In the pre-covid world, remote working allowances were gaining traction across many industries, with 61% of companies around the globe offering some form of remote working. The idea that enabling flexible and remote work resulted in greater productivity and employee satisfaction was borderline mainstream. However, lockdown conditions are still significantly different from hybrid working models and so even the most flexible and forward thinking companies have had to make changes in work processes, communication and management to adapt to fully remote work. We take a look at the trends and solutions that have helped both companies and employees in the Nordic-Baltic region to survive and thrive under the new status quo.
Remote Working as an Employee Benefit
The Nordic region has long embraced a culture of remote and flexible work. According to data from the 2016 European Quality of Life Survey, Denmark, Sweden and Finland experienced the most flexible working cultures within Europe. As far back as 1996, Finland gave employees the right to adjust their daily start and finish time by up to three hours to accommodate personal priorities and circumstances. The new Finnish Working Hours Act, which came into effect in a timely manner on 1 January 2020, extends this flexibility to place of work as well as working hours, enabling more remote work.
These trends in greater work flexibility were driven by various factors. First and foremost, remote work largely depends on the widespread availability of wifi and cloud technologies, meaning that a decade ago remote working en masse would not be possible the way it is now. Remote working was also a means for companies to attract and retain talent. The 2018 Global State of Remote Work Report by Owl Labs, found that companies that had work from home policies experienced 25% less employee turnover and their employees were 24% more likely to report that they felt happy in their roles.
Lastly, remote work has gained popularity due to evidence indicating that it drives better workplace performance. A 2013 study of Chinese call centre workers by Stanford university found that workers that were offered the possibility of remote work experienced a 13% performance increase compared to their office-bound counterparts. The absence of commuting time is also a benefit to employees, who have more hours available either for work or personal endeavours, prompting further increases in productivity and wellbeing.
Remote Working Becomes The New Normal
Many of the benefits to employees of work from home policies are eroded under lockdown conditions. Working from home in the pre-Covid world would have delivered the greatest benefit to parents who had to balance childcare responsibilities with work. With schools closed and children at home, working from home is now arguably more challenging for employees with children than those without. Furthermore, the productivity and creativity boost that comes with the opportunity to occasionally work from home, may be undermined by difficulties in workplace communication, lack of accountability and the psychological effects of social isolation.
Adapting to remote working is not only about having the right technology, it is also about creating a culture of trust and setting in place norms regarding modes of communication and work. With flexible and remote work ingrained in the culture, Nordic countries may be better placed to adapt to the circumstances of the Covid-19 crisis than many other countries. Companies that embraced a flexible working culture, underpinned by trust, prior to the crisis would have a natural advantage in transitioning into remote working under lockdown conditions. Most startup and technology sector employees are accustomed to working from home for at least one or two days a week, meaning that some of the processes are already in place to facilitate effective communication and collaboration for remote teams.
For companies that have not cultivated the necessary culture for constructive remote work, startups are coming to the rescue with a range of innovative business solutions to help companies and employees manage these circumstances. Startups in the Nordic-Baltic region have been hard at work developing and adapting solutions to help geographically dispersed teams collaborate and communicate effectively. Many of these startups are currently offering free trials during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Startups To The Rescue
Swedish startup N’GAGER offers a platform to help managers develop their leadership skills through bitesize learning modules and improves employee experience through tools to develop a feedback culture and monitor workplace mood and sentiment. The Timely App, developed by Norwegian startup Memory, is a time and project management tool giving managers greater transparency over how employees are spending their time and greater oversight for ensuring individual and group projects stay on track. Panda Training is building a chatbot to help employees transition into remote work and stay on track with their goals and training.
One of the greatest challenges of isolated work environments is innovating and ideating when there is a limited ability to casually soundboard ideas with colleagues. Finnish startup Happeo has built a workplace social network, helping employees feel engaged, motivated and inspired. Viima, another Finnish startup, has developed a platform to help teams to source ideas across the company, and manage the process of turning ideas into actions and outcomes.
With so many tools for internal communications available, it is often difficult for newer market entrants to stand out and for companies to choose the most appropriate solutions for their needs. Finnish startup Smarp is setting itself apart by complementing its internal communications platform with advanced analytics, helping companies understand which departments and teams are engaging most effectively with internal communications, and where greater efforts need to be made to boost engagement.
During lockdown employees are also likely to face greater challenges with their mental health, due to social isolation, grieving for loved ones lost to Covid-19, or difficulty adapting to new pressures and circumstances. Danish startup Kara Connect offers access to digital therapy for employees, with expert practitioners in the fields of speech therapy, occupational therapy, school counselling and psychology. Icelandic startup Proency has a range of digital tools available for employees to manage their mental health throughout the day with breathing exercises, mindfulness practice, and lessons in optimistic thinking.
Startup hubs in the region are also making an effort to help entrepreneurs and businesses navigate the crisis. Maria 01, a startup hub in Helsinki, has made its business and wellness sessions available to the public, as well as scaling up the office hours available to startups in its network. These sessions cover topics such as managing remote workers, legal advice, PR and marketing during a crisis, supporting employee mental health, and cybersecurity and privacy issues for remote teamwork. Startup Lithuania is hosting online workshops to help startups rethink their business models in response to the crisis. Not only are hubs and co-working spaces supporting remote working for their members, but in doing so they are also pivoting into an online first business model, creating a new phenomenon of remote co-working.
A Changing Job Market
The crisis has caused a major shift in staffing requirements, and companies are having to make changes to their workforce to adapt to changing market conditions. Whilst some companies are having to layoff staff, others have rapidly gained traction and are looking to hire to fulfill rising demand for their products and services. This has opened new opportunities for recruitment startups, as companies have to navigate remote hiring and onboarding processes. Swedish startup Typelane offers an efficient digital onboarding process and has put together a guide to remote onboarding addressing topics such as managing paperwork, communicating responsibilities, building engagement and making a good first impression. Estonian recruitment company MeetFrank has added a remote work track to its job marketplace, and claims that whilst overall job offers have decreased by 13% compared to March 2019, remote work job offers have doubled between January and March.
A few initiatives have emerged around recycling human resources across the Nordic region. Swedish recruitment startup Agile Search is offering a free service matching individuals who have been made redundant as a result of the crisis with companies looking for technology talent. Neil Murray, founder of the angel fund Nordic Web Ventures, has started the Recycling Nordic Tech Talent open access spreadsheet for redundant tech workers, future founders and startups that are currently recruiting to register themselves.
Staying Safe in the Digital World
With employees working through remote connections, under a heightened state of fear and uncertainty, many companies and employees are vulnerable to cyberattacks and fraud. Cybercriminals have capitalised on increased security vulnerabilities that has resulted from the mass shift to remote work, with incidents of Covis-19 related phishing scams popping up around the globe.
The Estonian Information Technology Foundation for Education has put together a guide on cybersecurity for home offices, addressing the safe use of video and communication software. The Norwiegan startup memory has also put together its own guide to cybersecurity for remote workers. Veriff, an Estonion digital identity startup, is donating one million ID verifications to nonprofit organizations around the world responding to Covid-19 to ensure safety and security in pandemic response of various natures.
The Future of Remote Work
As with many of the lifestyle changes spurred by Covid-19, the question on everyone’s lips is how these trends will evolve in the post-covid world. Many companies that were not previously equipped to facilitate remote work, now are. Going forward, they will have to decide whether to offer their employees this choice in the future, and to what extent.
At the aggregate level, there are strong arguments to be made for encouraging continued remote work as much as possible. By taking commuters off the road, carbon dioxide emissions will reduce dramatically with positive impacts for the climate crisis. Location-independent jobs also enable greater social mobility and regional wealth distribution as workers outside of urban economic powerhouses have access to better employment opportunities. Access to employment will also improve for those with mobility issues. With work opportunities not limited by geography, we are likely to see greater efficiency in the labour market as talent pools are extended and available workers are paired with suitable jobs regardless of location.
What we are most likely to see is a greater prevalence of hybrid working modes. Covid-19 has given organisations the opportunity to develop the skills and technologies to empower employees to work in their individual optimum manner. Evidence is mounting that the opportunity to work from home is of great importance to employees, and it is likely that many will want to retain some of the newfound benefits of working from home. Research by Global Workplace Analytics found that 36% of workers would choose the opportunity to work from home over a pay rise. Some businesses may even find that they prefer a predominantly remote working model, as they can decrease their real estate expenditure.
Regardless of the predominant form of work in the future, it is essential that companies maintain the capabilities they have built during the crisis. Companies now have experience in developing and implementing effective remote working and communication practices, and operating in the midst of a global disaster. Organisations who maintain these capabilities will be more resilient and will be better able to weather the next big economic shock, whatever that may be.