When the impossible became possible – Generality of information work enabled the breakthrough of remote work in Finland
Digitalisation that has penetrated working life has speeded up the growth of remote work in the past few years. However, no one could have predicted the boom in remote work caused by the corona crisis in spring 2020.
In May 2020, Eurofound, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, published preliminary data with a fast schedule from its online inquiry, which examined the impact of the covid-19 crisis in different countries.
It was also reported that the share of those having switched to remote work due to the corona pandemic was highest in Finland in all EU countries. In Finland, nearly 60 per cent of the respondents had answered yes to the question “Have you started to work from home as a result of the covid-19 situation?”
In Statistics Finland's Quality of Work Life Survey 2018, 28 per cent of wage and salary earners said they were doing remote work. In addition, the work tasks of 16 per cent would have allowed remote work even if they did not do so for one reason or another. About three per cent of wage and salary earners reported that the employer did not allow remote work.
In other words, slightly over one half (54%), or good one million wage and salary earners, did not think remote work was possible in their tasks in 2018. This was the case for most teachers, for example.
Remote work grew rapidly from 2013 to 2018, up by 12 percentage points. The growth certainly continued during 2019.
In the past spring, even the last ones of those whose work tasks allowed it probably switched to remote work. For many the impossible has now become possible: for example, the majority of teachers temporarily switched to remote work in spring, although they could not have imagined it in the early part of the year.
It can be estimated that around one half, or around one million wage and salary earners in Finland have done remote work this spring. Thus, the share of employees working remotely would have nearly doubled compared with autumn 2018, from under 30 per cent to roughly 50 per cent.
The Eurofound question about starting to work at home was generated under obvious time pressure. The question has been asked of all employed and unemployed respondents, which makes it as ambiguous as “have you stopped beating your wife”.
The results according to which 59 per cent of Finns have started to work at home because of the corona crisis must be interpreted so that it is not just a question of “starting”: those who worked remotely before the corona pandemic have also answered yes to the question.
In addition, Eurofound itself states that the results of the data collection carried out on the Internet and with the so-called snowball method contain a certain deal of unreliability.
In any case, Finns have an interesting leading role in working at home. In Romania, Croatia, Greece, Hungary and Bulgaria at the lower end of the comparison, only under 30 per cent of the respondents said they had switched to working at home.
It inevitably comes to mind that our national character increases the popularity of remote work: staying at home by themselves suits Finns well. However, when looking at the differences between European countries, account must also be taken of the different industrial and labour market structures in the countries, as well as of the drastic impact the crisis has had on employment.
In Eastern and Southern European countries, a considerably larger share of employed persons earn their living from primary production or service occupations than in Finland. The question of starting to work at home may be problematic for farmers, for example.
Remote work is not possible for many persons working in service occupations, especially in tourism – if there is still any work left at all. Considerably many of the respondents in those countries at the tail end in the inquiry with respect to remote work said that they had lost their jobs as a result of corona. The shares were higher than in Finland. It is clear that remote work is not done if there is no work at all.
Compared to the rest of the world, Finnish wage and salary earners are highly educated people: the share of female wage and salary earners with tertiary level education is higher here than in any other EU country.
This has a direct link to the occupational and industrial structure. The number of persons performing information work is high in Finland, and the possibilities for remote work are good.
These structural differences, as well as the functioning of telecommunication connections and the prevalence of digital devices in different countries, influence how large a share of the population having kept their jobs can do remote work in general.
But even the withdrawn nature of Finns has its limits. It has recently been pointed out that there is an increasingly acute need for social contacts among more and more of our remote workers. It will be interesting to see what remote work practices will settle into the post-corona crisis world.
The author is Senior Researcher at Statistics Finland's Information and Statistical Services.
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