SMART WORKING: THE URGENT NEED FOR NEW RULES AND FOR A DIGITAL REVOLUTION

The Coronavirus emergency and the closure of schools have boosted smart working, which now must go beyond the trial phase and be regulated by contracts and by a new law, without forgetting the urgency of a qualitative leap in technology and of overcoming the digital divide.

The reopening of economic activities, after the emergency phase of the coronavirus pandemic, has to reckon with the issue of closed schools. As a result, many families find themselves in great difficulty in managing their children and it is often women who bear the brunt of the burden. The increasing use of smart working has been the most obvious solution. If we have gone from 500,000 to 8 million workers working in a “remote” mode, equally divided between Public Administration and private activities, it is easy to understand why the  2017/ 81 Law is no longer sufficient and  that we need to start again from a final  regulatory  and contract framework.

Going beyond Law 81/2017

The “emergency” smart working of the Prime Ministerial Decree of 1 March (DPCM), extended to the entire national territory, makes Confindustria (Confederation of Italian Industry) rejoice, which aims to simplify the rules that will inevitably or hopefully follow. In this particular case, disclosure obligations  were envisaged to be fulfilled electronically and an app to be provided for every employment, even in the absence of individual agreements provided for by law.

The truth is, however, that this experimental phase will not last long, because it is clear to everyone that we are not talking about remote or sporadic telework, as described in 2017, but about a real revolution in the labour market that requires a major and timely regulatory effort for the good of the Country. The DPCMs of February and March have in fact implemented the recommendations for businesses, even going as far as the paradox of shifting some civil or criminal responsibilities onto the employer, and even “regulating” a “spontaneous” use of smart working.

With the Relaunch Decree here comes the big news: the further extension for the private sector to parents, employees, with at least one son/daughter under 14 years of age,  to work remotely in the absence of individual agreements, with the necessary exceptions related to income support instruments for the other parent or when one of the two parents is out of work.

The constraints imposed by the pandemic have made it possible to speed up decisions that in many cases have been postponed for some time, but they remain limited to the period of the Covid 19 crisis. Smart working, in addition to being a response to a development already underway, makes it possible to reconcile life and work and to guarantee equal employment opportunities for men and women.

The risk we are facing is that the deliberately “light” structure of the 2017 Law, (which would, in any case, need to be updated with regards to remote work principles), may suffer the fate of many legislative excellences that we have pioneered but which could be dismantled by an over-regulation that has sunk even the best intentions, with procedural burdens, as in the case of telework or crowdfunding.

We are clearly talking about an issue that has become crucial in terms of civil as well social responsibility: various studies show how not taking care of social and gender inequalities translates into an economic cost that leads to lower productivity. For smart working to be successful once again, however, two conditions are necessary: clear contractual rules and a technological infrastructure that is up to the task.

Infrastructure and Equipment: the private sector celebrates with the Public Administration

On the first point, Italy still lacks a reference regulation, while as far as the technologies needed to work from home are concerned, Italy certainly does not shine in comparison vis-a-vis other Western Countries. Given that relaunching the economy  is central to the public debate today, this could be an opportunity to settle these two issues without further hesitation.

In order for it to be transposed into national second-level bargaining and extended to all types of contracts, it is necessary to define the rules for the beginning of the new year, and already in the private sector many companies are working on contractual integrations at their own expense, both to protect the right to disconnection of employees and the company’s cybersecurity.

Yes, this is because once again, as already pointed out when dealing with distance learning, in addition to the lack of digital skills in the Country there is an infrastructural problem. Both regarding the broadband backbone, still subject to unjustifiable delays and the equipment to be used by employees for which companies are asking to be funded.

It is useless to deny that this experimental phase has often been addressed with personal and not corporate endowments. An unsustainable and impractical situation without creating further social inequalities if one allows for the fact that, according to ISTAT, in the data collected by ‘Spazi in casa e disponibilità di computer per bambini e ragazzi, relativo agli anni 2018-2019’, a digital gap or digital divide has emerged among  Italian families. One third of families do not have a computer or tablet at home, and then four out of ten children live in overcrowded houses. Specifically, only 22.2% of families have a computer or tablet available to each member, while in Southern Italy 41.6% of families have no computer at home.

Remote working has an implicit flexibility that will only do good to the Italian labour market and if it is true – as confirmed by the numbers available –   that we have made a mental and adaptative leap of ten years, this model has equally proved to be successful  within the Public Administration as well as the private sector. Some experiments carried out in the Public Administration (PA) in Rome with 11,000 employees have shown a considerable rise in productivity and more efficient services allowing for longer working hours than through physical counters. These PA  projects, which use European structural funds, are extended to various public administrations, mostly concentrated in Rome with Ministries included. Again, riding on the Covid19 emergency to give the PA a lash would probably be a panacea for the reliefs it would bring to the long-standing issue of debt  in Rome, the Capital City.

At the base of this enthusiasm the key infrastructural  problem that all companies, from public to private ones, from municipalities to banks, are grappling with with a large number of employees on smart working is maintaining secure connections (VPN), with their own company servers. However, even with an important investment on corporate data security, remote work cannot be extended to all sectors indiscriminately (e.g. graphic design, video editing, algorithmic trading, etc…), because homes are not adequately equipped. The multiple attacks suffered by corporate networks in the Country are once again evidence that, in order to seize the opportunity for an efficient distribution of the smart working tool, there must be a rejuvenation of the company’s digital infrastructure upstream, together with more investments in  the Country’s digital innovation.

On the other hand, the outcome of the World Economic Forum underlined the importance of pursuing the global objectives of Agenda 2030 also through a synergy of intentions in public-private investments in the infrastructures needed to allow Countries to keep pace with the ongoing digital revolution by being more sustainable and resilient.