If remote working is no longer to be temporary, workers could revitalise previously ‘remote’ areas.
The pandemic has upset rules and habits long entrenched in our lives. Yet the most profound shift is arguably in how we understand and valuework.
Most people have been prompted to re-examine their role within their professional community, assess their career prospects and reconsider their relationship with their bosses. Through accelerating a long-overdue modernisation, the pandemic has proved that working outside the office can be pleasant and advantageous for a wide range of employees and professionals.
Many workers have chosen to move from cities to low-density areas in their home regions or to migrate to sunnier climes, thereby benefiting from the availability of ample space, improved working conditions and a better quality of life. Over the last few years, such ‘south working’—remote working from rural and inland areas—has become widely practised.
Remote work as an organisational model was already available within the traditional regulatory arsenal, if rarely implemented before 2020. But as a result of the lockdowns it has been tested on a large scale, albeit in an exceptional regime. This has reshuffled the characteristics of remote work—voluntariness and alternation between the workplace and remote days—partly redefining its purpose.
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Simultaneously, antiquated organisational structures, in which rigidities of function are coupled with ‘presenteeism’ and control mania, have reached a crisis point. The absurdities of the top-down approach have been revealed, especially in light of the first reassuring data concerning the productivity of remote workers.
Workers have overcome significant obstacles, participated in impromptu upskilling and contributed responsibly to business continuity. Preliminary surveys have revealed a broad appreciation for these arrangements, leading many large companies—not necessarily technology-oriented ones—to give up their offices, given the substantial savings, and shrink face-to-face activities.
To advocate a return to the prior approach to work would be illogical: it would ‘waste a good crisis’, renouncing one of its most important legacies. Rather, the urgent need is to transform flexible arrangements into an opportunity to achieve a better work-life balance, reduce gender inequalities and digitalise public administration.
The transformation facilitated by south-working arrangements affects economic geography and social anthropology. After centuries of the demographic development of places depending exclusively on their productive capacity, the breaking of the Aristotelian unity of place and work represents a Copernican revolution for the Mediterranean countries, which have faced centuries of mass emigration.
The attractiveness of places is no longer solely dictated by economic activities but also by workers’ aspirations and choices. Thus, new prospects emerge for those areas that have suffered apparently inexorable depopulation and ‘brain drain’. In particular, southern and inland areas, characterised by a distance from essential services which makes everyday life difficult, can shape an alternative future where local economies are revived and decline reversed.
Policy-makers in Italy, Ireland, Spain, Greece, Croatia and the United States have incentivised counter-intuitive housing choices to revitalise communities. Where aggressive measures are adopted, such as houses being sold for a euro, the aim is to rehabilitate the housing stock; in other cases, where local taxation is redesigned to promote the settlement of families, the aim is to regenerate communities in harmony with their history and roots.
Increasingly, measures are being introduced to encourage remote work. This requires offering incentives in terms of taxation, critical infrastructure, work-related equipment and places that allow workers to socialise, such as community co-working spaces.
When the pandemic finally passes, it will be crucial to measure whether and to what extent south working has contributed to the repopulation (or even just slowed the depopulation) of marginal areas. Such areas have a great opportunity, albeit accompanied by a great challenge: citizenship and public services, cultural offerings and social ‘liveability’ will have to become magnets—or even the most romantic of places will lose their attractiveness and remain niche phenomena, if not subject to outright speculation.
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Shortcomings and resistances
The pandemic ‘variant’ of remote work cannot be applicable to ‘ordinary’ times. Yet the associated upheaval has highlighted the weaknesses of many organisations, some of which have paid dearly for tardiness in updating their managerial culture.
In the public sector, many shortcomings and resistances have been revealed, ranging from a failure to digitise files to a shortage of mobile devices, from poor planning to a lack of cybersecurity. Responsibility for such failures and oversights needs to be firmly attributed, lest the resultant bottlenecks provide the perfect alibi for a backwardness which undermines the credibility of the sector.
Unsupervised workers have shown unparalleled tenacity during the pandemic. Yet, many bosses have replicated the ‘panopticon’ workplace by developing not-so-infallible tools for measuring workers’ performance down to the second, often with unconvincing or counterproductive results.
There have been excessive demands to keep track of every completed action, turn on the camera to demonstrate that no distractions are present or attend excessive co-ordination meetings to boost engagement. Betting on the crisis blowing over, many organisations have refrained from investing in the redesign of organisational modules and appraisal mechanisms.
There have also been many positive experiences, where trust and flexibility, responsibility and autonomy have been successfully combined. Yet the temptation is to apply a straitjacket—such as restricting the number of days worked away from headquarters or banning remote working adjacent to the weekend—while little is being done to develop evaluation schemes with the realisation of objectives rather than presenteeism as their yardstick.
Digital tools can emancipate ‘human capital’ from the most tiring and repetitive tasks, yet this is generally neglected in favour of surveillance bordering on the authoritarian. Rather than chasing the latest project-management or time-tracking applications, employers should value the unorthodox contributions, diversity and creativity flexibility can foster.
Remote working requires a cultural shift. Companies are starting to compete to attract talents not amenable to being squeezed into an unfulfilling, nine-to-five role. Policy-makers and social partners must be wary of implementing ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions likely to fail due to their rigidity, which is incompatible with the heterogeneity of economic operations. The most effective solutions are those tailored to the needs of businesses and workers through constant and constructive social dialogue.
Many qualitative studies have reported successful experiments in self-management, especially during phases of uncertainty, convincing even the most sceptical. To promote high-quality contributions, it is crucial to ensure full autonomy in time, space and organisation, so as to realise the emancipatory purpose of non-standard arrangements.
Many claim that this approach would depreciate office spaces in city centres, yet geographically centralised models have long impoverished the fabric of marginalised areas. Concerns have also been expressed about reduced socialisation, with relationships mediated by screens, but poorly designed offices can engender unsociable and even toxic environments, perhaps most of all for women.
The positions of recruits and those who have always been disadvantaged, as well as the weakening of already-precarious collective solidarity, are also at issue, but there is a vast distance between the pandemic version of remote working and the authentic mode. A more balanced formula would avoid a drift towards isolation while simultaneously fostering empowerment and trust.
South working facilitates spatial and social mobility, thereby offering a channel to reverse the depopulation and cultural impoverishment of ‘dream’ territories currently considered marginal. In rural or inland areas, remote working helps to mitigate gender gaps, modernise productive sectors and make cities less congested and repulsive.
Greater variability in living habits could reshape the balance between work and the environment in a virtuous way. With 2030 just around the corner, it is time to be pragmatic in terms of achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals—negotiating new organisational templates, collective agreements and company practices with the ambition to enable a more balanced way of working, consistent with the green and digital transitions.
A longer version of this article has been published in M Mirabile and E Militello (eds), South Working: Per un futuro sostenibile del lavoro agile in Italia, Donzelli Editore