Go to content

Working remotely or on site

The study of remote working trends is a moving target. As working restrictions from the pandemic fade into memory, there has also been a stepwise change in attitudes towards remote work. Already in the first project report from 2022, research showed that a majority of employees with a potential to work remotely would not want to do so all the time. Therefore, different forms of hybrid work have been screened in the case studies of Ekenäs, Hvolsvöllur, Kalundborg, Kongsvinger, and Oxelösund. We can see both a normalisation of hybrid work and a certain remote work fatigue accompanied by a search for more social work forms. In parallel, the case studies have also revealed a great uncertainty among interviewees on what the new work forms will mean for smaller towns in the future, especially related to urban planning.

Those that can and those that cannot

As previously outlined, 35-47% of the workforce in the Nordic countries worked remotely in 2022/2023. However, this also means that a majority needs to be present in the workplace. Moreover, parts of the workforce that theoretically could work from home might choose not to do so due to personal circumstances and taste, as well as a lack of suitable space, either in the home or in a space closer to home other than the workplace (e.g. a co-working facility or public setting).
In all five case study towns, there are large private and public workplaces where most of the employees need to be on site (for example, in hospitals or manufacturing facilities). The municipalities are also large employers in all the studied towns. White collar employees are, in many cases, able to work remotely and often allowed to do so part-time. Often, it is the highly qualified staff that has both the opportunity and permission to work in a hybrid format. However, an increasing supply of online services, for example in the healthcare sector, was reported to increase remote work opportunities also in sectors that traditionally had only on-site operations. Related to settings where the majority of personnel needs to come to work every day, interviewees reported on discussions regarding who is allowed to work from home, who is not, and to what extent. Several of the interviewed civil servants raised the question of fairness. Perceptions of fairness and reactions of employers are, of course, highly subjective and based on a multitude of factors. Interviewees reported very different approaches related to variations in managerial style, type of industry, town size, and also national culture.
In smaller towns with shorter distances, planners suggested that travelling to the workplace requires less effort compared to in larger towns or cities for those who live in the town or its vicinity. Therefore, employers and colleagues may have higher expectations that the personnel come to the workplace instead of working remotely from home or some other location. Employers were reported to wish their staff to work fully or mainly in the office. The inconvenience of travelling is weighted against the benefit of working together, and in a small town with short distances, the benefit of seeing each other often takes precedence. However, staff with longer distances to work often get special treatment with larger work-from-home opportunities. One interviewee also suggested that in traditional lines of industry, such as small-scale manufacturing, new modes of working could be less acceptable. Moreover, many smaller companies were said not to have the capacity to develop new ways of working.
It was reported that managers’ ability to explain remote work policy was often a deciding factor when it came to the extent of remote and hybrid work. When discussions on fairness emerged between employees that were and were not allowed to work in a hybrid format, some interviewees reported that managers might solve this by limiting or abandoning remote work opportunities to avoid conflicts in the workplace. Employees’ willingness to work only partly in the workplace was also said to be influenced by perceived acceptance of managers and colleagues as well as feelings related to group inclusion. It was also pointed out that not all are comfortable with working from home, that some prefer to come to the workplace. When there is doubt about whether hybrid work is accepted or not, employees might choose the easy way out and be present in the workplace every day, although they might have wanted to work in a hybrid format if perceived acceptance had been higher.  

Remote work policy

When it comes to remote work policy, the municipal employers in this study tend to follow general trends in the Nordics: In all the municipalities included in the study, hybrid work is accepted as a new standard way of working, but only for certain categories of employees. When hybrid work is agreed to, the standard is one (but often two) to three days a week. In general, there are no official remote work policies; instead, each manager is responsible for tailoring a model to his or her working group. This might result in different policies for similar work tasks depending on the manager’s and employees’ perceptions of hybrid work. In some cases, employees are expected to spend the same days in the office to make social interaction possible. However, some issues that are of a certain importance to smaller towns were brought up in interviews.
Several interviewees reported that remote work opportunities can be an important factor in recruitment and retainment of highly qualified staff, which is of special significance for smaller towns with large turn-over of personnel and/or recruitment difficulties. Often, hybrid work arrangements are tailored to the personal wishes and needs of the employee. IT staff is especially mentioned as a category that is often offered hybrid arrangements. Statistics Norway in Kongsvinger is an interesting example when it comes to remote work policy: On top of standard hybrid work arrangements, which are expected to make a difference for employees living in other parts of the Oslo region, some employees are allowed to work mainly from home during certain periods. For employees in IT that are difficult to recruit, it is now being tested to let employees have their main workplace at home irrespective of where in Norway they live. However, it is emphasized that this is only a trial which will be further evaluated. Further, the Norwegian state wishes to facilitate work from a multitude of locations throughout the country. To decrease commuting times, state employees are hence allowed to work at all state workplaces. This means that the offices of Statistics Norway in Kongsvinger opens its doors to state employees not employed by them. This is an interesting parallel to the co-working hubs established for state employees in Iceland (see example in next chapter).
However, interviewees pointed out that interaction between colleagues is different in a hybrid environment, and this is something managers need to be aware of. Hybrid work is often considered to demand a new management style such that social ties and recognition are maintained although work takes place in different locations part of the time. In media articles and the literature, lower levels of control are often brought up as a main theme for managers related to remote work (for example Pianese et al. 2022). Somewhat surprisingly, most interviewees in this study did not highlight lack of control. Instead, it was pointed out that hybrid solutions were accepted and had proven to work well. Possibly, managers had developed new methods to control work outcome. Future research could investigate this further, for example, in relation to trust in smaller organisations and communities.
Another aspect that might be interesting to smaller municipalities with lesser resources is the potential cost savings remote work might bring. However, smaller offices and saving on amenities was only brought up by one interviewee in this study. This aspect of remote work might be explored further in future research. Regulations related to the protection of employees, tax deductions, and insurance that influence the time and conditions of remote work were also brought up in interviews and could be further explored.

"Win a remote work stay in a beautiful old house in Ekenäs!"

To test the potential of remote work opportunities, the municipality of Raseborg, in which Ekenäs is located, launched a competition with the possibility of winning a longer remote work stay in pitoresque houses in various locations in the municipality. The campaign was named ”office landscapes” comedically referring to the Finnish and Swedish words for open-plan offices (maisemakonttori in Finnish, kontorslandskap in Swedish) and illustrated by desks in beautiful landscapes.

The offer contained both a nice place to stay and work and an introduction to town life by local hosts. The competition resulted in a large number of applications from a varied group of professionals working in different sectors. Three winners were chosen, one of them culture journalist Tina Cavén, who spent a week in an 18th-century baker’s house in Ekenäs (Image 1). The first campaign received positive feedback, and a second one has been launched. The municipality hopes that the initiative will raise curiosity about the municipality and result in some people choosing to live there at least part time.
Photo of Tina CavenImage 1. Tina Cavén, culture journalist and one of the winners of the office landscapes campaign, on the porch of the old baker’s house in Ekenäs. (Source: Ramona Lindberg)

Distance learning

All municipalities in this study wish to attract younger populations as well as increase education levels in the total population. However, distance learning is not a large issue in any of the municipalities. Most of respondents say that young people need social interaction in physical meetings, and distance learning is not seen as an attractive option by many students. Forced distance learning during the pandemic was said to have had a generally negative impact on perceptions of distance education. Distance learning in relation to further education and supplementary training of the more mature parts of the population, where social interaction might be less important to students, was flagged as interesting but had not been much discussed.
The university college in Kongsvinger provides distance education. The planning department notes that the balance between onsite and distance education impacts how many students choose to live in Kongsvinger and has effects on demand for housing, services, and town life. In Kalundborg, it was also pointed out that a large supply of distance learning opportunities would counter efforts to build out physical educational facilities in the town and persuade students to live in the town and possibly also stay after their studies. The higher education facilities in Oxelösund and Ekenäs have mainly onsite courses, with some distance vocational education in Ekenäs. In Iceland, many university level courses are offered as distance learning. In the south of Iceland, there are several knowledge centres serving as hybrid universities where students who study the same remote course can meet up and take part in the distance lectures together. The Selfoss co-working hub is also used by students during exam periods. At present, there is no such facility in Hvolsvöllur, but residents have the opportunity to use such centres in their area.  However, interviewees all mentioned the lack of distance vocational training and technical courses as such skills are in demand in Hvolsvöllur and other towns outside of Reykjavík.