Sun, May 26, 2019 - Page 7 News List

How Stockholm became the city of work-life balance

With flexible hours the norm and almost two years’ parental leave for every child, Sweden’s capital boasts a happy and efficient workforce

By Richard Orange  /  The Guardian, STOCKHOLM

Illustration: Louise Ting

It is 3:30pm, and the first workers begin to trickle out of the curved glass headquarters of the Stockholm IT giant Ericsson.

John Langared, a 30-year-old programmer, is hurrying to pick up his daughter from school. He has her at home every other week, so he tends to alternate short hours one week with long hours the next.

Sai Kumar, originally from India, is leaving to pick up his daughter as his wife has a Swedish class.

Ylva (who does not want to give her surname) is “off to the gym to stay sane,” as is Sumeia Assenai, 30, who came in at 7am, so she is allowed to leave early under her company’s “flex bank” system.

Minutes after 4pm, the trickle turns into a stream of people tramping through the tunnel under the E4 motorway out of Stockholm’s tech district.

The local traffic authorities mark the start of the city’s rush hour at 3pm, the time that the first parents begin to leave work to pick up their children from school and kindergarten, and mark its end at past 6pm.

Sweden’s flexible approach to working hours is one reason it was ranked best in the world for work-life balance in a HSBC survey.

Only about 1.1 percent of the nation’s employees work very long hours, according to the OECD’s How’s Life survey, the second-lowest share among the organization’s 38 countries.

Above all, it seems to have found an answer to a question that has vexed parents across the world for years: What do you do if school finishes at 3pm and work at 5pm?

Langared said that his colleagues and managers never make any comments on the days that he leaves his desk shortly after 3pm.

“They’re totally OK with it,” Langared said. “Basically, I handle my time any way I want. They just rely on me to do the work, but which hours I do it in, it’s up to me.”

If his daughter is ill, he sends an e-mail in the morning saying that he needs to vab, the Swedish term for taking a day off to look after a sick child. Although now that she is a bit older, he often works from home.

The flexibility that the city’s employers offer helps it attract the highly educated workers that its tech industries need, Stockholm Vice Mayor for Labor Fredrik Lindstal said.

“The city is actively marketing Stockholm as a destination for starting a family, while maintaining a high-level career,” he said.

“They’ve been really good at promoting this as a go-to factor,” he added.

Robin Bagger-Sjoback of Carnegie, Sweden’s leading investment bank, is one of those who have been attracted, or at least attracted back to the city.

He returned to Stockholm in 2014 after three years of working 12-to-14-hour days at the French bank Credit Agricole in London.

Such moves are common among Scandinavian investment bankers, he said.

“A lot of Nordic people start leaving London when they reach 30, and it comes to marriage and, sooner or later, children,” he said. “A lot of people I knew have left London and now have families, either here in Stockholm, or in Copenhagen or Oslo.”

He drops off his son most days — often, he said, while taking part in a conference call.

Although he occasionally puts in extremely long hours when completing transactions, he is skeptical of the hours that are common in London or New York.

“I think that if you work those 18-hour days and 80 or 90-hour weeks, in the long run you’re not getting that much more out of it,” he said. “Those last five or six hours a day, I think they’re just marginal. I don’t think the brain works that well if you do that for a longer period of time.”

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