With the coronavirus lockdown, one aspect of our lives has been revolutionized … the world of work. Computers have facilitated the transition and the coronavirus forced a real-life test. For jobs where it is possible, we are working from home and many of us like it that way.
There are countries that have been doing it long before the coronavirus — at least in numbers far in excess of other industrialized countries. In the Netherlands 14.1 percent of workers say they usually work away from the office compared to 4.7 percent in the UK and only 3.6 percent in the US. Only Finland is comparable.
Finland also allows flexible hours. Indeed such flexibility has a basis in law ever since the 1996 Work Hours Act giving most workers the right to adjust workplace time. Thus 92 percent of companies allow flexible hours there (a notable example being an employee who works remotely from Malaga, Spain!) compared to about three-quarters in the US and UK, a half in Russia and only 18 percent in Japan. Employees can start or finish their workday up to three hours earlier or later. A new Working Hours Act came into effect on Jan. 1, 2020 through prior legislation, fortuitously given Covid-19. This now permits workers to schedule up to half their working hours away from the workplace.
Both Finland and the Netherlands also benefit from a culture of trust and equality; also practicality, a quality that small countries nurture to compete with the giants beside them. Think Russia in one case and Germany for the other.
Flextime has other benefits. Studies report higher output and efficiency. When workers are allowed to pick their hours, they drift towards when they want to work. In Finland, they still have to average 40 hours per week over each four-month period. Nevertheless, working at a time most suitable for their individual circumstances implies they are working at their best, which also translates to most productive.
HSBC, the large UK bank, looked at what is driving UK productivity growth in a 2018 study. Eighty-nine percent of respondents cited the importance of flexible working hours and work-life balance rating them higher than financial incentives. One-in-five also cited poor work-life balance as the main reason for leaving a prior job, ranking it higher than limited opportunities or salary increases.
Meanwhile in the Netherlands, where 98 percent of homes have high-speed internet access, there is also a culture of trust, plus a combination of technology, attitude and expectation to make remote working a success. King Willem-Alexander issued a photo of himself working from home to encourage others to do the same during the pandemic.
But then, the Netherlands is different. ING, an Amsterdam-based bank, is now trying out a policy of unlimited vacation time for pilot groups of workers. They can take as much time off as they want provided their work and set tasks do not suffer.
There must be something in all this for Dutch men averaging 163 cm (6 feet) are the tallest people on earth. At 179.6 cm, the Finns are not far behind.
Perhaps employers over here in the US will be enlightened by the statistics. If there is a silver lining in this dark coronavirus cloud then, it could be in the world of work.