Flexible work arrangements

Flexible work arrangements enable parents to successfully combine work and family life. The Nordic countries have a strong tradition of collective bargaining, which has resulted in relatively good working conditions, flexible working hours and the right to paid vacation. Nordic companies offer more flexible working hours than anywhere else in Europe.

Flexible working hours can make everyday life easier. It enables employees to control the beginning and end of their workdays, and thus make it easier for parents to adapt their work schedules to their children’s school and childcare hours, and indeed to look after older relatives. Opportunities to work from home or other remote locations save time and make family life easier, thus enabling better work-life balance.

A European company survey shows that Finland, Denmark and Sweden are leading internationally when it comes to flexible working hours. The results show that more than half of all company employees in Finland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden can control at least some of their working hours. In contrast, 80 per cent of employees in Greece and Portugal report that their working hours are determined entirely by their employers.

The Nordic countries have a long tradition of collective bargaining and a large share of all employees is covered by a collective agreement that ensures decent working conditions. There are often provisions for working hours, vacation, and opportunities for parents to take care of a sick child, which make it easier to reconcile work and family life. Protection of workers’ rights and promotion of safe and secure workplaces are prioritised issues in society, which contribute towards sustainable development at large.

Collective agreements and laws

The Nordic model is characterised by collective agreements negotiated between the trade unions and employers’ organisations concerning the rights and responsibilities at work. In the Nordic countries, an employee covered by a collective agreement only needs to negotiate the salary and type of employment contract (such as temporary versus permanent position, or full time versus part time) with the employer when starting a new job. The rules concerning parental leave, vacation, pension benefits and flexible work arrangements have already been decided and will be specified in the relevant collective agreement. A collective bargaining system with strong social partners has been a prerequisite to the ability to build resilient and healthy welfare states in the Nordic region.

It is no coincidence that many employees in the Nordic countries benefit from flexible work arrangements. Rather, it is a result of the Nordic labour market model, with strong organisations representing employers and employees. The Nordic countries stand out internationally with their high rates of union membership, meaning they have the power to establish reasonable sector-specific agreements with the respective employer organisations. Flexible solutions related to job security have been of great importance to the Nordic trade union movement, and unions have continuously emphasised the fundamental importance of equal opportunities for women and men. This, along with persistent political will, has contributed to progressive legislation in this area.

In addition to the rights laid down in collective agreements, employees in the Nordic countries are legally protected against discrimination in the workplace and the labour market. Progressive and detailed anti-discrimination laws prohibit salary-related discrimination against an employee who is or has been on parental leave. Also, employers are prohibited from asking a person about pregnancy, family plans or marital status during a job interview, nor can they refuse to offer a position to a qualified job applicant for a pregnancy-related reason.

The right to flexible working hours

A full-time employee in the Nordic countries works for around 40 hours per week, and a large share of employees have some type of flexibility when it comes to their working hours. The exact nature of the flexibility varies depending on the sector and the type of work. Flexible work arrangements may include the ability to work from home or to leave work for a few hours to take one’s child to the dentist. Compared with the rest of Europe, people in the Nordic countries are more likely to work from a remote location – an opportunity made possible by the ongoing digitalisation of society.

Besides provisions laid down in collective agreements, the Nordic governments have regulated parents’ rights to flexible working hours in law to further help them combine work and family life. In Sweden, employees with children under eight years of age can reduce their weekly working hours by 25 per cent. There is also an option to take part-time parental leave and thus receive partial parental leave benefits. In Finland parents have the right to work part-time. The exact reduction in working hours is subject to negotiation between employers and employees.

In Norway, employees with children under ten years of age have the right to request a part-time work schedule. However, in both Finland and Norway, an employer can deny such a request if there are compelling business reasons. In Denmark, parents are not legally entitled to flexible work arrangements, but may request such arrangements after returning from parental leave without being disadvantaged at work. In Iceland, employers are legally required to take necessary measures to help employees combine work and family life. However, parents are not entitled to part-time work; instead, such arrangements are subject to negotiation between the employer and the employee. One consequence of this is that many Icelandic women work in the public sector, where it is easier to get a request for part-time work approved.

More work part-time

Many parents in the Nordic countries work part-time. It is particularly common among women. In fact, about one-third of women in the labour force in the Nordic countries work parttime, except in Finland, where it is just one in five. Women in Åland and the Faroe Islands are more likely to work part-time than most other women in Europe.

One reason part-time work has become so common in the Nordic region goes back to the expansion of the welfare state in the 1960s. The occupations dominated by women are found mainly in the public sector, and since women have traditionally taken a greater responsibility for children and household chores, jobs in this sector were designed accordingly. Before childcare services became widely available, part-time work was often the only realistic option for women who wanted to enter the labour market.

Work flexibility increases with education

Studies show that there is a strong link between an employee’s level of education and access to flexible work arrangements. Workers with a University degree tend to have greater control over their working hours and are more likely to occasionally work from home. However work flexibility does not always benefit employees and the effect on gender equality can be ambiguous. Nordic research shows that the trend towards increased flexibility and digitalisation in the workplace can make it harder for the individual worker to draw a distinct line between work-life and home-life, a fact compounded by for example the advance of technology whereby work emails can be accessed anywhere at any time. Employees with care responsibilities at home may find this particularly challenging.

Women continue to spend more time than men on unpaid household and care work in the Nordic countries. This affects the utilisation of flexible work arrangements. Although both parents have the right to reduce their working hours to take care of their children and families, it is mainly women that work part-time. This often affects their careers and position in society. Part-time work may also have consequences for women’s finances, including lower pension savings after retiring. Many part-time working women also say it is difficult to find a full-time job. In some sectors dominated by women, part-time rather than full-time work has become the norm. The likelihood of involuntary part-time work is particularly high for women, less educated workers and foreign-born individuals in the Nordic region.

Nordic challenges

The Nordic countries have come a long way when it comes to flexible work arrangements, yet several important challenges remain. The Nordic region wants to invite others to a discussion on how they can be effectively dealt with.

Sustainable work-life balance. Workplaces are becoming increasingly fast paced and stressful. The opportunity to work from home or other remote locations does not automatically mean that people work less. How should we achieve a sustainable work-life balance?

Good working conditions. There is an increasing number of workers, in the Nordic countries and globally holding precarious jobs or who are not covered by collective agreements or flexible work arrangements. There is often a pattern in terms of who holds these jobs, such as age, gender and immigrant background. How can we ensure an inclusive labour market with good working conditions for everybody?

Flexibility and gender equality. Flexible work arrangements do not automatically translate into increased gender equality at home, particularly where share of domestic work is concerned. Studies show that women continue to spend more time than men on unpaid housework. How can the work flexibility be arranged so that it helps improve gender equality both at home and in the Labour market?

Family-friendly at work

In Sweden, parents can use their parental leave benefits to shorten their working hours. For example, they can choose to work fewer hours per day and/or take one or a few days off every week  the system is very flexible. Compared with the European average, people in the Nordic countries (and in particular parents) are twice as likely to work from home.

Logotype Nordic Council of Ministers Logotype Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research Logotype University of Gothenburg