«Epidemics, like disasters, have a way of revealing underlying truths about the societies they impact». Anne Applebaum, a journalist for «The Atlantic» who was in a desolate Bologna under lockdown at the beginning of March, used this revealing sentence in an op-ed praising the reaction of Italian universal health system to the dramatic outbreak of Covid19. This is an incontrovertible truth: not only moments of great stress allow us to rethink the habits of life and work, but also urge us to reassess the sustainability of consolidated models. In addition, such unpredictable events end up having harmful consequences precisely because they risk turning unpreparedness, and even superficiality, into disaster, thus exacerbating fragilities along physical, social, economic and psychological lines. It goes without saying, this is not a drill and we all would have gladly done without the far-reaching challenges posed by the pandemic. Nevertheless, the adversities caused by the infectious disease and the consequent social distancing have already demonstrated the poor ability to predict risks and the inability to manage a calamity that «quarantines» every routine.
Since the end of February, in a frenzied fashion, governments, health and local authorities have been facing an aggressive virus many elements of which are still ignored (but whose lethality is evident). While all populist rhetoric crumbled due to the nemesis of «closed borders» for the majority of us, European countries have been confronted with a health crisis like few others before. There have been many errors, unfortunately: the reaction of many countries was conspicuous by its slowness and indulgent indifference to the rhythms of diffusion that the Italian case reported. All productive sectors, as well as the public administration and education of all levels, are going through a phase of shock. As explained by the Ilo in an instant briefing note, «prospects for the economy and the quantity and quality of employment are deteriorating rapidly». At the social level, the emergency has aggravated pre-existing polarizations (between places, generations, classes, sectors) with which we are called to deal now and in the near future. To cope with this unprecedented crisis, we would need to test and implement exceptional solutions. This should also prompt to rethink traditional institutional approaches, by investing in a stronger social safety net thanks to colossal cash injections.
Our analysis dwells on work and, therefore, on people and businesses, which have suffered the repercussions of the spread of the virus (traffic bans, closure of schools and offices, reduction in public transport, distribution in tilt, half-service facilities). In particular, we will review recent developments, national reactions and business plans. However, it cannot be denied that the discomfort of these months has acted as a «magnifying glass» of deeper issues that affect the changing world of work. All this would warrant attention even in «uninteresting» moments, just to avoid that the analysis be spoiled by an emergency logic. Once the phase of maximum alarm passes, it will be necessary to invest a lot time and money to heal the wounds. Redistribution and fairness will be essential. At the moment, Eu and national institutions are mobilising significant means to reinforce our public health sectors and mitigate the socio-economic impact of the outbreak by adopting disruptive budgetary measures. Europeans have shown tenacity in equally serious circumstances, and we can expect that history will repeat itself.
In a global battle against the epidemic, workers, families and businesses have had to review many ordinary practices, relying on experimentalism and improvised solutions. Firms have struggled to accept that not everything could be maintained as business as usual. Many companies were reluctant, on the one hand, to comply with the invitations to limit people’s movement and interaction of workers and, on the other hand, to understand the difficulties of those workers who, for example, found themselves with additional caring responsibilities at a time when all childcare and education services were suspended. They pretended not to understand that, in the face of the epidemic, the business interests could not be put before those of collective health and safety. Nor did they understand that migrating to forms of remote work could not guarantee ordinary operations, both because working in a crowded apartment is not the same as having a «dedicated» smart work station, and because the pace of life is in any case altered: just think of the long queues outside supermarkets and grocery stores. In some cases, strikes and demonstrations were necessary to send a clear message; and public authorities were often too shy to take more drastic measures.
We have therefore been faced with some contradictions of our era. In a globalised model, the most (inter)dependent sectors were the first to suffer the consequences of the current emergency. At the same time, even geographical areas that can be described as «hyper-connected» have struggled with deviations from the standard. The issue of remote work has overwhelmingly resurfaced. However, flexible arrangements can only be implemented in certain industries, particularly in service-based sectors. Remote working is a privilege that not everyone can afford. This is due to the nature of the sectors, of course, but also to the content of the tasks, company culture, age characteristics of the workforce, infrastructural, organizational and business backwardness. Technology was depicted as a panacea that would allow overcoming the crisis. Very soon, everyone had to realize that, in spite of the mainstream rhetoric, there are no digital solutions to organizational or even cultural problems. It is perhaps useful to rewind the tape of these difficult weeks to analyse the effectiveness of the model of remote working, its limits, and also – in optimistic perspective – the adjustments that should be adopted in the future in order not to waste the experience.
As in France, the Italian version of remote work (relabelled «agile») received a strong regulatory boost in 2017. The law encourages this model «in order to increase competitiveness and facilitate the reconciliation of life and work time». It is an option for both the private and public sectors, it can be implemented following a collective agreement and an individual written covenant. Although the legal framework leaves every spatial solution open («outside company premises with no fixed location»), the time limits are anchored to the maximum statutory daily and weekly working hours. The lawmakers aimed at increasing productivity, ensuring a virtuous balance between private and professional life and redistributing the savings (e.g. reduced office spaces, non-essential business travel and heavy commuting) by means of light forms of welfare. These flexible models are based on the assumption that modern work rejects rigid work patterns, does not sit at ease with vertical structures and pursues organizational autonomy, using technology in an emancipatory way. Very often, this assumption is merely an empty promise that was simply not kept.
Firms retain the managerial prerogatives of organising, monitoring and disciplining workers, within the limits imposed by law and collective agreements. Employers are supposed to ensure the occupational health and safety of the worker to provide information about the general and specific work-related risks. Employers are also responsible for the proper functioning of the technological devices made available to the worker. In Italy and Spain the emergency has streamlined a number of formal obligations. This has resulted in a simplified variant dictated by preventive and precautionary purposes. For instance, remote work can be arranged without a prior agreement. This move benefited companies that had previously designed alternative processes and, for example, equipped their employees with laptops with secure, collaborative software. On the other hand, those who suddenly had to coordinate teams of workers via chat, without a predefined plan, suffered greatly from the lack of training. To be effective and authentic, remote work requires a managerial quality leap that shifts the evaluation of work performance to outputs rather than on the mere physical attendance at work.
Therefore, this flexible format has shed its skin: from a temporary experiment to a solution imposed by events. Among other things, precautionary measures were entirely skipped, including those related to the protection of personal data, let alone the provision of adequate Osh plans and ergonomic equipment. In many Eu countries, the first guidelines issued by Governments, in fact, indicated remote work as an «optional choice», not as a mandatory solution whenever possible. Precious time was lost while many companies, especially small and medium enterprises, forced their employees to go to work even for non-essential services or for activities that could be executed remotely. It took days to realise that keeping businesses open was only acceptable when there was no alternative and just for services essential to deal with the epidemic. Many governments were extremely reluctant to impose truly effective lockdowns, beyond purely paying lip service to the emergency.
Moreover, remote work is just possible for a fraction of work activities. The emphasis placed on «remote formats» risks obscuring the impact of the emergency on the many who cannot afford the luxury of working from home. In all Eu countries, the productive fabric is extremely heterogeneous and, even from a statistical point of view, white-collar workers in metropolitan areas represent an overexposed minority. Also, many ordinarily undervalued occupations have proved to be indispensable, thus becoming «public utilities» in a time of tightness due to the Covid19. Not only paramedical and pharmaceutical staff, but also cleaners expected to sanitize environments and means of transport, public employees providing essential services, domestic workers offering essential care, cashiers and contractors committed to keeping transport, logistics and distribution on track. Couriers in the so-called last-mile logistics experience on the ground the quandary of being exposed to the contagion when they have to reach customers whose state of health they ignore, and to be «instructed» on how to strengthen prevention measures from platforms shedding their responsibilities away. Often, they also have to buy masks, gloves, gel and wipes at their own expense.
The contrast between «advanced» sectors and low-paid jobs confirms that those who are weak from a contractual and economic point of view suffer the most severe consequences of the ongoing health crisis. Robust incentives in the form of fiscal or financial support are being designed to help businesses and families. At the same time, bogus and dependent self-employed workers as well as zero-hour and on-call workers are bearing most of the brunt of the crisis. They cannot suspend their activities if they want to make ends and are even more directly exposed to infection risks, thus becoming vectors of the virus, to the detriment of their families and colleagues. Precarious work makes our societies precarious, since it transfers the effects of distorted business models onto the individuals. Of course, there is nothing new about all this. Yet it is only because of the emergency that people have begun to realize how insecurity for individuals has huge social repercussions. Despite the implementation of «homeopathic» measures such as «contactless deliveries» or «partial financial assistance» in case of sickness, vulnerable workers have to go to work even with fever, because they would otherwise not even earn the already insulting pay they already get.
Besides calls to strictly follow recommendations, the epidemic has thrown almost all aspects of our lives (work, study, leisure) in a precarious state of uncertainty. The naive deception that a medical crisis could have been faced by means of aperitifs, shopping in neighbourhood stores and romantic hashtags clashed with the reality of health systems that had been severely challenged and put under pressure. It has been hard to convince everyone to take the threat seriously. Besides, asking people to decide whether they favour their health or their livelihood was a false choice. As explained by the economist Alberto Bisin (Nyu), «people in fear do not work productively, they do not abide by laws, social norms, or any other mean of social coordination». The imperfect management of the emergency risks leaving many traumas. A new social compact is needed to overcome the crisis. As Yuval Noah Harari pointed out, the decisions people and governments will take in the next few weeks «will probably shape not just our healthcare systems but also our economy, politics and culture» for years to come.
What can we learn from this dreadful misfortune? Are we working to shape the world of work beyond the pandemic? This unsought experiment encapsulates some serious warnings. Perhaps this unsolicited crisis will give companies the opportunity to start overcoming their «presenteeism» logic, by using digital and human connections to loosen the over-subordination. Maybe, given the reluctance to use remote forms of work even in time of a global epidemic, a new regulation will be necessary to oblige companies to do it better by developing new organizational strategies. Perhaps universalistic and less impalpable protections will be advanced for those who are engaged in under-protected relationships (not only gig-workers, but the whole crowd of bogus self-employed workers, on-demand workers, own-account professionals, micro-entrepreneurs and those in non-standard forms of employment). Porous workplaces, smart working and the latest generation of tech tools must accompany this transition, but they cannot replace a necessary joint effort to put at the centre such fundamental values as widespread solidarity and collective social responsibility. Are we ready to go further on this route?