Work at Home or Work in the Office? Both, Thanks
We have repeatedly expressed our opinion on the issue of smart working during the period of quarantine.
We return to the issue because in recent days the public debate has been particularly lively due to comments made by the labor law expert Pietro Ichino and the Mayor of Milan Giuseppe Sala.
We asked Chiara Bisconti, the Councilor for wellbeing, quality of life, sports and leisure, green areas, animal protection, and human resources of the City of Milan from 2011 to 2016, a promoter and expert in smart working practices, for her opinion on this debate.
What is your opinion regarding the recent statements made by Pietro Ichino and Giuseppe Sala on smart working?
Using generalizations to express an opinion on a matter always leads to simplifications and prejudices. The sentence by Ichino which the media reported is based on a generalization referring to the public administration, and demonstrates poor knowledge of the practice of smart working; that comment labels the public administration as a monolithic entity that cannot be associated with a more evolved way of working.
When I joined the city government of Milan, I was not familiar with the world of the PA; but it was not hard to recognize the considerable network of services, professionalism, and skills that make this institution a large business. Those who work in public entities understand that there is a depth of competences and a passion for work just as there is in private companies; while you can find both alienated and passionate people in the private sector. In any event, we are talking about people who work, and there is no difference in terms of motivation and dedication to one's job. So it is offensive to claim that smart working can be applied in one context (the private sector), but not in the other (the public sector). First of all, smart working requires rethinking how to work, organize activities, relationships, time, and life. If you take it to the extreme, applying an "all or nothing" mentality, so you either do it or you don't, it doesn't work. Even in positions where you might think it's not possible to apply it, a way can be found; but we need to get into the details, see exactly how activities are organized. The practice of smart working is thus potentially applicable to any work situation. When I worked at Nestlé, we went to see what the workers were doing to realize that some of their activities could be performed remotely, both because there were computers and because the activity of a skilled workers was not to be stuck at a machine 8 hours a day. This is another generalization that prevents recognizing the true activities of a job.
So there is a bias about a category, and a misunderstanding of the tool.
The discussion always becomes polarized: "I would always like to stay at home," or "I would always like to go to the office." Smart working is the opposite, it's being able to choose. What we have lived through is not smart working, although many have labeled it as such. And that misunderstanding is blocking the possibility of using this tool in September. Sala's logic is present in many organizations. There is a risk of burying the lesson we can draw from what happened in the past two months: an experiment was conducted due to an emergency, but it showed even the most recalcitrant that smart working can function: not with the "forced and difficult" methods of this period, but based on free choice. The comments we're discussing leave room for those who resist and are just waiting to exploit the situation to return to what was considered normal beforehand. The statements by the Mayor of Milan are indicative of a failure to understand the difference between the remote work experienced in this period and smart working. The only way is to avoid polarization. In addition, this is how work will be in the future, it will happen: people will no longer all work at the same time in the same office.
Do Sala's word justify a return the past, without having learned the lesson of this period?
Unfortunately, yes. There is a lack of understanding of how smart working not only creates benefits for the company, but also for the city. It's the best way to manage peak movements, to work on the issue of environmental impact, and to revitalize the suburbs. Smart working has people stay in the areas where they have chosen to live. So there is a general benefit. There is wellbeing for the entire city. There are many cities that are progressing on this issue.
What do you think of the debate on the modification of the law on smart working?
I believe that the 2017 law was done well. It is a correct way to interpret and regulate smart working. The discussion among the unions leads to saying that it should be rewritten, with new content, classifying smart workers separately; but this would create obstacles and restraints. The law should be left how it is. The unions would do better to work carefully on second level bargaining to bring smart working into company contracts. This is also true for the right to disconnect. Work is needed, not revising the law but working on organizational rules. The company should be obliged to take certain measures: from 6 p.m. on, no meetings; from 7 p.m. on, you are not required to answer e-mails, although everyone is free to send them. Rules of functioning are required. This is where action can be taken, through regulations with creativity.
 Various items have been published in E&M Plus on the issue: "Trust as the Basis of Smart Working," May, 20 2020; "Please, Don't Call it “Smart Working,” April 20, 2020; "Is a New Division of Work Possible?" March 26, 2020; "How Work Changes in the Time of the Coronavirus," February 26, 2020, https://emplus.egeaonline.it/it/31/articolo-3.
 "Coronavirus, Ichino: “Smart working? Per dipendenti pubblici spesso è vacanza", Corriere della Sera, June 15, 2020; "Sala, 'Stop allo smart working torniamo al lavoro'", ANSA, June 19, 2020.
 In organizational language, the terms "smart working" and the Italian "lavoro agile" are used interchangeably, without any difference in meaning.