The “extraordinary” conditions in which smart working (SW) has spread in Italy has not allowed an evaluation of its effectiveness but reading some implications due to the forced experimentation of this practice has allowed us to reflect on the risk, or not, of SW becoming a new mechanism of (re)production of gender inequalities.
In our article we discussed data collected through a web survey to working women launched in April 2020 during the first lockdown.
The profile of smart workers reached by the survey is characterized by highly educated women placed in medium to high-skilled professional positions. The study identified four profiles of smart-workers.
The first cluster of “Satisfied” is characterised by work perceived as fulfilling, with a good level of autonomy, which is therefore defined as not very alienating and not intense from the workload perspective. This group is characterised by female workers with higher income, positioned in the most highly skilled professions. Women satisfied by remote methods are also those who perceive their burden of care to be lower and who have therefore suffered the least from the overlapping between workloads and care burdens. They are mainly women with high digital skills who have continued to apply the skills already in their possession during smart working. This is therefore a group that − having a highly qualified job, autonomy and good previous skills in using digital instruments − report high levels of satisfaction also associated with a family situation that is not particularly burdensome.
The second group − that of the “Fatigued” − is, on the other hand, represented by female workers who, despite finding their remote work job fulfilling and autonomous, have also suffered strongly from aspects linked to professional isolation and increased workload. The profile is very similar to the previous group, this cluster differs, however, both in relation to the care burden, which becomes more intense and definitely affects workloads, and due to the major presence of educators and teachers, who, on the one hand, have definitely had to deal with a different and perhaps more burdensome workload, and, on the other, have for example been able to strengthen their digital skills, albeit partly
In the third group of “Unsatisfied” satisfaction is lower and the dimensions linked to increased workloads and professional isolation are prevalent. In the unsatisfied group the income is reduced, the age of the workers rises with a good presence of workers aged over 50, and the burden of care becomes more intense. Again in this cluster, the presence of teachers is significant; perhaps they have been most affected by the increase in workloads and the distance from social relationships and contacts with colleagues. There is a slight enhancement in terms of digital skills acquired during lockdown which does, however, perhaps constitute a further element of overload to an already tense situation, which thus contributed to lowering the general satisfaction level.
The final group, which we have called “Executive/resigned”, found remote work to be not very fulfilling and autonomous, but also less stressful in terms of loads and relationships. In this group, it is interesting to note that people receive a lower income, are younger in age, mostly take on technical professions, and do not require different digital skills to the ones they already possessed. It is therefore a group of women who − even in association with a burden of care considered to be high − have accepted remote working, not identifying, however, any real improvement or significant deterioration in their condition.
In summary, the analysis on one side, reveals some satisfaction with SW, particularly for the most highly qualified professions, while, on the other, raises a series of questions, firstly on differences in income, age and professional profiles which affect the possibility of making SW not only a more convenient way of working, but also a real opportunity for growth and professional enrichment. Above all, the research emphasizes the need to problematizes the linear relationship between SW and the improvement of work-life balance, especially if the burdens of care continue to be managed almost exclusively by women.
The research suggests overcoming the idea of SW as a tool mainly to support work life balance, and seeing it instead as important for its transformative impact on the organisation of work and on the management of workers. From this perspective, imagining a systematisation of this measure implies the need to restore its original character. This means recovering its characteristics of flexibility and de-structuring in space, in time and, not least, the voluntary choice. In summery a new way of working that enables new skills, practices and knowledge in a win-win dynamic for workers and companies.
The full paper is available here.