Transformed or Transferred? How Workers Perceive Managerial Control over Home Telework. Some Insights from an Italian Case
Francesco Eugenio Iannuzzi et Francesco Campolongo
Volume : 78-1 (2023)
Telework has long been debated as either promoting greater employee autonomy or leading to increased managerial control. Previous research on telework has been influenced by specific circumstances and often treated teleworkers as a homogeneous group, neglecting within-group differences and organizational disparities that can yield inconsistent results. Francesco Eugenio Iannuzzi and Francesco Campolongo focused on the perception of control among teleworkers in various occupations within an Italian context. They aimed to understand how telework modified managerial control processes and systems, examining the experiences of workers in different organizational forms and managerial cultures.
The study, conducted during the early waves of the pandemic in Italy, revealed that the emergency restructuring caused by home telework resulted in a transfer of existing organizational conditions. Managers relied on a combination of pre-existing methods, standards, and forms of control to fill the gap left by the transition to telework. This challenges the simplistic association between telework and reduced control, as well as the notion that telework fundamentally transforms organizational processes.
Before the pandemic, telework was relatively uncommon in Italy, with only 1.6% of employees having prior experience. However, with the need to remove workers from the workplace, the adoption of telework surged, reaching 18.6% of the Italian workforce. This sudden shift provided an opportunity to examine the gap between telework discourse and its practical implementation, as well as the impact on coordination and control of teleworkers.
The study draws on the concept of "layers of control" proposed by Storey in 1985. It argues that control in telework settings is a dynamic field shaped by the interaction between management and worker action. Workers' responses to control create a dialectical relationship between control and resistance, with multiple layers of control strengthening or replacing each other as they evolve. The study challenges the notion of a linear progression towards new forms of control, highlighting the continuity and fusion of different control forms within organizations.
To compensate for reduced visibility, companies may employ various practices and techniques that differ in intensity and combination depending on the nature of the job and required discretion. And, far from reducing ingrained bureaucratic practices, telework appears to have encouraged their intensification and, in some cases, led to the introduction of new bureaucratic norms. rather than witnessing new forms of control being developed and tried out, we are instead seeing existing forms of control breaking down and recombining in heterogeneous and variable ways (direct, bureaucratic, technical and technological), as well as their contingent adaptation to the new organizational structure.
Thus, without major innovations, existing forms and systems of control were transferred to telework, thereby leading to new tensions due to the contradictions between, on the one hand, a discourse that emphasizes autonomy and trust and, on the other, a surveillance that forces workers to prove they are at work and always behaving appropriately.