How Coronavirus Is Sweeping Away Social Norms

The Coronavirus disease is simply changing Italian social patterns, especially in the Northern regions.

Smart-working Coronavirus

Among other things, the Coronavirus disease is increasing the phenomenon of smart-working

History teaches us that exceptional events always result in dramatic changes in societies. For example, the Great Plague of 1348 undermined Medieval society, bringing about a flourishing period, especially with regard to employment.

After more than 600 years, such reasoning is still applicable — with all due caution — to our current situation. In fact, it is common knowledge that the coronavirus disease is spreading all over the world, claiming its victims especially in China, South Korea, Iran and Italy, which is interestingly the most affected European country. Now that we are in the middle of the outbreak, it is hard to assess whether the virus can have a permanent social impact. Let’s go through and analyze the situation, with respect to employment in Italy.

An unexpected propagation of the disease

Net of the number of tests carried out, officially the largest European outbreak of coronavirus is in Italy, as Northern regions (Lombardy, Emilia–Romagna and Veneto) are currently registering deaths and infections of the coronavirus. In order to contain the epidemic, the government has quarantined dozen of towns, shuttered schools and museums and canceled soccer games.

Alarm over the disease is fueling hysteria and fears among people, as some of them are storming grocery stores in order to stockpile food and basic necessities. Among cases of false reports and Matteo Salvini calling for the closing of ports (wasn’t the virus from China?), we are trying to find an upside in the situation. It is certainly difficult, considering that Chinese (and Asian communities in general) have been targeted by boycotts and even violent assaults in scenes of medieval manhunt.

But we need to persist and try to find a plus side in this situation.

A small crack in a motionless scenario

It is unquestionable that the Coronavirus is causing problems to our everyday activities, especially for working people who do not feel safe to leave their homes. Consequently, the emergency makes more people work from home, tremendously increasing the phenomenon of smart-working.

Smart-working in Italian refers to an agile workstyle, where people can work from home, focusing on achieving certain targets rather than relying on business hours. Italy lacks an agile work culture, as less than 5% of the Italian workforce works from home, ranking 21st among all European countries. In a social and cultural context where there is a stronger focus on work-life balance, this is unacceptable.

Perhaps, we should thank the Coronavirus, since the disease is dramatically increasing the number of people comfortably working from their homes. In order to not lose productivity, the Italian government has surprisingly listened to Italian companies’ needs, issuing a decree that streamlines the smart-working system. In fact, while beforehand a company had to reach a formal agreement with the worker and register the understanding with the Ministry of Labor, now a company just needs to reach a verbal agreement with the employee.

Does Italy really need smart-working?

This is great news. Statistics show that smart-working in Italy is tremendously difficult to promote, due to cultural and economic reasons. First, the Italian economic system strongly relies on manufacturing, which is by its very nature a sector where smart-working is hardly feasible. Second, according to the National Statistics Service, 95% of Italian companies are classified as “small or medium,” with less than 250 workers. As a consequence, the smaller the company, the harder it is to invest in alternative working situations, due to a lack of financial capital that bigger companies do have. Less money means less investment in the employees’ welfare. Last, Italy is the European leader for self-employed workers, since more than 5 million people have a VAT registration number.  While professionals have the chance to manage their work flow on their own time, the truth of the matter is that many people in the workforce, especially those who are younger, are essentially being forced to open a VAT number only to work as a regular employee.

However, there are not only economic reasons, but cultural aspects as well which are worth analyzing.

Cultural aspects behind an inflexible job market

A report by the multinational company Randstad, the second largest provider for human resources’ services, clearly states that a lot of workers have all the right conditions in order to work from home, but many cultural boundaries hinder this from happening. According to Carlo De Angelis, an architect and founder of DEC (an Italian interior design firm), smart-working in Italy is failing because there is a lack of proper management culture.

It is true in fact that Italian managers commonly accept that productivity is tied to the hours spent in the office. Instead, it would be a great asset, both for the company and for the employees, to work towards targets. Achieving goals, rather than working 8 hours per day at the same desk, puts the focus on the worker, who is given responsibilities and a certain amount of autonomy. It is a win-win solution, since both parties may benefit from unquestioning advantages: while the company gains more productivity and fewer expenses, the employee can plan their own work according to their needs, benefiting from a less stressful life. Older workers would be happier to work from home, compensating for the increasing retirement age. Environmental and traffic conditions might even profit from smart-working too, as less people need to use their cars to go to their workplaces.

Shaking a motionless Italy

Perhaps it is true that Italy needs exceptional events to shake a stagnating country. We should hope that measures on smart-working become permanent, unlocking a door towards a more manageable work. If it happens, Italians probably need to thank the first and most hysteric plague of the social media era.

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