Smart working in Italy: From the exception to the rule?

Criticized by some, praised by others, “smart working” has given way, in recent times and especially in the service sector, to an unprecedented organizational and process change. If, in fact, at the beginning of the health emergency it was mostly experienced by (Italian) companies as a "necessary evil," a few months later, smart working has gradually transformed into a real cultural revolution and, for those most sensitive to the topic, also an environmental one.

Smart working was introduced into Italy’s legal system with Law 22 May 2017, n. 81 with the aim of promoting a performance-oriented form of work by objectives—and not so much based on the time spent at the desk—to potentially increase efficiency and competitiveness and, at the same time, promote a better work-life balance. With rare exceptions, smart working had been limited to multinational companies operating in Italy, and, until recently, was still an unknown institution or only partially used. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, smart working has been de facto imposed with great effectiveness in the Italian system.

The first COVID-19-related emergency decree (Prime Ministerial Decree of 1 March 2020) eased certain restrictions on smart working. Specifically, this decree dispensed with the requirement that parties consent to this work system, allowing flexibility both on the safety front (e.g., making it easier for the employer to comply with health and safety regulations related to smart working) and administratively, by introducing simplified mandatory communications procedures to labor authorities, including the possibility for the employer to send one single notification to Labor authorities for as many employees as needed. These improvements, which have all been reiterated in the numerous emergency measures that followed, will be in force until October 15, 2020.

Smart working has even played a role in safety legislation. The shared protocol for regulating measures to combat and contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the workplace, entered into between the government and Unions on March 14, 2020 and subsequently updated on April 24, 2020, has expressly requested that companies maximize the use of smart working for all those activities suitable to be carried out by the worker at home or remotely.

Once the lockdown ended, but not the health emergency, smart working continued to establish itself as a valid tool to allow companies to resume activities safely and workers to manage their personal obligations disrupted by the pandemic, such as dealing with school and childcare services closures. In fact, Legislative Decree May 19, 2020, n. 34 sealed the right of private-sector working parents with children under 14 to make use of the smart working method, even in the absence of the individual agreements with their employers. Data indicates employees have widely exercised this right.

It is still hard to predict if, once the pandemic is over, smart working will become an ordinary way of carrying out work in Italy, as is already the case in other countries. What is certain is that employers—even more so in the face of surveys that reveal that 6 out of 10 workers would like to continue working from home even at the end of the health emergency—will have to decide whether to employ a system that on the one hand can reduce costs (e.g., less need for office space), but on the other hand could affect interpersonal relationships that develop with in-person office interaction, which even in the world of work has value.  

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.