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COVID-19 and work: the transformations of our habits

A year has now passed since the first case of COVID-19 was announced in Italy and Europe. In just a few hours, schools and universities were closed, offices were transformed, and the streets emptied. Until a year ago, smart working was a revolutionary practice in Italy, adopted only by the most "modern" companies and in practice unknown to most. Il Sole 24 Ore defined smart working as one of the keywords of this 2020, as well as a lifeline for thousands of companies and workers.

Agile or smart working was introduced with Law 81/2017 as a way of working that does not place any constraints on time or place. Although some companies had already invested in smart working, when the pandemic broke out, not all of them could adapt easily. Especially companies that were used to the idea of teamwork.

A solid and close-knit team is a real strength for the company, helping to create a stimulating and productive environment. However, managing a team has never been easy, even before the pandemic. Constant work and continuous collaboration, meetings and brainstorming are required. Everything works best when all team members have the opportunity to get to know each other, communicate and contribute to the process, i.e. working side by side on a daily basis. Many companies, accustomed to rigid schedules and the almost constant checks on employees, have found themselves disoriented and unprepared to face a new way of working that has trust and flexibility as its central pillars.

The physical distance between collaborators has led to interminable and often not very productive calls, often with scheduled lunch breaks or downtime being ignored, making smart working counterproductive in terms of performance and productivity.

To make smart working truly function, we need to intervene directly on the corporate culture based on trust, collaboration, motivation and results, which stimulates the creation of a positive environment.

For some, it was natural; for others, it was a shock. However, those who have been able to adapt have gained in terms of flexibility, innovation and productivity.

According to the Smart Working Observatory of the Milan Polytechnic, in the most acute phase of the coronavirus, there were 6.58 million employees involved in smart working, about one-third of Italian employees. It seems that remote work has now entered the daily life of Italians and is destined to remain. The study estimated that at the end of the Covid emergency, 70% of large companies will increase their remote working days, bringing them on average from one to 2.7 days a week, while one in two will modify the physical spaces.

According to the latest survey from Slack, people want more flexibility in how they work in terms of time and place. Rather than go back to the old routine, companies need to radically rethink the way teams work. Most respondents (72%) would prefer a mix of remote and office work.

However, that is not true for everybody. A worker’s sense of belonging can be affected while working remotely. Some advice for all organisations? Maintain the flexibility acquired in recent months and entrust employees with a degree of independence with respect to working methods.