Coronavirus emergency

2020-04-29 Zenia Simonella

Please, Let's Not Call It “Smart Working”

During this crisis we are experiencing an "extreme" form of smart working: we are isolated, constantly connected, and forced to work in a very stressful way. This situation has led to the emergence, and amplification, of the possible risks related to adopting this practice; and it has helped us understand the importance of maintaining freedom, as individuals first of all.

It's already clear. What we are experiencing is not "smart working," as promoted by its supporters and then designed by lawmakers in the law of 2017.[1] We are adopting an "extreme" mode of work (not voluntary, from home, without any spatial-temporal flexibility) that has led to the emergence, and amplification, of the possible risks related to its adoption.

First: isolation - we must remember - is not the same for everyone, since some categories of workers suffer more than others ("Isolation [is] a dimension that has a very different impact on different people: I'm thinking of my colleagues with disabilities who are suffering greatly from this situation of forced seclusion"[2]).

Second: what is called "workaholism," i.e. work that totally absorbs private life ("Are life and work in conflict? Should life always take a back seat? Coronavirus smart working is putting us to the test"). This condition risks reducing the freedom of the individual ("People are working much more; very little time wasted, breaks are very short and people often eat in front of their computers, no time is lost in travel").

Third: the use of technology ("This way of operating forces us to remain constantly in front of a screen, and with earphones on") that forces us to be connected without interruption ("Regarding rights, it seems to me that the true risk of smart working is - paradoxically - that of never disconnecting").

The isolation we are living through reminds us of our social being, the need for aggregation with others. Moreover, interaction in common spaces favors the generation of processes of individual creativity and social innovation. It's not only that group work benefits from the presence of each person; there is also the value of exchanging ideas in a random and spontaneous manner in the halls or at the water cooler. The dematerialization of the workplace, implied by smart working, can lower that perception of psychological security that favors the expression of the self. In this period of forced confinement, the institutionalization of certain daily rites, such as saying good morning to one's colleagues with a message, and virtual coffee breaks, have been useful and reassuring, but only bland surrogates for in-person meetings.

The experience of workaholism reminds us of the need to maintain our freedom, first of all as individuals. If the use of smart working means savings for the company and the environment thanks to people not having to commute from home, which is certainly positive, the time saved, however, is time that should be used for oneself.

Lastly, continuous work through the use of technology has increased psychophysical stress (added to the anxiety linked to the situation we are living through). A study by Eurofound and the International Labor Organization[3] warned of the mental health consequences for high mobile workers and home-based teleworkers: higher levels of stress, burn-out, problems sleeping, and a high perception of negative impacts on health from work are the most serious factors. The authors of the study in fact suggested always finding a balanced integration between traditional forms of work in the office and smart working. 

[2] All of the statements in quotes are comments made by people who participated in the SDA Bocconi School of Management's MINE event last April 1 dedicated to smart working. The event can be viewed at the following link:

[3] Working anytime, anywhere: The effects on the world of work, Eurofound and ILO, 2017.

Smart working