What can Finland teach us about flexible working?

Finland already has very progressive flexi working provisions. Next year it is updating them.

Helsinki, Finland


Finland has progressive flexible working legislation and is planning to update these over the next year to increase their flexibility. Workingmums.co.uk asked Tarja Kröger, a senior civil servant and advisor at Finland’s Ministry of Employment and the Economy, who helped to draft the law, what is being planned and also spoke to Eero Vaara, Professor of Organisation and Management at Aalto University School of Business, about the future of work.

Workingmums.co.uk: What difference do you think the [current] Working Hours Act has had in terms of encouraging employers in Finland to be more flexible?

Tarja Kröger: Working time arrangements in Finland have been quite flexible for years. The current working time Act and sectoral collective agreements have already given workplaces remarkable freedom to agree flexible working time arrangements. Under these arrangements the needs of both employers and employees are taken into account.

The new Act (which comes into force at the beginning of next year) will give workers and employers even more possibilities. The most important provisions are section 11 concerning flexi time, section 12 concerning flexible working hours and section 13 concerning working time accounts. Sections 12 and 13 are new.

The new Act means that for at least half of an employee’s working time they can decide when and where they work. The flexible working hours arrangement will be based on an agreement between employer and employee. It is particularly suited to specialist work where specific goals and overall timetables are more important than working specific hours.

The new Act will include provisions for working hours banks at all workplaces. A working hours bank will allow employees to save up their working hours and combine them, any leave they have earned and money exchanged for leave, increasing their ability to accumulate more leave so they can reconcile the demands of work and life.

Under Section 12 on flexi time, employees will be able to determine the timing of their daily working hours. No one will be able to work more than an average of 40 hours a week over any four-month period. Agreements must include a stipulation about fixed working hours, what hours can be taken as flexi hours [no more than four hours a day can be flexi hours], rest periods and the limit on how many hours over or under regular working hours can be done. There is a set limit on how many hours under or over normal working hours can be done in the four-month reference period. Employees doing excess hours can be given extra leave.

Under Section 13 on flexible working hours employees can decide when and where they work for half of their working hours.  Section 14 concerns employees’ working time accounts – the system under which hours and leave can be paid in and withdrawn.

WMs: Is it a right to request flexible working, as in the UK, or a right to have it, ie can employers object and if so, under what circumstances?

TK: When an employee, for social or health reasons, wishes to work fewer hours than the regular working time, the employer will strive to organise work so that the employee can work part time.

When an employee wants to reduce their hours in retirement or because of disability, they can do so in agreement with their employer, taking into account  the employer’s production and service operations. If they refuse a request they must give reasons for the refusal. This also applies to childcare. An employer can refuse to organise part time work only if the reduced hours cause serious inconvenience to production or service operations that cannot be avoided through a reasonable rearrangement of work.

WMs: How will the new Act take things forward and to what extent does legislation drive progress or is it more to do with business imperatives such as talent attraction, agility, etc?

TK: In the new law there will be quite a good balance between the interests of employer and employee. The needs of both will be taken into account when agreements concerning working time arrangements are concluded.

WMs: Are there still areas where there are challenges such as health, education, retail, etc [ie non office-based jobs]? Does this create divisions?

TK: The new act will be applied to all types of employment. The act will also apply to civil servants. However, there are some groups which are outside the scope of law. It does not apply to employees whose working hours cannot be determined in advance and whose use of working time is not subject to supervision and who may thus decide their own working hours, such as religious leaders, judges, bailiffs and others.

WMs: Legislation has been tabled in the UK to make flexible working the default for new jobs and some employers are trying to do this, with HR challenging any job adverts that don’t contain some element of flexibility. Is that happening in Finland and how is it being enforced?

TK: In Finland there are quite flexible arrangements like zero-hours when working hours vary between 0 – 40 hours per week. The employer can offer work when he/she needs it. In Finnish legislation there are provisions concerning the scope of zero-hours contracts. We also have provisions which protect employees working in these kind of employment relationships.

WMs: In terms of the future of work, do you see employers becoming increasingly more agile, with headquarters being reduced, more local hub offices and greater use of gig working?

Eero Vaara: Definitely. I think that both employers and employees are becoming more mobile. There’s a trend to radically reduce HQs and other big office spaces. This is in part to save costs and in part to allow people to work in more flexible ways. In reality, it is also important to note big differences across industries and positions. More operational work such as in call centre type conditions is still very much top-down driven and flexibility may be a mixed blessing. People in IT or in leading positions are in turn used to flexibility – and expect and often demand even more. Overall, the big trend is, of course, the move from fixed positions towards a more ‘entrepreneurial’ society with all the associated pros and cons.

WMs: Have employment rights kept apace with the shift to more remote and also gig working?

EV: Probably not fully. It seems to me that we often think in very conventional terms about work – and are not fully comprehending how an increasingly bigger part of the workforce is no longer working in traditional ways (for instance, as entrepreneurs).

WMs: Is the support network for workers who work in this way evolving, for instance, around technical, rights and childcare support?

EV: In the best of workplaces yes, but not everywhere. In the Nordic countries, the welfare state helps in many ways, but I think that people may still need specific arrangements and support from companies.

WMs: How much has gender equality been a driver for this?

EV: A really good question. It might have been a driver, but we should always be mindful about the implications. In some ways, more flexible working allows people to combine things such as mother/fatherhood, childcare and work in better ways than before. However, at the same time, we still see the age-old trends happening: men working more, getting better paid and progressing better with their careers. But I hope this is changing.

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