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New normal? Eight employers describe hybrid work plans

Following around 18 months of remote working scenarios, Finnish employers are looking for ways to maintain productivity while also addressing workers' needs.

Nainen puhuu puhelimessa toimistossa.
All eight of the employers queried by Yle said they planned to offer opportunities to combine telecommuting and in-person working arrangements. Image: Jere Sanaksenaho / Yle

Employers in Finland are making preparations for the return of employees who have been working remotely for much of the Covid crisis.

The government's telecommuting recommendations are scheduled to end in the middle of October, but employee opinions are divided on whether returning to the workplace is a good idea.

Some workers feel it has been proven they can do their jobs just as well remotely as they could on site and have balked at the idea of returning to their official workplaces, while others miss the company of fellow employees.

Following a year-and-a-half of remote working arrangements prompted by the recommendations, many employers are now busy devising plans for what has been dubbed the "new normal." In the spring of 2020 more than one million workers in Finland transitioned to telecommuting, but they have started gradually heading back to workplaces to a certain degree, as vaccination coverage has increased.

Yle asked eight major employers in Finland about their plans. The terms 'hybrid' and 'flexible' were often brought up.

Taina Susiluoto, the head of HR at the Confederation of Finnish Industries (EK) said companies are in the process of figuring it all out.

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Taina Susiluoto, johtaja, Elinkeinoelämän keskusliitto
Taina Susiluoto Image: Berislav Jurišić / Yle

"We're looking for ways to work effectively — when is it important to be present, innovate and be communal — and to find out when remote work is done most productively," Susiluoto explained.

All eight of the employers queried by Yle said they planned to offer opportunities to combine telecommuting and in-person working arrangements. There were some differences in how such scenarios would be implemented, however.

For example, a response from data security firm F-Secure said the company has not specified exactly how many days of the week employees will be required to work onsite. Instead, the matter will be decided on a team-by-team basis.

Private health care firm Mehiläinen and the City of Helsinki have similar plans.

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yleiskuva - avokonttori, jossa neljä henkilöä tekee työtään työpisteillään
Open office arrangement, file photo. Image: Esa Syväkuru / Yle

Face-to-face fosters community

On the other hand, Ilmarinen Mutual Pension Insurance Company is rolling out a 50/50 model at the corporate level, while the firm has asked individual teams to work out how the model will be implemented.

"Fostering a functioning and communal work community requires that people are together and face-to-face sometimes," said Sami Ärilä, Ilmarinen's HR director.

He said the matter was also a question of equality and ensuring work capacities, pointing out that if some employees are never onsite they may not be as visible as in-person workers and there is a risk that workloads would increase for those onsite.

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Sami Ärilä Image: Esa Syväkuru / Yle

Retail giant K-Group has similar plans and has emphasised the importance of face-to-face interactions among employees.

K-Group's HR chief Matti Mettälä said that in-person working environments improve community spirit and a common work culture.

"It's very important that supervisors are able to have precise discussion with teams and that everyone is headed in the same direction. That's when things work best."

The retail group has already noticed that, for example, holding meetings can be difficult if some people attend them remotely.

"Then it makes sense to agree that everyone should be present on a given day to get the most efficiency out of the meetings," Mettälä said.

Meanwhile, the construction firm YIT's SVP Pii Raulo explained that routine meetings are carried out remotely but planning and project initiation meetings need to be face-to-face, adding that in-person work is good for well-being.

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Pii Raulo, henkilöstöjohtaja YIT
Pii Raulo Image: Markku Pitkänen / Yle

Free gloves and masks

However, many employees at Ilmarinen still have concerns about coronavirus and are balking at the idea of regrouping en masse, according to Ärilä.

"Staff members are clearly divided in terms of whether returning to the office is seen as a threat or an opportunity," he explained.

To address those concerns, the company is disinfecting surfaces, improving ventilation methods and offering disposable gloves and face masks for employees to use at work. Employees who are at heightened risk from Covid are being given the opportunity to talk about the matter with occupational health care services.

Financial group Nordea is also preparing for situations in which workers may feel returning to the office is difficult, according to Nordea's SVP of HR Johanna Bergström.

Open communication important

She said that achieving a smooth return to work requires open and trusted communication between workers and management.

Employers told Yle they want to offer options to employees, as the matter of telecommuting vs in-person working arrangements is a divisive one.

For example, one third of Mehiläinen's staff that have been working remotely said they had been very satisfied with the opportunity to work from home, while another third said they did not think telecommuting was the best way to work, according to the health care firms' HR chief Tatu Tulokas.

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Työntekijöitä Hämeenlinnan uudessa toimistotalossa
New office space, file photo. Image: Timo Leponiemi / Yle

One third of the company's workers said remote working had improved their well-being at work and one third said the opposite. The remainder of employees said they did not notice a difference to previous working arrangements.

The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health — which is researching the effects of the year-and-a-half telecommuting period, new work arrangements and patterns — is keen to see what happens, according to the institute's research professor Annina Ropponen.

She said that new working cultures are not created instantaneously, adding that it is good to look for new practices through supervisor-led experimentation for a period of three months, for example.

After such trial periods end, Ropponen said supervisors and employees should consider what has worked and what hasn't, saying supervisors and teams need to be flexible and prepared to quickly adjust their practices.

Respondents to the informal survey came from Kesko, Nordea Bank, Mehiläinen, Ilmarinen Mutual Pension Insurance Company, YIT, forestry firm Stora Enso, F-Secure and the City of Helsinki. Altogether they employ a total of about 109,000 people in Finland. Replies were mainly provided in writing.

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