Article 3

2023-04-21 Simona Cuomo

Short Workweek and Smart Work: Let's Listen to Workers

In the current debate on the short workweek, some crucial aspects for its effective implementation are not being addressed, except in a residual way. The main risk is that of a lack of integration with smart work, resulting in a return to a traditional model where space and time - and not results - are the reference units of measurement. To choose which model to adopt (short workweek in its different variants, smart work or a mix of the two), it will be necessary to listen to workers on a case-by-case basis, in order to build a project that meets their actual needs in a specific company.

There is much talk about the short workweek in its various experimental forms implemented by some Italian companies.[1] However, some crucial aspects are not being addressed in this debate, except in a residual way. Why does a company want to adopt the short workweek? How does this option integrate with what has been adopted in terms of smart work?

Regarding the issue of meaning, those currently adopting the short workweek seem to focus on the theme of productivity and better work-life balance. In terms of individual productivity, from a theoretical and practical common-sense point of view, it is coherent for those adopting a "100-80-100" model (100% salary, 80% working hours, 100% productivity) to expect an increase in productivity per hour worked. However, this would not be valid if the adopted model were to compress working hours into 4 days, working up to 9 hours per day; this concentration could generate excessive workload resulting in a loss of concentration, and in the long run, a situation of stress.[2] In circumstances like these, as indicated by numerous studies on work-related stress,[3] productivity could decrease instead.

From the perspective of work-life balance, the short workweek does not seem to leave much room for autonomy and choice for the worker on how and when to organize their own private and work time, which would be heteronormative by the organization, with private activities that risk being concentrated on the day off added to the weekend. However, what about the daily management of household chores? If it is possible to postpone medical appointments and other activities by concentrating them on the day off, care activities for children and elderly people do not fit well with this proposal.

A third motivation, little present in the debate, could concern the old adage: "Working less so everyone can work." However, some studies tell us that the measures taken in this regard in the 1990s did not constitute an accelerator of employment.

Regarding the integration between the short workweek and smart work, in theory, the two institutions could happily coexist: not only do you work one day less, but on workdays you can also work "smart." On this point, on which there are no responses in the ongoing debate, another question arises: if I have introduced a smart work model based on the ability to self-organize in respect of the needs of my own team, without constraints on days and with some simple rules to manage shared times (for example: scheduling meetings not before x and not after y; planning returns to the office at least x days in advance, etc.), what additional advantages could the short workweek generate? The only advantage would be in the case where the company adopted the aforementioned "100-80-100" model, giving the opportunity for smart work in that 80% of time.

Finally, if not integrated with smart work,[4] the short workweek could culturally represent a step backwards from a management perspective. If the philosophy that accompanies smart work requires a change in the leadership model (from control to delegation/sharing) and a management of activities based on objectives and not on presence (with consequent increasing autonomy and responsibility of workers), the short workweek tout court, that is not integrated with the possibility of smart work, seems to bring us back to a traditional model, where space and time - and not results - become the reference units of measurement.

On these issues, it would be important to listen to workers on a case-by-case basis, in order to build a work flexibility model that meets their actual needs in that specific company. The model of flexibility in organizing work that a company decides to adopt must respond both to a principle of internal fairness (therefore it must be usable for the majority of workers) and to the concrete reconciliation needs of individuals. Any solution that does not start from these assumptions risks becoming obsolete, despite the public interest it generates.






Photo iStock/ Gulcin Ragiboglu

iStock_Gulcin Ragiboglu