What the UK can learn from Sweden’s attitude to flexible working

Erik Fjellborg explains why the British should be taking a leaf out of the Swedes’ work-life balance book

British businesses are currently facing a number of unprecedented challenges. UK productivity continues to drag, while consumer demand pushes us towards a 24-hour economy, challenged by the gig economy and shifting work patterns. And the final piece of this troublesome puzzle is Brexit – the constant elephant in the room.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. Brexit isn’t going anywhere, but the UK has the chance to learn from other global economies and, even more importantly, the power to address those challenges. 

I don’t have all the answers, but businesses in my home country of Sweden might have a few. The Swedish economy is booming, and the country’s productivity level is one of the highest in the world. It’s true that there are structural differences in Sweden – state-provided childcare makes maternity and paternity almost identical, for example – but there’s something else in the way that Swedes do business that makes its workforce efficient and happy.

Swedish business leaders are brilliant at optimising their workforces, and not just maximising them. There’s a common expression in Sweden – lagom – which means ‘just the right amount’, and it’s often used in the context of productivity and culture. Meanwhile, employers shun hierarchy in favour of understanding their workforce – and for that reason, know that offering flexibility is the best way to manage them. The ‘fika’ break – making time for friends or colleagues to relax and share something to eat and drink – is an excellent example of this. The Swedes have learned over the years that employees are much happier and more productive in the long run if they’re given some time during the day to fully switch off and reset.

So, is this the route that British businesses should also be taking? In sectors feeling the squeeze, like transport, hospitality and retail, boosting pay to retain staff and keep them motivated isn’t always possible. This means that in turbulent times, businesses need to find other ways to attract and retain the right staff. 

A key way to do this could be to take a leaf out of Sweden’s book and put employee satisfaction at the top of businesses’ priority lists. And in my experience, to achieve employee satisfaction, you need to offer employees the flexibility to decide when and where they want to work. 

This sounds like a simple solution, but many businesses still view flexible working in a negative light, equating it with low productivity and increased stress. Understandably, the word ‘flexibility’ can spell fear for business and HR leaders who see themselves battling with complex schedules and wasting precious hours on logistical nightmares.

In reality, flexibility is simple, and will cut down admin and save time, reducing costs for businesses. With a deep-rooted understanding of the company’s people and what they need to succeed, it’s the HR department who must drive these changes. This may feel daunting, but with the right technology in place, it’s easy: tools like smart workforce technology, for example, will allow you to collaborate with employees on a schedule that works for everyone.

It’s time that flexibility is taken seriously in the UK. HR and business leaders need to think beyond giving workers the odd weekend off, and begin working towards a future in which professionals have the flexibility to fit their jobs around their lives. There’s still some way to go, and a new approach will require fundamental ideals to change. 

But the HR function has the ability to push this forward, ultimately saving businesses time and money, and boosting the UK’s productivity in a time of need. Let’s take a step back and look to other economies – and see if we can learn a lesson or two from our neighbours.

Erik Fjellborg is CEO and Founder of Quinyx