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Telecommuting boom may spur permanent change

Experts say the coronavirus epidemic may have a long-term impact on work and even society in general.

Mies työskentelee etänä kannettavalla tietokoneella.
Image: Eleni Paspatis / Yle

Large numbers of people in Finland are now working from home. Both national authorities, including the government and the Institute of Occupational Health, as well as many employers have recommended that as many people as possible telecommute as a part of the effort to keep the spread of the novel coronavirus in check.

This huge upsurge in telecommuting may lead to significant changes in working life, impacting the whole of society.

"Now that we are following these recommendations, I'd dare to bet that we'll be seeing something of a national day of telecommuting. And I believe that it's going to continue from here on out," said Chief Policy Adviser Mika Tuuliainen of the Confederation of Finnish Industries on Monday morning.

The popularity of telecommuting has been on the rise over the past two decades. Not everyone can work from home or a café, but it is estimated that it is possible for around half of all employees in Finland to carry out at least some of their work electronically from a remote location.

Up until now, the opportunity to telecommute has varied from company to company and sector to sector. However, the coronavirus hasn't asked CEOs for their opinion of telecommuting and the final holdouts now have to find ways to make sure work gets done when employees cannot or will not come into the office.

"This is a sort of stress test and attitude test for the whole of Finland, and for all organisations a test of what means we can use to increase work performance regardless of location," Tuuliainen adds.

Satu Ojala, a postdoctoral researcher in social policy at Tampere University, sees the sudden boom in telecommuting as an opportunity for companies to re-examine their working practices.

"Once things are back to normal, then they can think over what worked best in the old style and what worked best in the context of telecommuting," Ojala says.

Forcing a digital leap

Anu Järvensivu, who researches working life at Helsinki's Humak University of Applied Sciences, believes that implementing these latest recommendations on telecommuting will have a broad impact. As she sees it, this is a long-awaited impetus for real practical change.

"We've long thought about digitalisation, how we could best harness it for use. Now there are pressures at many workplaces to create those digital practices," she says.

Järvensivu thinks it is probable that temporary measures prompted by the fight against the coronavirus will lead to long-term changes at businesses and in working life. These in turn will be reflected more widely in society.

"We are on the brink of major changes. These changes could become evident in both transport systems and in homes. A widespread increase in the level of telecommuting is the kind of factor that may change society an awful lot," the researcher tells Yle.

No one knows yet, though, what those changes might turn out to be.

"I do not believe, however, that we will go back to exactly the same situation again," Järvensivu says.

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