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Readers reveal: How our Swedish workplaces faced the coronavirus crisis

With the Swedish Public Health Agency recommending working from home until at least the end of 2020, many businesses have struggled to adapt – but there are also success stories. Here's what we learned from hearing what 100 The Local readers had to say about policies at their workplace.

Readers reveal: How our Swedish workplaces faced the coronavirus crisis
One in five workers were back at the office, albeit with new infection protection measures in place. File photo: Henrik Montgomery / Scanpix / TT

While working from home is recommended where possible, authorities have left implementation up to individual employers, suggesting rota systems and flexible hours where home-working is not possible.

Adapting to this new situation has been a major challenge for individuals and employers alike. The need to curb the spread of infection must be balanced not only with ensuring businesses can keep running, but also safe and healthy working environments for staff whether at the workplace or at home. 

So what does a successful coronavirus policy look like?

One 27-year-old working for Ericsson was impressed by how the company had handled the situation, including encouraging staff to work from home from an early stage in the pandemic and last week making face masks compulsory for all staff and visitors.

“Ericsson has committed to effective comms regarding the pandemic and that has been helpful in identifying the general direction of the company's approach,” said the 27-year-old, who was already working remotely part of the time before the pandemic.

“We receive regular emails from the executive level on the updates regarding the corona situation. On top of this, we take surveys on how we are doing and the results become available to us. We have a voluntary fika every day; this is just a chance to (somewhat) normalise the situation and in no way a method for my manager to micromanage us. I usually don't show up and that is no problem,” he added.

Among those who strongly agreed their workplaces had taken sufficient measures, there were some common threads. The businesses with satisfied workers often said their managers had urged everyone who could do their job from home to do so, enforced distance between work spaces, provided work equipment to employees working remotely, and kept up clear communication through signs at the workplace and regular calls or emails. 

1 in 5 readers based at the workplace from September

In particular, there was a distinction between companies which allowed working from home, and those which actively encouraged or required it, taking extra measures to ensure this was possible and communicating well with employees about the reasons.

This included fixed limits on the proportion of staff permitted in the workplace at one time (between ten and 50 percent of the workforce, or only those whose roles required presence at the workplace). What's more, the most highly rated workplaces enforced these guidelines through booking systems, security staff, or requiring a manager's approval and justification before office-based work was allowed.

Others praised their employers for introducing specific policies for normally crowded areas, including canteens, fika rooms, and elevators – or criticised them for not taking these issues into account. Several people reported that even though fika had been cancelled, people continued to gather close together during usual fika times.

“There is one big gap. Each team can come to work one day per week, but if we all come to office the same day, then we are 10 people sitting one near another in a small place, and the rest of the office is empty. It's the same for each team,” said a software engineer in Stockholm.


Photo: Vidar Ruud/NTB scanpix/TT

'Selfish decision to ask us to return to the office'

On the other hand, many readers reported being told to return to the office despite no change to the national recommendations. 

We heard from staff whose companies were requiring them to return to the office either a specific number of days per week or full-time.

Between March and August, 67 out of the 100 readers said they worked remotely all or almost all the time, but that number fell to only 35 from September onwards. A total of 22 said they were based at the workplace all or almost all the time from September.

In many cases, respondents said it had not been made clear why they were being asked to return. “The only reason they are asking us to come in is because the second-in-command wants to see more faces at the office! That was what was said in a meeting […] such a selfish decision,” said a Gothenburg resident in his 40s who has lived in Sweden for over a decade.

 

A Spanish creative worker in Stockholm said the reasons his company gave for asking staff to return to work were the quality of work and the assertion that Sweden and other countries were loosening restrictions. However, the employee said there was no evidence to back up either assertion; he felt that employees had worked more hours than usual while at home, and company results shared with staff showed an overall improvement on last year. 

Several other countries in Europe began encouraging employees to return to workplaces in summer, and in Sweden two changes were made in June – allowing non-essential domestic travel and allowing universities to return to on-site teaching – but no changes were made to the recommendations to follow social distancing and work from home if possible. 

The Spanish national was concerned that it was not possible to follow public health guidelines at the workplace, telling The Local “the seats are all super close to each other”. The company had not provided clear solutions to the social distancing problem, instead suggesting that staff sit in the kitchen or lounge area in order to keep distance.

An Indian engineer working at Volvo Group in Gothenburg had been based at the workplace throughout 2020, the only exception being when he and others were sent home as part of short-term layoffs in spring. The company's policy has varied in different countries in line with local rules and restrictions, but he said in Sweden they had never recommended working from home even at the height of the pandemic.

The company's policy states that employees should only stay at home if showing symptoms, and that although managers may approve home-working for individuals if it would not affect key business deadlines, this should only be temporary and regularly reviewed.

“This is not at all encouraged in practice,” said the engineer, who personally knows four collegaues who have had Covid-19. “They claim to follow the authorities' guidelines and that employee health is their 'top priority' but still expect all of us white collar workers to work at the office even though most of us can actually do our job remotely from home.”

At a company meeting, he said he questioned the policy and was told that home-working was not recommended due to measures in place at the office.

“[There are] only loose recommendations […] people eat lunch and have fika together,” he said.


Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

'I wish face masks were not taboo'

Eight people who responded to the survey (excluding those working in healthcare roles where there are industry requirements for masks) named face masks as a measure that had been taken by their employer, and several more said they would feel more comfortable if masks were more widely used in Sweden.

“It has been difficult to keep distance from other employees, both during breaks and while working, and I don't think there is much encouragement to keep distance from each other while working in the laboratory. I wish it was not so taboo to wear masks throughout society, but particularly at work,” said a hospital-based biologist working in Gothenburg.

Sweden's Public Health Agency has said it does not recommend the use of masks in wider society, partly due to concerns it could lead to a false sense of security and relaxing on other measures.

However, the agency has said masks may be a part of temporary local responses to future outbreaks of the coronavirus.

A former employee at a retirement home said that lax attitudes from her colleagues were a factor in recently leaving her job. Visors are required by her employer when working with patients, but she said: “most colleagues just use visors when they know the bosses are coming to visit our floor on a certain day and many of the colleagues are usually laughing at me and ridicule me because I always use mine.”

A third of people who responded to our survey disagreed with the statement 'My colleagues in general are taking sufficient coronavirus precautions' and two people made a distinction between international and Swedish colleagues' attitudes.

“Within the management team we have had many conversations about if we should mandate people come to the office a set number of days a week, but we have ultimately decided to continue to make it optional. It is roughly split between Swedish/non-Swedish lines (though not completely) with the Swedes being generally less concerned with the coronavirus than non-Swedes,” said a manager at a tech startup. 

Home-working equipment paid for and shipped home

The responses to The Local's questionnaire highlighted that employers need to go beyond simply allowing home-working, and take steps to facilitate this. One obvious measure was providing staff with items such as desk chairs, monitors, and even desks.

A US employee of a gaming company said: “The company has given employees working from home various financial benefits to cover some of the costs from working from home. The company has shipped equipment and belongings from the office to people's homes so as to reduce the number of people who had to go into the office.”

Similar measures were mentioned by several others who were positive towards their workplace's response, along with policies such as training on leading remote teams, regular virtual meetings, and mental health support.

“We're lucky enough to be able to effectively do all of our job at home. We miss being able to have face-to-face meetings, but we haven't slowed down at all during the pandemic. Despite our serious concerns with Sweden's handling of the pandemic, we are grateful at least our company took it seriously. We feel for everyone who doesn't have the privilege we have in this job, and hope things get back normal soon,” said a Canadian working in telecoms.

As well as support and equipment, several people mentioned the need for additional technical support while home-working is the default.

“The only thing I would prefer to see more is focus on cyber security and risks when working from home. I see that many measures were taken but in my eyes the weakest part of cyber security are always poorly informed people and their factory settings on routers, et cetera,” said Dalibor, a Czech IT worker.

He added: “I really appreciate the balanced Swedish approach to the pandemic. The culture of responsibility supported by the given freedom to behave responsibly is actually a great leadership approach.”


Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT

What about key workers?

Most of the readers we heard from were able to do their jobs from home, with the three most commonly named professions being engineer, developer and project manager. But we also heard from several who were unable to work from home.

One woman, a 50-year-old living in a small village in northern Sweden, said she felt “no one is taking this seriously at all”. Working at a small shop, she had asked for measures including hand sanitiser, face masks, and plexiglass at cash registers, which were not provided – she ultimately bought sanitiser and masks herself.

An employee at a large car rental company in Nyköping said: “We were not trained on how to safely wash the cars, interact with customers, how to properly take care of ourselves and our colleagues. We are based at an airport, where I would consider to be working on 'the front line'. Still, no training, not enough safety or information supplied from our manager. Just forwarding emails about what HQ advises we should do, but no tools to achieve it!” 

Alexander, a caretaker at a group home, had a more positive experience: “We use face masks while working with elderly, disinfectant is placed all around the workplace, heavy focus has been placed on hygiene and avoiding masses with the clients in mind, free and immediate testing for all employees.”

And a reader working at an adult education company was working remotely almost all the time, and was very happy with the measures introduced at work.

“We've taken in less participants so the classrooms aren't full. We've sent out lots of information to participants, made specific Corona rules, and offer teachers the possibility to teach online if they prefer, and if so, offer participants a training sessions in online tools,” explained the reader, a Swede in her 30s.

This level of adaptation isn't applicable to most schools for children.

Other teachers who spoke to The Local said that even with extra cleaning and marking for distance, it was unrealistic to expect children and teenagers to adhere to the guidelines, and that social distancing was impossible with large classes in small rooms.

A  primary school teacher from the US said: “The only way to make it through the day is to pretend there is no virus. To stress about the lack of protection will simply give you an anxiety attack.”

But she was unsure if anything could be done to improve the situation. “In the end there is very little that could be changed [if] the schools remain fully open the way people want them to be,” she concluded.

And a French university researcher at Örebro faced similar problems.

“There was a lack of general and clear guidelines about the teaching starting on campus from September, especially lab sessions. Also, we got confusing instructions, such as “stay at home if you can” together with “don't stay absent from the university for too long”,” she explained.

Thanks to everyone who resopnded to our questionnaire. We included a representative sample of the comments after reading every one, and hearing directly from you helps us inform our future reporting. If you would like to get in touch with our editorial team, you can contact us at [email protected]

 

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WORK PERMITS

How foreigners can get on the fast track for a work permit in Sweden

It can now take about six months to get a work permit in Sweden, and a year for an extension. Here's how you can get on the fast track.

How foreigners can get on the fast track for a work permit in Sweden

How long does it normally take to get a permit to work in Sweden? 

According to the calculator on the Migration Agency’s website, 75 percent of first work permit applications are completed within three months, and 75 percent of work permit extensions are completed within 14 months. 

These numbers, though, are only for people in non-risk industries. If you are applying for a job in the cleaning, building, hotel and restaurant, or car repair industries — all of which are seen as high risk by the agency — applications can take much longer to be approved. 

For these industries, the calculator suggests a long 12-month wait for a first application and a 17-month wait for an extension. 

This is because of the higher number of unscrupulous employers in these industries who do not pay foreign workers their promised salaries, or do not fulfil other requirements in their work permit applications, such as offering adequate insurance and other benefits. 

So how do you get on the fast track for a permit? 

There are two ways to get your permit more rapidly: the so-called “certified process” and the EU’s Blue Card scheme for highly skilled employees. 

What is the certified process?

The certified process was brought in back in 2011 by the Moderate-led Alliance government to help reduce the then 12-month wait for work permits.

Under the process, bigger, more reputable Swedish companies and trusted intermediaries handling other applications for clients, such as the major international accounting firms, can become so-called “certified operators”, putting the work permit applications they handle for employees on a fast track, with much quicker processing times. 

The certified operator or the certified intermediary is then responsible for making sure applications are ‘ready for decision’, meaning the agency does not need to spend as much time on them. 
You can find answers to the most common questions about the certified process on the Migration Agency’s website

How much quicker can a decision be under the certified process? 
Under the agreement between certified employers and the Migration Agency, it should take just two weeks to process a fresh work permit application, and four weeks to get an extension. 
Unfortunately, the agency is currently taking much longer: between one and three months for a fresh application, and around five to six months for an extension. 
This is still roughly half the time it takes for an employee seeking a permit outside the certified process. 
The Migration Agency told the Dagens Nyheter newspaper in a recent article that in September the average decision had taken 105 days, while over the year as a whole, applications for certified companies had taken 46 days, and those for non-certified companies 120 days. 

How can someone planning to move to Sweden for work take advantage of the certified process? 
Unfortunately, it is very much up to your employer. If you are planning to move to Sweden for work, you should make sure to ask prospective employers if they are certified, or sub-certified through an intermediary firm, and take that into account when deciding which company to take a job with. 
Smaller IT companies are often not certified, as they tend to start off by recruiting from within Sweden or the European Union. 
If you have begun a work permit application with a company that is not certified or sub-certified, then you cannot get onto the fast track even if your employer gets certified while you are waiting for a decision. 
The certified process can also not be used to get a work permit for an employee of a multinational company who is moving to the Swedish office from an office in another country. 
If my employer is certified, what do I need to do?
You will need to sign a document giving power of attorney to the person at your new company who is handling the application, both on behalf of yourself and of any family members you want to bring to Sweden.  
You should also double check the expiry date on your passport and on those of your dependents, and if necessary applying for a new passport before applying, as you can only receive a work permit for the length of time for which you have a valid passport. 

Which companies are certified? 
Initially, only around 20 companies were certified, in recent years the Migration Agency has opened up the scheme to make it easier for companies to get certified, meaning there are now about 100 companies directly certified, and many more sub-certified. 
To get certified, a company needs to have handled at least ten work permit applications for foreign employees over the past 18 months (there are exceptions for startups), and also to have a record of meeting the demands for work and residency permits.  
The company also needs to have a recurring need to hire from outside the EU, with at least ten applications expected a year. 
The Migration Agency is reluctant to certify or sub-certify companies working in industries where it judges there is a high risk of non-compliance with the terms of work permits, such as the building industry, the hotel and restaurant industry, the retail industry, and agriculture and forestry. 
Most of the bigger Swedish firms that rely on foreign expertise, for example Ericsson, are certified. 
The biggest intermediaries through whom companies can become sub-certified are the big four accounting firms, Ernst & Young, Deloitte, KPMG, and Vialto (a spin-off from PwC), and the specialist relocation firms Human Entrance, and Alpha Relocation. Bråthe estimates that these six together control around 60 percent of the market. Other players include K2 Corporate Mobility, Key Relocation, Nordic Relocation, and some of the big corporate law firms operating in Sweden, such as Ving and Bird & Bird. 

What is the EU Blue Card, how can I get one, and how can it help speed up the work permit process? 
Sweden’s relatively liberal system for work permits, together with the certification system, has meant that in recent years there has been scant demand for the EU Blue Card. 
The idea for the Blue Card originally sprung from the Brussels think-tank Bruegel, and was written into EU law in August 2012. The idea was to mimic the US system of granting workers a card giving full employment rights and expedited permanent residency. Unlike with the US Green Card, applicants must earn a salary that is at least 1.5 times as high as the average in the country where they are applying.
Germany is by far the largest granter of EU blue cards, divvying out nearly 90 percent of the coveted cards, followed by France (3.6 percent), Poland (3.2 percent) and Luxembourg (3 percent).

How can I qualify for a Blue Card?

The card is granted to anyone who has an accredited university degree (you need 180 university credits or högskolepoäng in Sweden’s system), and you need to be offered a job paying at least one and a half times the average Swedish salary (about 55,000 kronor a month).

How long does a blue card take to get after application in Sweden? 

According to the Migration Agency, a Blue Card application is always handled within 90 days, with the card then sent to the embassy or consulate named in the application.

In Sweden ,it is only really worth applying for a Blue Card if you are applying to work at a company that is not certified and are facing a long processing time.

EU Blue Cards are issued for a minimum of one year and a maximum of two years. 

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