Work at the time of coronavirus: flexible working, productivity and leadership styles
While the spread of the coronavirus is literally a scourge for the economy and society, the extensive use of remote working or flexible working methods is one of the few positive changes that Covid-19 has introduced. It’s difficult to imagine people not returning to work in offices once the health crisis has been resolved, but it would be a great shame if we failed to conceive of a different means of reconciling work and leisure time.
Everyone has seen that lower levels of vehicular traffic, as a result of people not travelling into work, have had positive effects on air quality and journey times across the city. Although many businesses will never be able to apply “smart working” conditions, in an economy where services, and more generally the advanced tertiary sector, make up a significant share of the total economic output, it’s not hard to image a more efficient society that is focused on saving energy as well as improving the quality of working life.
I personally believe that without harming individual productivity – there might even be an improvement – we could also imagine less strain on our over-stretched infrastructure (roads and railways in particular), thanks to a reduced influx of vehicles and people.
The major obstacle to this happening does not come from any technological constraints or the speed of internet connections in areas that don’t have broadband, but stems from cultural resistance: most workers appear to be favourable about remote working methods as an alternative to offices but employers, not to mention control-freak managers, are often not very keen.
Unfortunately this approach to the relationship with co-workers does not contribute to improving the quality of work or individual productivity; indeed, instead of encouraging virtuous conduct, it creates a sense of intolerance towards the “controller” and a desire to reduce to a minimum the effort required to complete tasks. This begs the question: if this is a common sentiment amongst workers and has an impact on productivity and quality, why don’t we try something different?
It seems clear that employers, or managers in the case of larger organisations, don’t have much trust in their co-workers or have a distorted vision of their role, which should not be that of oppressing and controlling or exercising power as a “superior”, but rather that of inspiring by example, motivating people and making them feel like they’re part of a team.
This is obviously good common sense as well as good practice taught in all management courses, so why is more not being done in a country that has been struggling for decades with productivity levels that are not rising, unlike in other EU countries and other parts of the world.
Trying to embrace a different approach and improving the treatment of the (large number of) workers is perhaps even harder than pretending you are open minded and don’t discriminate between workers based on their gender or age and have wonderful means of nurturing talent (which is scarce).
Enabling co-workers to work from home is not a concession or an obligations deriving from government provisions to tackle a dangerous epidemic, but rather an opportunity for measuring the impact of different working methods on the quantity (and quality) of work that is produced. That’s something we should all think about....