Morning briefing: Staggered shifts and commuting by bike

Good morning.

Business should stagger shift times, minimise the number of staff using equipment, reduce hot-desking and ask employees to work from home wherever possible, according to a draft plan for easing the lockdown seen by the BBC. Where keeping two metres between workers proves impossible, companies should consider physical screens between staff, personal protective equipment and extra hygiene measures, the document says. Over the weekend, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said people would be encouraged to travel to work by bicycle, and that hand sanitiser could be provided at transport hubs. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to lay out more detailed plans for leaving lockdown on Sunday.

Today, Johnson will co-host a virtual conference of world leaders, sans US President Donald Trump, and will urge countries to work together to develop a vaccine, insisting that it is “the most urgent shared endeavour of our lifetimes” and that a vaccine is the only way to protect global populations from the virus. The Coronavirus Global Response International Pledging Conference aims to raise £7bn to develop vaccines, treatments and tests for Covid-19.

Meanwhile, good news in the hunt for a viable antibody test: the Mail reports that medical giant Roche Diagnostics has created a test it claims is nearly 100 per cent accurate. The company is in talks with the NHS and tests could be rolled out across the UK within two weeks, according to the report. Separately, Edinburgh scientists working for screening company Quotient say they have developed a similarly accurate test, and have called for talks with both the NHS and government to ensure the UK doesn’t miss out. The company is based in Switzerland.

Global updates:

Italy: An easing of lockdown measures today means millions of Italians will return to work. Around the country, restaurants are reopening for takeaway service and people are being allowed to move more freely within their region, including visiting relatives.

New Zealand: New Zealand has recorded no new infections in a 24-hour period for the first time since 16 March. No deaths were recorded either, keeping the total at 20. The country has begun to ease lockdown measures, which were imposed earlier than in many other places.


Australia: Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he held “good discussions” with the New Zealand government about reopening travel between the two countries, which he said would happen before other forms of international travel.

US: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has, in comments that contradict one another, said there is “enormous evidence” that coronavirus was man-made in a Chinese laboratory, and that he agreed with a US intelligence analysis that the virus was neither man-made nor genetically modified.

France: France will not quarantine people travelling to the country from the EU or Schengen area, it said yesterday. On Saturday, it said travellers entering France as the lockdown eased would have to remain in isolation for two weeks.

Thailand: Thailand has further eased its lockdown measures, allowing restaurants to serve dine-in customers again. Food stalls can reopen, and shops can sell alcohol for drinking at home.

Malaysia: Most businesses in the country will be allowed to reopen today as the government tries to restart an ailing economy.

South Korea: The country will relax social distancing measures further on 6 May, allowing gatherings and events for the first time.

Japan: Some parks, museums and other public spaces could reopen soon in certain regions, a minister said. The government is also expected to extend the nationwide state of emergency to 31 May today.

Singapore: Lockdown restrictions will be eased from 12 May, allowing some food outlets and manufacturing firms to reopen.

Read more on the New Statesman:

England’s other Covid-19 epicentres

How the non-return of the Premier League could expose the UK’s coronavirus failings to voters

How coronavirus is spreading through UK prisons

Households unable to afford food up by 81 per cent in just two weeks

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”