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Disorganized Smart-working opens the door to online freelancing

Davide Dazzi, Ires Emilia-Romagna and OpenCorporation

As Ornella La Tegola has already pointed out in this Blog, during the pandemic it would be improper to talk about smart work or even just agile work. It would be more appropriate to speak of compulsory remote work from home. If agile work primarily lacks the voluntary nature of the choice, smart work lacks the organizational challenge. Although in general publicity and, unfortunately, also in the academic and trade union worlds, there is a casual use of the terms smart work, agile work and remote work, often using them as synonyms, the terms are not perfectly overlapping. Smart work is not the same thing as agile work: agile work might not even be smart.

In its legislative formation (Law 81/2017), agile work responds to a dual purpose. A welfare-related purpose that responds to the need to promote the reconciliation of life time and work time and an organizational purpose that is to increase business competitiveness through “forms of organization based on phases, cycles and objectives“. To this double dimension on which the law on agile work rests, a third has been added during this pandemic period: a sanitary dimension, or purpose, where the main objective is to limit contagion.

While some authors define legislation on agile work as immature (Senatori, Il lavoro agile in cerca di identità, 2020), precisely because of its uncertain progress between the two original dimensions, bargaining also seems not to maintain a balance between the two main purposes of agile work and to lean more towards the self-sufficiency dimension/finality, highlighting the union’s difficulty in negotiating true smart work paths. Or, at best, in the direction of a medical purpose, as even the public managers’ union (Unadis) has criticized the provision on Smart-Work in the public sector of 19 October issued by the Ministry of Public Administration.

In fact, contracts or agreements concluded both in the pre-pandemic phase and in the post-lock-down phase in which precise and measurable references to the organization of work and to organizational models based on objectives inspired by the correct application of smart work are rare. Although there are many contractual experiences, both at first and second level, of declining agile work in a pandemic context, the following seems to prevail

“an almost uniform model based on the possibility of carrying out work remotely within certain time frames”.

(Aloisi e De Stefano, Il tuo capo è un algoritmo, 2020)

The remoting of the work performance without a redesign of the organization of the work process intertwined with digital technologies risks putting agile work in competition with the digital job market, the so-called online freelancing (eg. Amazon Mechanical Turk). If, therefore, the process of “smartization” of work – borrowing a term coined by the current Minister of Public Administration – develops exclusively in a self-sufficient direction and not also in an organizational one, pieces of subordinate work will be handed over to the competition offered by the digital market. In other words, if a high level of competitiveness of smart work is not pursued, in which an organizational-identity link is built through bargaining between digital and analogue, and between in-person and remote work, there is a risk of relocation of work through digital platforms. In digital work, the low transaction costs offered by the capacity for intermediation and parceling out of work by crowd-working platforms undoubtedly favor the outsourcing of work on a global scale.

“Local remote work is the beginning of a new era that is opening up the service industry to telemigration.”

(Baldwin, The Globotics Upheaval, 2019)

Online Labour Index, May 3rd 2016 to January 4th 2021

Source: ILO, Otto Kässi, Vili Lehdonvirta, Online labour index: Measuring the online Gig Economy for policy and research, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Volume 137, 2018, Pages 241-248

It is not surprising, in fact, that the use of online freelancing has grown rapidly during lock down periods, as shown by the Online Labour Index produced by the ILO. In March 2020 and then again in the closing months of 2020 there will be significant growth in online freelancing worldwide as a result of two opposing forces:

  • Social distancing and restrictive measures have inevitably produced an upsurge in the processes of outsourcing of work services.
  • Downscaling, or a process of rationalizing corporate outsourcing in the face of a contraction of the economic system due to the pandemic.

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