Cover Story: CHIARA BISCONTI

This changes everything.

I met Chiara Bisconti in 2015 at a conference organized by the municipality of Bergamo titled “Smart Working Smart Companies” and I liked her immediately, that’s how I work. Something about her struck me, and in the boredom that sometimes accompanies long conferences, she held my attention. I remember clearly that I liked the way she spoke: clear, concise, direct but not at all superficial. I liked her decisive but courteous attitude, sure of herself but not patronizing. I liked, above all, her toughness, she was beautiful but … tough, as she came to propose to the city of Bergamo, to the businesses of Bergamo (my city perched on the hills like a castle) to overturn almost two centuries of entrepreneurial tradition, business history, efficient but notoriously patriarchal, family-oriented and unfortunately chauvinistic, with a completely different way of doing things. She explained how it does not make sense to reward those who stay at the office late over those who leave the office earlier, if the latter are actually just better organized; arguing that being physically present is not necessarily worth more than reaching objectives; underlining that a manager must know how to delegate; that a relationship built on mutual trust cannot be based  on clocking in and out and being forced to always take your holidays over the same two weeks in August (but always remain available, even on the beach!), but on constant feedback, clear objectives and transparent evaluations.

She was brave, let’s admit it. Courageous.

Six years later, a barefoot Chiara opens the front door to her bright Milanese apartment to me. It’s the end of June, it’s hot, and when she tells me to go ahead and take my shoes off, too, if I’d like to, I gratefully accept.

Chiara Bisconti was born in Novara in 1966 to Milanese parents – her mother was a professor of Literature and the first female secretary of the Milanese PCI (Italian Communist Party), and her father an executive. She grew up in this nontraditional family (“To give you an example: we didn’t celebrate Christmas!”) with an older sister and attended experimental Milanese schools first and then the Collegio delle Fanciulle, where she chose the linguistic specialization path before attending Bocconi University.

Her first job after graduating was at Nestlé (a Swiss multinational in the food processing industry), where she spent eight years working on trade marketing and sales and where she caught her first glimpses of what would be the dawn of smart working.

“The role of a salesperson has always been flexible, hasn’t it?”

Then she became a consultant, for a period of two years, a position more compatible with taking care of the two children she had had in the meantime. Then she worked at San Pellegrino S.p.A. (which was absorbed by Nestlé in 1999) in Human Resources, alongside a manager who offered her carte blanche to resolve any difficulties with regard to reconciling work and family life that female workers were experiencing. After all these years, she still remembers him as a man and a professional whose capacity for innovation and vision were stellar. Between 2002 and 2006 Chiara slowly but consistently untangled the complicated issue of work-life balance and sunk her hands into what remains to this day, I believe, the subject that is closest to her heart: time.

Time management, the value of time, and the energy that time well spent can generate.

What memories do you have, of those years?

My memories of that time are filled with passion, ideas, proposals and discussions. Multiple initiatives that saw the light of day: the Primavera project, which was initially dedicated to women and intended to support the management of working hours and private time. It became obvious how the underrepresentation of women, in many different work environments, was also due to the unequal ability to freely organize one’s own day  and participate in working life, at least compared with how it was for their male counterparts. We created a lively and collaborative network of women in Sanpellegrino who were ready to think things over, debate, create. I remember the first non-competitive run in the city organized by the group, with T-shirts with our own logos, and the first plenary meeting organized in a hotel to discuss the state of the art of gender equality and the opportunities that a smarter work model could offer all of us.

How did the first attempts go?

One day we arrived at the office to find two signs taped to the screens of a couple of colleagues who were working remotely. “We’re here!!!” they said.  – She laughs. – We were proposing a delicate paradigm shift, which was not easy. And yet the first experiments with smart working, for women and men, demonstrated how much being able to dispose of one’s own time and space made the work itself more fruitful, in addition to giving each individual the time to organize their private life in more fluid and manageable ways. It wasn’t immediately possible – it still isn’t – to make it clear to colleagues that even if a person isn’t physically present in the office, they’re still working.

It couldn’t be taken for granted – and still can’t – that people will question the idea that those who work later work more. (“Maybe they simply aren’t well organized and waste time on nonsense,” she adds with a wink.)

How did employees react to these changes?

The support of the Internal Communications team was fundamental.

It was important to communicate clearly  that smart working and working flexibly provide real advantages, human advantages, economic ones, logistical and organizational ones, for everyone, not just for a few privileged categories and – this is very important – not only to those who take advantage of it!

One of the most satisfying achievements I’d like to name was the first collective agreement we obtained before the law had been passed (published later as Law 22 May 2017 n.8 Ed. Note).

No mean feat, if you bear in mind, for example, the subjects of workplace safety and telematic disconnection, which are essential to designated workplaces.

One of the main focuses when the law was written was to ensure that the contract did not identify, in the person who benefits from remote working, a particular kind of worker but instead to have the law focus on the practice in itself, legitimizing smart working as one of the possible modes of working that are permitted and safeguarded.

Speaking of private lives … when was your third and youngest daughter born?

In 2008, alongside the opportunity to work part-time, an unusual feature for a manager … but, as we have said, it’s not quantity but quality that matters when it comes to time dedicated to working.

And then the mayor came along!

Exactly! Or rather, in June 2011 I received a proposal through the journalist Cinzia Sasso, to be part of Pisapia’s council (Giuliano Pisapia was Mayor of Milan between 2011 and 2016), which I accepted enthusiastically but also with some trepidation … and so, for five years, I was the council member for wellbeing and quality of life for the municipality of Milan.

And in five years one can get a lot done. Replacing O’s with A’s, for example.

You know better than I do how much weight words carry, I’ve seen the magazine’s new slogan (“Because words matter” Ed. Note) and I like it. It wasn’t easy to get them to call me assessora (instead of assessore, the male version which tends to be accepted as standard for men and women) but it was a necessary step. In addition, working in the public sector isn’t the same as working in the private sector – there isn’t a clearly defined management culture, no specific work objectives/targets are assigned and there are many structural deficits. Awareness (of one’s own role, importance and objectives) isn’t high and the transparency of processes leaves something to be desired. Therefore, even though smart working had been met with the resistance mentioned above in the private sector, transferring it to the public sector was a real struggle in comparison.

And yet, the public sector is the one Chiara prefers to work with the most and in which her sense of civic duty is satisfied. I remember the first Remote Working Day, inaugurated by Chiara herself, who was working for Philips at the time.

I remember it myself, and after experimenting with it for three years it has turned into a consolidated effect. Those days (because in the meantime they’ve “expanded” and turned into Smart Working Week, eds note) have always been supported by five universities at the organisational level, which are all part of the Scientific Committee that is drafting the territoriale plan for timetables. These have supported it in ways that incentivise smart working and make it possible to clearly identify the advantages of smart working: productivity, cost savings, reduced use of public transport, less traffic, lower CO2 emissions, a knock-on effect on shop opening hours … now we have the Smart Working Week, which is a great result for us.

What did you do after your experience working in administration in the public sector?

At the end of the mayor’s mandate and after taking a sabbatical year, I returned to Nestlé as a D&I leader, but after two years of this, the call of the collective was too strong and I left the business world again to take on the position of President of Milano Sport, which I am currently still doing, alongside consultancy work (on the subject of smart working and female leadership, naturally) and teaching a Master’s on D&I at the Politecnico di Milano.

What do you mean by female leadership? You know that I’m a little wary of these definitions, because I believe that leadership should be inclusive, full stop, regardless of the gender of the person who is leading.

Yes … yes. At the end of the day I agree. With regard to femininity: I’m convinced that there are some traits that are – usually – associated with women that I believe we need to work on, but I really don’t want to imply that we need to be “fixed”. 

My mantra is “stop fixing women”. I’m really tired of the idea that there is something wrong with us that needs to be fixed. I don’t think that women need to be improved. I believe that they have strong natural leadership capacities (such as creativity, intuition and empathy) that have traditionally been given little space or regard in organisations built according to male logic; I believe there are extraordinary capacities that women have that they must learn to recognise as having and learn to use with strength and conviction.

A hot topic: tell me what you think of critics of smart working, particularly during or following the Covid-19 pandemic.

I think that this global crisis created a very strong disruption and, by forcing the widespread adoption of this practice, has demonstrated in a way that couldn’t be done before that it is doable and useful. We passed this test we were subjected to. However, there is no doubt that the tool we used for the last few months was not “pure” smart working but rather a watered down version of it, because it  was forced and continuous. Those two characteristics are far from what smart working was originally intended to be. Working remotely is a choice to be made freely, and to help people to understand it, we need to reposition it in the public discourse. It must be re-explained, described better and spread carefully and precisely. It’s sustainable at the national level and that gives us a unique and possibly unrepeatable opportunity. It could create a new, virtuous balance between North and South. Between the periphery and the centre. The geography of the entire country could be rethought: what do we do, now, with those skyscrapers built in cities to house hundreds of people, now that we have discovered that it’s possible to work from anywhere and with better results?

What is the main issue, then?

This. Many claim that not everyone can take advantage of opportunities to work remotely – for example because of the specific tasks involved in doing their jobs – and that it can therefore not be considered a democratic opportunity available to all. In reality, however, the value of smart working is (or at least should be) this: the surplus value that is created (and I’m referring specifically to earnings) thanks to the fact that some people can work in different ways, is redistributed to everyone. That is, it goes to those who have created it by “working remotely” and to those who were not able to do so. It is created because businesses  can downsize offices and reduce expenses related to workers being physically present, for example.

This cost-saving must benefit the entire collective (whether in the business world or the public sector). I am convinced that it can be done. An operation of this type, with this kind of critical mass, creates value for the entire collective and generates happiness and wellbeing for so many people. Smart working generates individual happiness for those who choose it and the collective happiness of the community in which smart working is used. So we need to get to work. This changes everything!

PUBLISHED ARTICLE IN DIVERCITY VIII September 2020

Spread inclusion all around the globe

Author: administer