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Corona's remote work trials may transform many civil servants' lives

The number of government office premises is likely to decrease sharply in the future.

Valtioneuvoston linna talvisena pakkaspäivänä. Suomen valtiolippu liehuu Valtioneuvoston linna katolla Runebergin päivän kunniaksi.
The Ministry of Finance is considering how many square metres of office space government employees will need in the future. Very little of the Government Palace on Helsinki's Senate Square is in use at the moment. Image: Jani Saikko / Yle

A year ago, Hannu Mäkikangas started a big job.

His assignment was to reform the state administration, to make civil service jobs more decentralised. Mäkikangas had to answer two big questions: How to make government jobs more interesting, and how could state administrative work be done other than sitting at a desk in a public office.

The programme of the government of Prime Minister Sanna Marin (SDP) published in December 2019 stated:

Effective utilisation of modern technology will be promoted to enable flexible arrangements for living, working and doing business regardless of location. Government tasks should be organised in a way that enables multi-local living and full utilisation of the opportunities provided by smart technology to work in any location.

When 2020 began, that goal looked challenging.

"This was a concept that was in the air and the intention was to introduce it into the state administration," Mäkikangas says.

In February of 2020, Mäkikangas, an expert at the Ministry of Finance, launched a project aimed at developing multi-site and location-independent work in state administration.

Although the state has large agencies operating in many localities, the vision Mäkikangas was working toward looked to be facing a tough battle against a bureaucracy resistant to change.

"There was a widespread attitude in the state administration that remote and location-independent work are not suitable for the state administration, or 'at least not for our job'," Mäkikangas recalls.

In many agencies, telecommuting was viewed with suspicion as an inefficient practice.

Another difficult issue was technology. For example, senior experts and many managers either lacked the skills or the willingness to learn the skills required for telecommuting.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic.

Story continues after the photo.

Nainen katsoo kohti kameraa
Prime Minister Sanna Marin (SDP). Image: Yrjö Hjelt / Yle

Civil service guinea pigs

"We got a huge kick in the backside," Mäkikangas says.

The change that the working group led by Mäkikangas had set out to pursue in a measured and controlled manner suddenly took off at a rapid pace and under duress.

"Although the coronavirus pandemic is a horrible thing, it was good for us as well," Mäkikangas states.

"What's been great is that it would never have been otherwise possible to pilot and experiment with it on a mass scale like this," he points out.

Attitudes have changed within the civil service in two ways. Those who initially opposed telecommuting have learned that things work even remotely, and mastering the technology is not such a big deal. At the same time, those already committed to telecommuting have also begun to better understand the separate benefits of in-person interaction.

Fewer offices are needed

State agencies have now been surveyed about remote and location-independent work. The results were positive.

Even with the ongoing pandemic, almost all civil service work has got done. Staff has been satisfied with the new arrangements and sick leave has decreased.

"When work is digitized, it becomes detached from time and place and brings a lot of opportunities," Mäkikangas says.

In the future, government premises will be reduced. With larger numbers of people telecommuting, there is no need for offices as large as they are now.

Not for police or military

The Ministry of Finance is currently working on a work premises strategy extending up until 2030. According to Mäkangas, there is still a lot of work to be done on the issue.

"In the future, will state agencies still have common premises, for example? It is no longer possible to start from the situation that each agency has its own walls and its own dedicated spaces," Mäkikangas puts it.

The state has about 75,000 employees, 40 percent of whom are in jobs that cannot be performed offsite.

"Police, soldiers, border guards and customs officers cannot do their work remotely. A small majority, on the other hand, are employees for whom multi-location work offers opportunities for change," Mäkikangas says.

Story continues after the photo.

Pietarsaaren virastotalo.
It is not practical for police to do their work remotely. The Ostrobothnia Police Department building in Jakobstad (archive photo). Image: Kalle Niskala / Yle

According to the survey, most government employees for whom telecommuting is possible want to continue.

Before the advent of the coronavirus, state administration employees who telecommuted usually did so about 4-5 days a month, now most say they'd want to do it 3-4 days a week.

"Some employees have site-specific work, some of which can be done in several places. It is important to recognize that different ways of working are equal and taken into account so that everyone has good opportunities to do their jobs," Mäkikangas points out.

There are still many unanswered questions related to leadership, work organization, technology, training, and community building, for example.

"The problems are well identified and recognized. But how they will be tackled is not known by anyone. I would think we are going into a new normal and developing solutions on the fly," Mäkikangas predicts.

Data security a major issue

Telecommuting in state administration in Finland has been introduced only to the extent possible to do it securely.

There are still some jobs that require a level of security possible only on-site, behind closed doors.

Story continues after the photo.

Tietokoneita ja datakaapeleita serverisalissa.
Data security is crucial for remote work by, for example, ministry officials. Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle

In the future, security and privacy issues will be under intense scrutiny, and perhaps a hindrance to further expanding multi-site and location-independent work in state administration. Security is something, however, that will not be compromised.

"Now each agency has independently interpreted the state's guidelines on security, and many agencies have come up with different solutions. In the future, these will have to be codified," Mäkikangas points out.

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