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22 February 2024

Does Smart Working work against productivity? The CEO of WayFair against Work-Life Balance: our commentary

As a result of the pandemic, the use of remote or smart working has developed and is now quite widely used. However, this alternative way of working had already started a few years earlier, around 2019, as an experiment by large companies to better dilute the workloads of employees and to balance the time to be devoted to private life in a certain way.  

In itself, 'smart working' is neither right nor wrong; on the contrary, it can be positive considering the cultural and conceptual evolution of work and the 'workplace' of the new generations. In addition to this, 'smart working' is also a way for many organisations and companies to save costs in the rental and management of office space.  

Today, however, as the initial enthusiasm has waned, many companies are questioning whether or not remote working is really effective. Once again, as in all initiatives to 'change' strongly ingrained habits, (and that of the workplace is one of the most relevant), there is no precise and ideal answer, there is no right or wrong. There are many variables to be evaluated.

Among the various analyses and reflections on the good that global business communities are doing in my opinion, a distinction must be made between the amount of work hours a person is subjected to on a daily basis and the way these hours are performed, the work-life balance to be achieved. In addition to this, it is important to consider the type of work performed. Certain activities dedicated to creativity, planning and the development of ideas, for example, require a certain communicative relational exchange preferably in the presence, as do professions related to the sale and marketing of products or other cases in the manufacturing sector that require the presence of a human being to function.

Niraj Shah states that

'Working long hours, always being ready, mixing work and private life are not things to shy away from. There is not much history of laziness being rewarded by success'.

This point of view is in my opinion rather drastic and I do not fully agree with it. It is natural that the time to be devoted to work should be that necessary to perform effectively and efficiently the activities that lead us to achieve our goals, but it is also necessary to take into account the quality of the hours worked and an ideal balance, difficult to quantify, between work and a proven life.

Shah added that "everyone deserves a great personal life, but everyone manages it in their own way

I agree that everyone can manage the balance between personal and professional life in his or her own way, but neither companies nor individuals have yet found the right compromise to manage this, although much is already being done compared to past years

The restoration sought by Shah, however, clashes not only with a new sensibility, but also with studies that have challenged the idea that working more makes one more productive. The latest is the one conducted by Slack's Workplace Labwhich surveyed ten thousand people and found that those who leave at the contractual time are more productive than 20% than those who feel compelled to work late. "There is a common misconception that to produce more you just have to work harder," said Christina Janzer, senior vice president of research and analytics and head of the Workforce Lab. "We have an opportunity to shatter this myth. More hours don't necessarily mean more productivity'. Specifically, 75% of the respondents experienced a drop in productivity between 15 and 18.

The other issue concerning the necessary and indispensable number of hours per week to be devoted to work is well known and cannot be separated from the other aspects. Many studies claim and prove that there is an upper limit of continuous working hours that a person can sustain, and here nothing new; but what makes the difference in my opinion is how these hours are spent.

It is often a matter of national social and economic culture. There are countries such as, for example, the Nordic countries where it is customary to devote as much time to work as possible and to be free to devote one's personal time after working hours. Other 'Mediterranean' countries also use working time as an opportunity for social exchange: the fateful 'coffee break', diluting the effectiveness of time devoted to purely professional activities and consequently making the working day less productive 

It is also interesting to consider the type of work and the relative 'use' of the hours of the day. Financial professional firms, law firms, large consulting firms consider a 12-hour working day as a habit and staying in the office beyond the traditional 8 hours is perceived as a natural (or obviously necessary when demanding projects or strict deadlines require it) behaviour. From this point of view, however, the new generations are gradually imposing a change in habits.

Also in light of this research, companies and governments have started experiments to reduce working hours. In Italy, groups such as EssilorLuxottica, Intesa Sanpaolo, Sace e Lamborghini started with four-day week programmes. Countries such as Iceland, Spain, Portugal, Belgium e Japan have launched proposals and pilot programmes at national level.

The main experiment was in Great Britain and involved 2,900 workers from 61 companies. It emerged that working one day less per week reduces levels of anxiety, fatigue and sleep disturbances, improves mental and physical health and helps to better balance work and home tasks. The number of people leaving companies during the experiment decreased by 57%, the total number of sick days dropped by two thirds. As for the economic results, according to Autonomy, the research company that compiled the results, company revenues increased by an average of 1.4%.

Experimental initiatives of the four-day week have not yet demonstrated, in the medium to long term, clearly positive or negative results with respect to the balance between good work performance, good hours versus performance and obvious improvement of private life.

The statement by some scholars that 'overwork leads to a decrease in production' is rather obvious. The right perspective from which to view this obvious consideration is to observe how long the person is subjected to overwork. In this case, I agree that the individual who works continuously for many hours beyond standard hours is naturally more tired, stressed and consequently much less productive. 

But objectively, how often does this happen with worrying frequency, at least in Western countries that, in one way or another, have long adopted rather strict rules on labour management?

In general, I believe that there needs to be a clearer and more conscious change of perspective on these issues on the part of both employers and employees.

The former must continue to experiment with more balanced ways of managing, organising and distributing work with respect to business and performance objectives and the needs of people, especially the younger generation.

The others, and precisely these new generations, must understand that there is an indispensable minimum amount of time to devote to work in order to perform it well and effectively, independent of established customs and habits, which is directly and necessarily connected to the need to perform assigned tasks profitably and efficiently in order to realise assigned projects and achieve objectives. This is a dual perspective that must be continuously observed and respected by both parties in order to achieve a balance dictated by common sense and mutual benefit.

PIERANGELO POLLINI