Smart working: here is the best way to deal with it

This is the advice from Massimo Miglioretti, associate professor for the psychology of work and organisations, and Director of the Bicocca Centre for Applied Psychology, from the Department of Psychology, at the Milan-Bicocca University

Home Life People work Smart working: here is the best way to deal with it

What is changing for workers during this long period of smart working?

Many things change, particularly when periods become more extended and you start to miss a few rituals. From clothing, such as not putting on a jacket and tie every day, or a suit, to the working hours, as you seem to be living in a strange time continuum. Your desk and precise rhythms are missing. Actually, though, it needs to be said that today we are not in a true smart working situation, because this entails alternating between the home and the office: it is more appropriate to talk of forced, or emergency, smart working.

And are there any risks?

The main one is perhaps that those who appreciate true smart working after such a binge of it might just want to go and work in the office, and any of you who have never experimented with it might consider it a monstrosity. Today there are two fundamental aspects of smart working which are missing: leadership and objectives. People are navigating at sight and the planning aspect has been ignored. Many workers can feel isolated, and videoconferences do not solve the problem.

And for businesses, what is changing?

A business tries to minimise the damage and this is an appropriate time to understand the ability of its own managers and workers to perform when subjected to stress. An important change also relates to the impossibility of tackling a crisis in an informal manner. Let me explain this in a different way: how many times have we solved a problem for our business when we have been at the coffee machine, in a corridor, or during a lunch break? You see, these situations occur less often during forced smart working, and the communication tools we have, no matter how sophisticated, constrain debate.

What should a good boss do to manage his/her own group in a smart working situation?

Provide feedback and objectives, a minimum of commands, a minimum of checks, and leave the team with the space and autonomy they need without seeking to impose the organisation of other people's desktops, allowing each person to organise their own. Objectives are required, not creating a schedule; each person needs to create their own with ample scope for discretionary freedom. It should not be teleworking, not least because teleworking is a failure. This should be an important alarm call for anyone who wants to manage their worktime at home.

How should working at home be organised?

Workers must give themselves the necessary rhythms, timeframes and locations to perform their work. They need to create a dedicated area. Unfortunately, however, our houses are not adequate for such a use, particularly when they are inhabited by all the members of the family. So you need a planning schedule for everyone, focused and on a weekly basis. This is difficult, however, because not everyone is used to it and at the office, in general, there is someone else who does this for everybody. This situation represents a strong stimulus towards autonomous working practices.

This mixture results in work also intruding into family relationships: is this a good thing or a bad thing?

In one respect it is positive, as a certain amount of intermixing is created and people share things much more. This can be a good thing, even though for certain subjects it is important to create a space dedicated only to work and to keep it private. Because when we are at work, we are used to dealing with a certain level of problems which it is preferable for our children not to hear, so that they do not worry about them. For certain calls, headphones are required: it is one thing to tell your children or your wives or husbands about workplace conversations, but quite another to let them hear these as they happen. Young children can become very frightened, and you need to take great care about this aspect. If they hear you talk about balance sheet losses, for example, they could think that mummy's or daddy's job is at risk. Work areas are not just useful in order to concentrate, but also to create emotional distance. In the same way that it is a good idea that parents are not present during their children's on-line school tests, at the same time for children it is a good idea that they do not participate in their parents' on-line work discussions.

How should you set up smart working in such a way that people are not overwhelmed?

You need a sense of purpose. One of the characteristics of smart working is to work towards objectives, including medium-term ones, and to have a feedback system. It is important to set up a system in which those responsible can take a moment to check how activity is progressing and convey their proximity, without seeking to organise everything.

And how can time be managed, given that meetings start in the morning and finish in the evening?

The solution is to plan your day and create times for meetings with colleagues. One good idea is to encourage your colleagues to have a chat outside work calls. Some might telephone each other before their meals to wish each other “Bon Appétit”; something silly, but actually not that silly, as this is nothing other than the need to maintain ties. Whereas previously they might have left together to take an aperitif, now everything becomes virtual.

Do people need to maintain those little daily habits they had with others and perhaps also for themselves?

Certainly, for men, for example, to have a shave, and for women to attend to their hairdo. These aspects help to fight off a touch of depression, but do not influence relational aspects. With other people it could be helpful to make contact just to watch a film together, because succeeding in cultivating relationships is of fundamental importance. We can suggest books and films to each other and at certain times we can certainly feel bored. If previously our colleague was also the person in whom we confided work-related problems and concerns, it is a good idea to find a way to continue to do so now too!

Will sharing your own domestic intimacy, from your home clothes to the pictures hanging on the walls, change something in the relationship between colleagues?

In the current times it is difficult to have aggressive calls; voices are generally calmer, more collaborative than during the normal workplace bustle. It is rare for someone to dress in a jacket and tie for a call. There is a greater level of informality during videoconferences, and this is dictated by the times we live in and by the need to share, to have relationships. Even showing the pictures behind you is a need to communicate. How much will remain afterwards, however, depends upon the depth of the relationship exchanges.