It is minus 20°C and it has been pitch dark since two o’clock in the afternoon. Around 4.30pm a throng of parents wait for their little ones in a floodlit school playground in wintery Helsinki. Much chatter can be heard amongst people stamping their feet and rubbing their hands against the cold. I am often the only women in this congregation and we swap advice and make plans to meet up with or without our children. The atmosphere, in contrast to the unrelenting weather, is warm and friendly. This is the community that flexible working built.
Personal and public
Flex working patterns are seen as individualised, as they are tailored to meet a specific person’s needs whether related to childcare or other aspects of life. This is a desirable and effective approach which promotes a good work/life balance. However, the cumulative effect that agile work formats have on communities is underestimated. If everyone has the chance to work flexibly, this has a knock-on effect on how we organise our lives and how interact with others in our social milieu.
Starting at the Finnish end
In Finland, flexibility starts early. Initially introduced to meet the needs of parents, alternative work patterns have become so widespread and accepted that their use for those without children is now practicable. After all, the systems are already in place. When children do come along, parental leave packages are generous and, yes, fathers get a shot at it too. Already happy bubbles of new parents start meeting up – most importantly encompassing both genders.
In London, my husband was the only father at the school gates for pick up. In Helsinki, he was one among many and developed a good social network. When he took shared parental leave in the UK, he took it alone. In Finland there would have been whole groups of Dads (and Mums) to join.
Gender segregation in child rearing is much less apparent in Helsinki and I was often invited by the fathers to join them for coffee and for outings. When I wanted to arrange a playdate or needed to know something in relation to my son (where is the best dentist?) it was often a father that I rang up. It was interesting and heartening to see so many men take on the family admin which usually falls to the women. “We get to be around more, so we do more,” explained one father.
Flexibility oils the system
The reason for this type of interaction and societal structures is largely down to flexible working. Men and women both have the chance to arrange their lives to best suit their circumstances. Admittedly cost-effective childcare does play a role. For a whole month of afternoon playtime (school finishes at 1.30pm) including a hot snack until a 5pm pick-up, I paid just £140. In some places in the UK, you would be lucky to get 3 afternoons for that amount.
But there is little point in having affordable childcare unless a parent – ideally both – can actually make it out of the office for the pick-up. Jan, a busy lawyer who is a state prosecutor, says, “I have to leave early twice a week because my wife also works. So that is what I do. And I want to.” His wife, Krista, who works in banking, has just been promoted. Flexibility for men not only benefits them but has an impact on how women progress in their careers. Finland’s Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, was elected to the post whilst still just in her early thirties and with a baby in her arms.
Happy flexible days
For four consecutive years Finland was named as the happiest country in the world by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network which publishes, annually, a report gauging the happiness of people around the world. Moving to live in Helsinki certainly made us smile.