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Cafe culture and clocking out: Why remote work is so unpopular in Italy

The era of working from home in Italy ended with the Covid pandemic as Italians still overwhelmingly prefer to commute to the office and network in person, writes Silvia Marchetti.

Cafe culture and clocking out: Why remote work is so unpopular in Italy
For many Italians the office is an important social hub - and the solitude of working from home is unbearable. Photo by Yasmina H on Unsplash

With the Covid pandemic over, most Italians are now back to the office, sitting behind their desks and again clocking in at work. What happened to remote working or teleworking (also called ‘smart working’ in Italy)?

In my view this is (or was) the greatest novelty to come out of the pandemic, but it does not seem to have stuck in Italy. What have we learned from the pandemic about revolutionising the traditional workplace? Nulla.

Almost 80 percent of Italians worked from home during the pandemic – mostly for the first time, as the concept was almost unheard of before. But just 14.9 percent still work remotely today.

One reason for this is the simple fact that Italians need to hang out. They’re real political animals and for many the office is their most important social hub, after the family setting.

Unlike in other Western countries, the office is where 90 percent of one’s career is built by networking and PR, rather than on real merit and achievement. My dad always says that an after-lunch espresso with “important colleagues” is more valuable than a 12-hour shift sitting in front of a computer.

Italians have a saying: “le conoscenze contano”, meaning that knowing the right people can advance your career.

I once had a job contract at a leading industrial lobby in Rome, and I remember hours spent at the bar or having lunch chatting with colleagues and employees about future projects and summits, when all I wanted to do was rush through the speeches and papers I had to write. Eventually, I quit.

READ ALSO: ‘It’s crazy’: What to expect when you work for an Italian company

Italians are also very physical in everything they do, so the workplace must be a concrete spot, set apart from home. 

Multi-tasking is hard, and flexibility at work is as feared as the plague. It is seen as working seven days a week, on a 24-hour basis if you do it remotely. Italian workers would rather be with colleagues in person at the office, then at the beach having to answer emails.

The working week in Italy is as sacrosanct as Sunday mass. Once you’ve clocked out, you’re out. The universe may collapse but it’s not your call to step in and rescue it. Smartphones may have somewhat blurred the work-home boundary even in Italy, but haven’t destroyed it.

Lately I have noticed that virtual press conferences, events, and festivals are no longer available, during the pandemic I just needed a laptop to listen to speeches. Now I often need to take a taxi to get to the venue. It’s aggravating. 

Back to the daily commute: in Italy, seeing colleagues in person is all-important. Photo by JEsse on Unsplash

All over the world people go to cafés and bars to work from their laptops. But in Italy it’s a bit different. 

Over here, we do things our way: writing a paper while you devour a cornetto would not be cool. My gran had a saying: “Ogni cosa a suo tempo”, meaning ‘everything has its time’.

Cafés for most Italians are hangout spots where you chat with friends or colleagues and have a quick coffee on the run, gulping it down at the counter rather than sitting down. They’re not ideal places for working. 

READ ALSO: Italy ranked one of the worst countries for expats to work in – again

In some northern Italian cities, sitting for hours at nice panoramic cafés with a steaming cappuccino while answering emails may be more popular, mainly because many cafés in Milan, Bologna and Turin are huge and have several rooms. But this is not something you can do in the south.

All of this means Italy is probably one of the worst countries in Europe for remote work, and it’s not just because of the mindset. 

Many parts of the country still lack high-speed internet, especially rural areas, but also cities. I live north of Rome and don’t even have a home WIFI, so I’m considering subscribing to one of those internet companies that provide signal to yachts in the middle of the sea and campers on isolated mountain tops. 

This lack of digital infrastructure makes it hard both for Italians teleworking and for foreigners hoping to relocate to Italy and work remotely for companies abroad or as freelancers. 

READ ALSO: What happened to Italy’s planned digital nomad visa?

However, I still think that even if all of Italy was hooked up with supersonic internet, Italians would still prefer to commute to a physical workplace each day.

Foreigners have long been waiting for the ‘digital nomad’ visa, approved in 2021 and then forgotten by the new government that seems to have other priorities. One politician from the ruling coalition told me the law is rotting in parliament simply because there are so many other ways to lure foreign money which are viewed as safer.

The cheap homes bonanza, the 7 percent flat tax rate for expat retirees in several southern regions, and the elective residency visa for pensioners, are all examples of more concrete measures sure to bring significant taxes into state coffers. 

Meanwhile, digital nomads are often seen as ‘vague’ freelancers whose job isn’t quite clear, who can’t be easily classified and tracked down. In other words, digital nomads are somehow perceived by authorities, in my view, as potential tax dodgers.

I think Italy has lost an opportunity to really embrace remote work. If not even a global pandemic has the power to modernise the Italian workplace, I don’t know what can.

Member comments

  1. I don’t have a good signal but I still manage ok with a sim card in a portable modem that I put outside under cover with a line of sight to my computer lol

  2. Italy is truly missing out on the Digital Nomad tax base. Spain, Portugal and Malta all have seen growth due to these types of VISAs… it’s sad the Italian government lives in the 20th century.

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Italy sees high demand for non-EU work permits as applications open

As applications for non-EU work permits opened on Saturday, Italy had already received over 600,000 pre-applications – four times the quota available.

Italy sees high demand for non-EU work permits as applications open

The Italian interior ministry said on Friday it had received some 608,000 pre-applications for non-EU work permits between October 30th and November 26th – a figure outstripping the set government quota for 2023 (136,000) by four times.  

The announcement came less than 24 hours before the ministry was due to open online applications for non-seasonal workers under its yearly decreto flussi, a decree governing immigration to the country for employment reasons.

Italy offers a limited number of non-EU work permits on a changing annual quota, with permits being allocated on a first-come-first-served basis after the electronic window for submission opens.

READ ALSO: Italian work permits: Who needs one and how do you get it?

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni pledged in September to gradually raise the number of annual work visas for non-EU workers after irregular migration to Italy spiked in 2023, resulting in deadly shipwrecks including one off the coast of Calabria in late February.

The move also followed heavy pressure from industry leaders who say more workers are needed in many sectors.

The quota for 2023 was already higher than in recent years, and the number of permits available was set to increase further to 151,000 in 2024 and 165,000 in 2025.

Italy’s interior ministry said that among the pre-applications received so far for next year, around 253,000 were relative to non-seasonal work, some 261,000 were relative to seasonal work, and approximately 86,000 related to jobs in the social and healthcare sectors.