The onset of the pandemic has made working from home indispensable to the survival of all those businesses lucky enough to be able to use it. For a large number of workers, remote working (improperly called “smart working” in Italy) has become an obligatory formula. According to data from the Politecnico di Milano, the number of people who worked remotely in 2020 during the acute phase of the pandemic totalled 6.58 million – about one-third of Italian employees and over ten times more than the 570,000 counted in 2019 – involving 97% of large companies, 94% of Italian public administrations, and 58% of SMEs.
The percentage of remote workers is now much higher than before the pandemic, close to 30% of employees, while the Post Office, Unicredit, BNL, and Vodafone are among a group of large organisations that expect at least 60% of their staff to continue working remotely.
Now, with the contagions contained and business activity resuming, there is a need to think about how a new normality of work activity could be configured. It is in this situation that we speak of hybrid work – a combination of remote and face-to-face work that reconciles the need for productivity and competitiveness with the requirement for a more satisfactory work-life balance.
While some companies are moving towards a “remote-first” model – such as adopting a predominant remote working mode and an occasional office presence, without going as far as full smart working solutions – others are leaning towards an “office-first” approach, in which the office remains the main location and centre of work activity. This office-first model, which does not deviate too much from traditional schemes, seems to be more widespread around the globe.
Recently, the Spanish fashion brand Desigual offered its 500 Barcelona-based employees the option of reducing their working week to four days (Monday to Thursday) and choosing to spend three days in the office and one day working remotely. Despite the reduction in office working hours resulting in a 6.5% pay cut (originally 13%, but Desigual agreed to reduce this by half ), the initiative was approved after securing more than 86% of employee votes.
Microsoft also offers employees the option to work remotely for at least half a week, while Salesforce has stated that “working hours from 9.00 to 18.00 no longer exist”. Facebook will allow half of its employees to work from home all the time. Meanwhile, Shopify, PayPal, Zillow, and Viacom are all introducing some form of flexible working.
In Italy, too, businesses, such as Generali Assicurazioni, are reportedly considering adopting similar types of hybrid working.
Benefits and pitfalls
The hybrid working model, although stimulating, may involve several critical issues. Perhaps the most challenging is to try not to create inequalities between those who work in the company and those who work from home. Other issues may include the need to safeguard the corporate culture, keeping the spirit of collaboration high, nurturing informal exchanges, material work management, and IT security.
Indeed, those who work remotely, if not properly supported and integrated, risk being left on the margins of the organisation. These employees can often be disadvantaged by worse technological means such as: slow connections, inability to access certain resources from home, a less sophisticated home office configuration, and, therefore, find it more difficult to demonstrate their competence and perform their work in practice.
Working remotely may also lead employees to feel more isolated and deprived of the relationships that can provide social support. Also, working in the same space as superiors increases the likelihood that employees’ efforts and actions will be noticed and recognised. Remotely, this visibility is easily lost, with negative consequences in terms of self-promotion.
By contrast, in a hybrid working environment, flexible workers can make the best use of their time. They can choose to avoid times when public transport is too crowded. They can concentrate fully on their work, without the interruptions and noise typical of the office environment. They can decide to work when they feel they are most productive. When employees are more satisfied, less stressed, and more rested, they are also more productive.
Finally, while it is true that productivity does not seem to have declined during forced remote working, Microsoft research found that the extensive use of technology required by remote working induced stress in many people, many of whom were confronted with this type of tool for the first time.