‘South working’: the future of remote work


This article is reposted with permission of Social Europe: https://socialeurope.eu/south-working-the-future-of-remote-work

If remote working is no longer to be temporary, workers could revitalise previously ‘remote’ areas.

south working,remote work
Well, maybe … (Olesya Kuznetsova / shutterstock.com)

The pandemic has upset rules and habits long entrenched in our lives. Yet the most profound shift is arguably in how we understand and valuework.

Most people have been prompted to re-examine their role within their professional community, assess their career prospects and reconsider their relationship with their bosses. Through accelerating a long-overdue modernisation, the pandemic has proved that working outside the office can be pleasant and advantageous for a wide range of employees and professionals.

Many workers have chosen to move from cities to low-density areas in their home regions or to migrate to sunnier climes, thereby benefiting from the availability of ample space, improved working conditions and a better quality of life. Over the last few years, such ‘south working’—remote working from rural and inland areas—has become widely practised.

Antiquated structures

Remote work as an organisational model was already available within the traditional regulatory arsenal, if rarely implemented before 2020. But as a result of the lockdowns it has been tested on a large scale, albeit in an exceptional regime. This has reshuffled the characteristics of remote work—voluntariness and alternation between the workplace and remote days—partly redefining its purpose.

Simultaneously, antiquated organisational structures, in which rigidities of function are coupled with ‘presenteeism’ and control mania, have reached a crisis point. The absurdities of the top-down approach have been revealed, especially in light of the first reassuring data concerning the productivity of remote workers.

Workers have overcome significant obstacles, participated in impromptu upskilling and contributed responsibly to business continuity. Preliminary surveys have revealed a broad appreciation for these arrangements, leading many large companies—not necessarily technology-oriented ones—to give up their offices, given the substantial savings, and shrink face-to-face activities.

To advocate a return to the prior approach to work would be illogical: it would ‘waste a good crisis’, renouncing one of its most important legacies. Rather, the urgent need is to transform flexible arrangements into an opportunity to achieve a better work-life balance, reduce gender inequalities and digitalise public administration.

New prospects

The transformation facilitated by south-working arrangements affects economic geography and social anthropology. After centuries of the demographic development of places depending exclusively on their productive capacity, the breaking of the Aristotelian unity of place and work represents a Copernican revolution for the Mediterranean countries, which have faced centuries of mass emigration.

The attractiveness of places is no longer solely dictated by economic activities but also by workers’ aspirations and choices. Thus, new prospects emerge for those areas that have suffered apparently inexorable depopulation and ‘brain drain’. In particular, southern and inland areas, characterised by a distance from essential services which makes everyday life difficult, can shape an alternative future where local economies are revived and decline reversed.

Policy-makers in Italy, Ireland, Spain, Greece, Croatia and the United States have incentivised counter-intuitive housing choices to revitalise communities. Where aggressive measures are adopted, such as houses being sold for a euro, the aim is to rehabilitate the housing stock; in other cases, where local taxation is redesigned to promote the settlement of families, the aim is to regenerate communities in harmony with their history and roots.

Increasingly, measures are being introduced to encourage remote work. This requires offering incentives in terms of taxation, critical infrastructure, work-related equipment and places that allow workers to socialise, such as community co-working spaces.

When the pandemic finally passes, it will be crucial to measure whether and to what extent south working has contributed to the repopulation (or even just slowed the depopulation) of marginal areas. Such areas have a great opportunity, albeit accompanied by a great challenge: citizenship and public services, cultural offerings and social ‘liveability’ will have to become magnets—or even the most romantic of places will lose their attractiveness and remain niche phenomena, if not subject to outright speculation.

Shortcomings and resistances

The pandemic ‘variant’ of remote work cannot be applicable to ‘ordinary’ times. Yet the associated upheaval has highlighted the weaknesses of many organisations, some of which have paid dearly for tardiness in updating their managerial culture.

In the public sector, many shortcomings and resistances have been revealed, ranging from a failure to digitise files to a shortage of mobile devices, from poor planning to a lack of cybersecurity. Responsibility for such failures and oversights needs to be firmly attributed, lest the resultant bottlenecks provide the perfect alibi for a backwardness which undermines the credibility of the sector.

Unsupervised workers have shown unparalleled tenacity during the pandemic. Yet, many bosses have replicated the ‘panopticon’ workplace by developing not-so-infallible tools for measuring workers’ performance down to the second, often with unconvincing or counterproductive results.

There have been excessive demands to keep track of every completed action, turn on the camera to demonstrate that no distractions are present or attend excessive co-ordination meetings to boost engagement. Betting on the crisis blowing over, many organisations have refrained from investing in the redesign of organisational modules and appraisal mechanisms.

Positive experiences

There have also been many positive experiences, where trust and flexibility, responsibility and autonomy have been successfully combined. Yet the temptation is to apply a straitjacket—such as restricting the number of days worked away from headquarters or banning remote working adjacent to the weekend—while little is being done to develop evaluation schemes with the realisation of objectives rather than presenteeism as their yardstick.

Digital tools can emancipate ‘human capital’ from the most tiring and repetitive tasks, yet this is generally neglected in favour of surveillance bordering on the authoritarian. Rather than chasing the latest project-management or time-tracking applications, employers should value the unorthodox contributions, diversity and creativity flexibility can foster.

Remote working requires a cultural shift. Companies are starting to compete to attract talents not amenable to being squeezed into an unfulfilling, nine-to-five role. Policy-makers and social partners must be wary of implementing ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions likely to fail due to their rigidity, which is incompatible with the heterogeneity of economic operations. The most effective solutions are those tailored to the needs of businesses and workers through constant and constructive social dialogue.

Many qualitative studies have reported successful experiments in self-management, especially during phases of uncertainty, convincing even the most sceptical. To promote high-quality contributions, it is crucial to ensure full autonomy in time, space and organisation, so as to realise the emancipatory purpose of non-standard arrangements.

Balanced formula

Many claim that this approach would depreciate office spaces in city centres, yet geographically centralised models have long impoverished the fabric of marginalised areas. Concerns have also been expressed about reduced socialisation, with relationships mediated by screens, but poorly designed offices can engender unsociable and even toxic environments, perhaps most of all for women.

The positions of recruits and those who have always been disadvantaged, as well as the weakening of already-precarious collective solidarity, are also at issue, but there is a vast distance between the pandemic version of remote working and the authentic mode. A more balanced formula would avoid a drift towards isolation while simultaneously fostering empowerment and trust.

South working facilitates spatial and social mobility, thereby offering a channel to reverse the depopulation and cultural impoverishment of ‘dream’ territories currently considered marginal. In rural or inland areas, remote working helps to mitigate gender gaps, modernise productive sectors and make cities less congested and repulsive.

Greater variability in living habits could reshape the balance between work and the environment in a virtuous way. With 2030 just around the corner, it is time to be pragmatic in terms of achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals—negotiating new organisational templates, collective agreements and company practices with the ambition to enable a more balanced way of working, consistent with the green and digital transitions.

A longer version of this article has been published in M Mirabile and E Militello (eds), South Working: Per un futuro sostenibile del lavoro agile in Italia, Donzelli Editore


Antonio Aloisi is Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow and assistant professor of European and comparative labour law at IE Law School, IE University, Madrid.


Luisa Corazza is professor of labour law at the University of Molise, where she directs the Research Centre for Inner Areas and Appennines (ArIA), and special adviser on social affairs to the president of Italy, Sergio Mattarella.

One comment

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    Why I think media advertising is unethical

    Is it fair to guess that if something has no love in it there is a good chance it could be unethical? With no evidence we would start with three options; ethical, unethical, and non-ethical.

    Employing epistemological humility I acknowledge that I could be wrong and that my conclusions are not supported by a full body of evidence. Out of necessity, I have used heuristics to arrive at my conclusions. Working alone I do not have the time to gather and analyze enough data to prove this, in a totally empirical way. I also lack the funds to employ others to help with that work. My gratitude goes out to my immediate community and families that help me understand things. It should also be noted there seems to be no evidence based argument explaining why advertising should be considered to be ethical.

    I have thought, if you take for example one of the big commercial monopoly internet intermediaries like YouTube, Google, Facebook or Twitter, it can be observed they are taking huge profits with their advertising business. The question arrises, where exactly is all that money coming from?

    I think there are several things that are responsible for generating that immense cash flow into their control. A body of law that enables commercial media industry to be directly geared into a feedback loop that is accelerating exponentially. A monopoly is occurring where almost all advertising transactions take place via a particular firms service and the service takes a fee off all transactions. As a result to be in business competitively, businesses are forced to use and therefore pay a fee to the service. The Monopoly is double. It is a monopoly over social communications as well as a monopoly over advertising. As a result, to be connected to distant members of society one must use the monopoly service. This ends up being sort of (protection racketee). It is looking more and more like that the biggest profits come from taking fees from those who want to spread hate and lies, and want to profit from deception. (a seriously corrupt and ugly reality) Firms are taking a commission from every online bad act.

    Cash Flow A first step in seeing where the money comes from is the observation that firms that want to advertise their product or service are the most immediate source, but where do those firms get the money from? We have to assume that even though there is no guarantee for a particular firm that their purchase of advertising is going to result in a profit, over all on balance the purchase of advertising does result in increased profits. Otherwise firms would not continue to invest billions in advertising. The cash at the root is coming out of individuals pockets.

    Artificial Demand So how does advertising generate profits for firms? It creates artificial demand, which means it makes people want to, and to follow through on purchasing something that they otherwise were not desiring to purchase. This is the same for election campaign advertising which influences voters to vote in a particular way.

    The competition for market share Each consumer has limited funds so they end up being actors in a zero sum game where merchants from all industries compete for market share. As soon as one merchant’s advertising succeeds in making a sale to a particular consumer, all other merchants instantly have a lower chance and approach zero chance to make a sale to that consumer at that point in time. Being the first to make the sale guarantees in most cases that the competition will not make what was a potential sale.

    A Zero Sum Game The Rich Play and Win One unethical thing about this zero sum game is that although there are exceptions, overall the wealthier firms win because they can push their pitch with more force. The exceptions are often results of creative or gorilla war style marketing actions.

    Falling into poverty The most unethical thing to my mind though is that with this arrangement, advertising’s creation of artificial demand constantly inflates the cost of living pushing people near the bottom further to the bottom of the living standard range.

    Conclusion and a propose solution Therefore concluding that media advertising is unethical I am proposing that we create a new digital public service that is free of advertising rather than trying to regulate, tax, and break up the private firms that presently dominate the market for communication services. The Digital Public Library Proposal for Democratic Media Reform is outlined online at this link — https://no-ads.ca

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