Over the past few years, many of us have tried working remotely. It’s an experience that has opened the eyes of many firms and workers: once upon a time, going into the office was part of our daily routine, but now attitudes have changed and many have realised that working remotely is not only possible, but preferable.
What is smart working? What are its advantages? How can you get the most out of it? What tools can help you? In which countries is it most widespread? Let’s kick things off by answering a few questions…
Smart working: what it means and how it works
What is smart working? Smart working is a different approach to work that allows employees to be flexible in their place of work and working hours. Depending on what is agreed between employer and employee, tasks can be performed completely remotely, or partly in the office and partly from home.
We’re not going to get into the nitty-gritty of employment law when it comes to smart working, because this varies from country to country. But we do want to emphasise one thing: there’s shouldn’t be any difference in remuneration between employees who are smart working and those who are working from the office.
In this new approach to work, employees’ contributions are measured in terms of objectives achieved instead of hours spent in the office. It’s a change for the better that hasn’t just led to different working practices and processes, but has ushered in an entirely new management philosophy.
Smart working and remote working are not the same thing!
In the first phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, many people found themselves working from home, but keeping standard office hours. This was not smart working but remote working. Remote working, like smart working, involves employees performing their duties away from the office. But unlike smart working, it still has time constraints: there are set working hours, which usually mirror those of people who are based in the office. And remote working does not entail a completely different approach to management.
Advantages and disadvantages of smart working
Smart working came about to give workers a better work/life balance. But there are advantages for businesses (and the environment) too. For most people, the pros outweigh the cons. But we’ll outline both below so you can make up your own mind.
Advantages for businesses:
- More empowered and motivated staff (this helps to nurture talent)
- Increased productivity
- Reduced absenteeism
- Lower office space costs
Advantages for employees:
- Greater flexibility in organising their day
- Improved quality of life
- Reduced stress
- Reduced commuting time and costs
- Greater motivation and satisfaction
Advantages for cities and the environment:
- Less traffic
- Less pollution: reduction in carbon dioxide emissions
What are the potential disadvantages to smart working?
- For employees: difficulty in separating work from private life (there’s a blurring of physical and temporal boundaries between them) and stress caused by heavier use of digital technologies.
- For employees and the business: sense of isolation and little participation.
- For the business: fear of having little control over resources and productivity.
When it comes to the drawbacks, we should point out that these are problems that emerge when the remote aspect of working is not managed properly. So, how can we prevent these problems and reap only the benefits?
Smart working: how to manage it and what tools to use
It may be obvious, but the first thing to do is understand who can work remotely and who can’t. It’s fundamental to adopt the right work models (full remote working, hybrid working and office-based working) for the employee’s role. This means carefully analysing the situation, taking account of each person, their character, their needs and their tasks.
- Ensure that their employees have all the IT resources necessary. Each person should have the appropriate tools for completing their tasks exactly how they would in the office. And sometimes they may need additional tools to facilitate communication and collaboration.
- From time to time, organise get togethers of teams, managers and employees. This will help prevent isolation and make everyone feel like valued members of the company. Constant contact will also help managers overcome any feelings of a lack of control over employees and processes.
- Respect their employees’ private lives. Just because someone is working remotely does not mean that they should be expected to answer calls and emails at any time of day or night.
To get the most out of smart working, employees should:
- Adopt “healthy” work routines. As flexible as smart working is, it’s a good idea to dedicate blocks of time to work and private life, rather than let the boundaries between the two become blurred. And it’s also important to take breaks to avoid the risk of burnout.
- Organise their workspace: it’s best to have a dedicated home office, preferably separate from living, eating and sleeping areas. This will make it easier to focus when working and to disconnect mentally afterwards.
Here are four tools for remote working that could help you to optimise your productivity and performance:
- Trello is a piece of software for keeping track of projects and activities.
- Asana is a useful program for managing and sharing projects with your team.
- Slack can be used to talk to the rest of the team and create project-specific chats.
- Webex is a tool for online meetings and videoconferences. It can also be used to record them, take notes through automatic transcription and share content.
Smart working: the countries where it’s most widespread and what happened after the pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic forced businesses and workers across Europe to switch to smart working. While some were doing this already, for others it was a brave new world. Some chose to continue this approach after the worst was over, while others returned to what they were doing before.
In the Netherlands, for example, smart working was already well established. The pandemic simply further increased the number of people smart working, reaching 57.6% in 2021. A similar trend was seen in Ireland, which saw smart working levels increase from 32.6% to 40.6% between 2020 and 2021. Indeed, topping the podium for smart working were the Netherlands, Ireland and Belgium.
Meanwhile, in Italy, between 2019 and 2021, the percentage of the workforce smart working almost tripled. But once the acute phase was over, many companies decided to bring their employees back into the office. According to official statistics for 2023, just 14.9% of Italians work remotely.
In Italy and elsewhere in Europe, the biggest obstacle to smart working is regulation that is not fit for purpose. As Cristina Casadei explains in a piece published in Italian business daily Il Sole 24 Ore: “For this approach to become established, there are a number of issues to resolve, which could be achieved through collective bargaining. Issues include the cost of remote working, regulation and respect of the right to disconnect, and health and safety, not just in terms of equipment but also risks related to stress and isolation. And then there is privacy: remote working carries a high risk of intrusion into people’s personal lives, as well as algorithmic tracking and performance monitoring.”
But we’re optimistic: the benefits of smart working are so huge that we’re sure these issues can be overcome through proper regulation. Soon we hope, because the future’s waiting.