Smart working: Are we really working smartly?" organized by the SDA Bocconi School of Management on April 6, 2020.

"I interact frequently with the typical old-style manager who wants control over people."

"Don't you think that through smart working it will be easier to understand who among the various employees is able to work with self-discipline, method, and in a team, even if remotely?”

"In my view, it is necessary to implement tools for the bosses in order to strengthen the cultural change and ensure that smart working can be considered a great opportunity."

"I believe that the constraints imposed on the spread of smart working will be gradually abandoned with the increase of the number of millennials in companies; a cultural approach based on the search for flexibility and worker involvement will lead to a rethinking of current models."

"Those who are able to appreciate and draw benefits from it, on both the manager and worker side, understand that the best situation is one based on trust and professional responsibility."

[1] Comment made during the event MINE "Smart working: stiamo davvero lavorando agilmente?" organized by the SDA Bocconi School of Management on April 6, 2020.

[4] K. Eikenberry, W. Turme, The Long Distance Leader, Soundview Executive Book Summaries, 2018.