South Working: The New Frontier of Smart Working in Italy
South working represents a new way of thinking about work beyond the health emergency. This model, in addition to guaranteeing workers an adequate balance between private and professional life, has the merit of restoring social and economic value to local areas that are very often marginalized.
Finding a job consistent with one’s academic degree and building a career by working in the South seemed to be a remote and unlikely possibility until just a few years ago. The health emergency and the recourse to smart working have offered many workers the opportunity to leave the large cities of Northern and Central Italy to return, at least temporarily, to the regions of the South. In this context, an association has been created, named South Working-Lavorare dal Sud, “a project for social promotion that stimulates and studies the phenomenon of smart work from a different location than that of the employer or the company,” and that sets the goal of favoring the social and economic development of areas that have historically been marginalized.
South workers are thus inspired by high social responsibility, that translates into the desire and commitment to restore value to the territory in which they choose to pass some periods of their professional life. The need to find a more satisfactory life balance is integrated with the need to positively contribute to the chosen local area, and this distinguishes south workers from digital nomads. For this reason above all, the territory cannot be considered a dormitory, but to the contrary, a place in which to reflect on all aspects of one’s personal and social identity. And this derives from the possibility to create interaction, learning, and synergies useful for both the individual and society.
We interviewed Elena Militello, President and one of the seven founding members of the South Working association.
How was the South Working project created?
We began in March 2020, and created the association the following August, thanks to financing and support from the Fondazione per il Sud. We are a group of academics, researchers, but also professionals, managers, and entrepreneurs between 25 and 40 years of age, mostly coming from Southern Italy. We had in common the fact that we had left the territories we had grown up in, but always with a certain degree of nostalgia; we thought we could only return to those places once retired. However, during the lockdown, for the first time we realized that this forced separation between the workplace and the place we wished to live, for at least part of the year, could be overcome. We began by sharing our stories and listening to those of workers who, like us, had left their native lands reluctantly. We started out with 7 people, and today the group consists of 80 volunteers.
What ideas have you developed through the elaboration of your stories?
The experience we lived through during the lockdown brought us to reconsider our priorities: on the one hand, the search for a better quality of life and an adequate balance between private and professional life, since many of us worked at fairly stressful rhythms; on the other, the idea of wanting to give something back to our local territories. We in fact realized that, as we went away, there was a gradual increase of the economic and social gaps, and that by leaving the South, we did not contribute to limiting them at all. The mission that immediately inspired and convinced us was to contribute to overcoming the gap between Northern and Southern Italy, between urbanized metropolises and the many non-urbanized municipalities of our country. The idea is that periods of smart working from marginalized regions can contribute to their improvement in two ways: injecting immediate liquidity deriving from spending salaries in the marginalized areas; but above all attracting new investments for the recovery of unused real estate areas, for the creation of new systems of social innovation and start-ups, and for the participation in local associations. This idea of freedom and restitution distinguishes us from the phenomenon of digital nomads. We thus had the idea to establish the association and create a network. To join, it is necessary to adhere to our charter of values that underscores this idea of restitution in regard to the territories in which one chooses to live, and not simply exploiting the area where life costs less. Furthermore, we ask that smart working take place in coworking spaces, that we define as “community facilities,” and not always from home, to avoid a sense of isolation and lack of involvement, and to favor opportunities for interaction, collaboration, and thus new entrepreneurial ideas and proposals for the territory; ultimately, to prevent a form of sterile delocalization.
How is the association organized?
The association immediately adopted a charter of values and works on three pillars: enhancing awareness among institutions, through advocacy actions at the level of the national, regional, and local government; the interdisciplinary study of the phenomenon, thanks to an Observatory, and above all the creation of networks between social innovation actors that identify as “community facilities.” Thanks to the funds received from the Fondazione per il Sud, last year we were able to hire associates for a year and create a structure that was useful to move our project forward beyond the fundamental network of volunteers that characterizes it.
What exactly do you mean by “South?”
The South, certainly, but also internal areas, i.e. all territories that are far from the services and infrastructure of large urban districts, and even peripheral areas within large urban districts, which are the least served. The SVIMEZ 2020 report calculates a group of approximately 100,000 workers potentially interested in this model of work; many more than those who spent the lockdown in their home towns. Unlike large production districts, for marginalized areas the fear is degrowth, followed by a long period of stagnation.
What have the initial results been?
We have a site people can register on and very active social network pages on which we have collected the stories of many workers. We have participated in events, and stipulated many agreements and memorandums of understanding with various stakeholders including both businesses, to communicate the names of people who are interested in south working, and institutions, such as municipalities and regions. Our actions for communication and relations with the various stakeholders have sought to normalize south working as a new way of thinking about work beyond the health emergency. To do this, we have activated an interdisciplinary research center collaborating with universities and research centers from around Italy, and se have recently produced our first book, published by Donzelli.
What goals due you have for the future?
An additional goal that has become an integral part of our mission is to create synergies between the various stakeholders. In these territories, there are often enterprises that create social innovation, but do not speak to each other are unable to learn jointly. We believe it is important to foster encounters between people, companies, and territories in both the public and private sectors. Where the private sector arrives, coworking spaces have been created and opened; where the private sector is not present, it is important to ensure that the territories can open common work spaces in rooms with important cultural or historic heritage, that are currently unused or underused. We set three requirements on the part of the territories: a good internet connection with a download speed of at least 20 Mbps; a distance of no more than 2 hours from public transportation (in particular airports and train stations), and the presence of coworking spaces. This work has allowed us to present amendments to the “Consolidation Act on Smart Working” approved in March by the Labor Committee of the Italian Chamber of Deputies. These common values, for those who are part of our association, serve to stimulate businesses and territories to develop a comprehensive smart working model that in turn favors development: you must not only work with an efficient network, but also define functional connections and shared workspaces. Since we are moving toward a hybrid work model, it is important for territories to be coherently prepared. We have also imagined second level requirements, such as asking territories to create services for small children or the elderly; the construction of common wok rooms commonly furnished in an efficient and ergonomic manner, isolated audio rooms, and a dedicated internet network. We are also working with the Fondazione per il Sud on a project on the subject of furnishings, that allows both towns and private individuals to obtain discounts.
What type of relationship do you develop with territories?
We do not want to be a certification entity for municipalities; with them we draft a memorandum of understanding and conduct minimal monitoring that can justify the municipality defining itself as a partner of our association. When local administrations have difficulty adapting to the standard required, we support them in obtaining funds through participation in public tenders. We try to push municipalities to build the necessary infrastructure for the project in an adequate and planned timeframe; in many cases, for example, we help them identify an unused room in a library or public museum. Municipalities themselves gradually succeed in procuring what is necessary, including in partnership with local associations. Thus, the idea is always that of territorial governance that is customized for the specific situation. In addition, we do not want to give preference to municipalities that already have the infrastructure, but support those that are far from meeting the requirements. Ours is a project of inclusion, that has the aim of reducing inequality. Thus we don’t want to favor some municipalities over others. What is happening is that a good number of requests, from among the many we receive, come from workers who request support from us to stimulate a certain municipality, that may be rather distant from the requirements we set. For example, I personally worked to have the town my grandmother comes from join the initiative, a town should otherwise would not have participated. The final idea is what we have done in Sicily with Anci, the Association of Italian municipalities. We signed a memorandum of understanding with Anci Sicily such that Anci itself would invite all of the municipalities to join this association. This creates dynamism and positive competition among various territories. The more municipalities join, the more we can favor the social and economic development of a given territory. An additional goal would be to draw up FAQ with the most common requests from lawyers, experts in labor law, architects, etc. to respond to the most frequent questions, and then – we hope – the idea would be to create a network among those consultants and in order to offer specialized support. In any event, since our goal is to contribute to local development, we above all want to stimulate the possibility to create new business or bring companies to the coworking spaces, or even push companies to invest in these locations or create their own business as a start-up through dialogue and collaboration. Our method is to contribute to work from the bottom up, sharing the needs of stakeholders.
What actions have you taken with companies and their associations?
When we say that our mission is to work in marginalized areas, we want to make municipalities develop an attractive territorial environment for workers, and our targets are communities, but also local institutions, in order to approve laws and decisions at the regional level. Our targets certainly include companies, in order to convince them to adopt a more open and less constrained model of smart working. For example, we are collaborating with Randstad, that decided to insert a filter in support of south working in the supply and demand for work, and in three days had 700 requests. We have had a considerable dialogue with associations representing personnel directors, that recently estimated that approximately 15% of workers will continue to make use of periods of smart working. Our goal is not to empty out the cities, but to offer the opportunity to those who can, to spend periods outside of the large cities.
Who are the workers who are potentially interested?
A survey we conducted showed that currently they are highly-qualified people, with a professional life already underway, and strongly motivated in their careers. So it is not about dropping everything and going to work in the countryside. In fact, many of us return when necessary; one week a month, two days a week… it depends.
Does the fact that the first people who began south working are highly-qualified workers with careers already begun create an additional category of privilege compared to the majority, that due to other constraints, is unable to participate in such a project?
It is certainly more likely that a person will join who is well-off and already has a career, typically a knowledge or services worker, who already has a network in the territory. But our idea is to develop also the less fortunate areas in large cities which have fewer services, and in general to also attract to these marginalized areas, at least for certain periods every month and every year, those who have gone abroad or even foreigners whose companies have a greater propensity for flexibility. The target, though, is workers who are convinced that they can stay in these territories, not as digital nomads, but as citizens.
What criticism have you received?
Sometimes, some local companies have complained of the fact that smart working allows local talents to obtain more advantageous employment contracts without leaving the relevant territories. Thus local talents, who for family or personal reasons had not left, can now compete. Local businessmen thus feel that they are required to compete in a national market and perceive the risk of a subtraction of talent that may not feel recognized in local companies. Another criticism regards the depopulation of large cities; but on this point it must be said that not everyone is willing or wants to work from marginal areas or coworking spaces according to our model. There are people who want to go to work in the office, and prefer working in a traditional way. The point is to create opportunities and contemplate different models of work based on the different needs of workers.
 For more information we refer you to the association’s website: https://www.southworking.org.