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Why did the embassy of the Netherlands sign up for the National Remote Working Day?

The Dutch Ambassador to Helsinki, Mr Henk Swarttouw, is an advocate for flexible working. Here he tells us why, and how flexible work fits to the rather classic image of the world of diplomacy.


Why did the embassy of the Netherlands sign up for the National Remote Working Day?

Because we have started to apply more modern, flexible working methods. We do it also in Holland at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There we call it “the new way of working”. The basic principle is that you can work anytime, in any place, anywhere.

Who is working remotely from the embassy?

Two of our people will be working from home. We have customers who come here whom we cannot serve from home. We have a person taking care of the vehicles, the garden and the building who cannot work from home either.

I will be personally here in and out which is the case on most days.

Two people who do so-called desk jobs will be working from home. They both have a one hour commute into Helsinki, meaning they will save two hours. They have small children too.

What kind of work can the embassy personnel do at home?

It is mostly work that can be done over the telephone and at the computer. We have a worldwide secure computer system that can be logged into from home. We have also provided our people with mobile devices that they can use to access work data.

What does working from home make easier?

As soon as I got my first degree I have been working pretty much everywhere. I don’t need a lot of papers around me or access to specific things. It gives flexibility and saves time if you can work in the train, bus or car. Or if the sun is shining you can sit outdoors and work. Or sit at home in the garden or at the kitchen table.

I live very close to the workplace and the commute is easy but the others who save two hours a day can spend more time with the children and family. As a result they will be happier and so they will be better workers. They will have less stress of getting the children up from bed and to school and back on time. If you work from home such things get a lot easier.

What is more difficult to do from home?

You cannot work from home every day. Sometimes you need to meet with your colleagues and have the team together.  But with one or two days a week I don’t think there is any problem. We are a small team of only seven people. Of course everybody needs to be flexible because every day there needs to be someone here to open the door!

The colleagues can more or less step in for each other –we don’t have a strict division of labour between persons. Everybody can take over [work duties] from others.

Do you want to say something to those bosses who worry that people take it too easy when working from home?

I had a colleague here who proposed to a previous boss to work from home the next day. The boss said: Oh you will work from home – so, what are you going to do tomorrow? My colleague said to the boss: it is funny that you ask because when I am in the office you never ask me what I am going to do.

It goes a bit like that. It is about responsibility but also about putting trust and confidence in your people. I don’t care where or when the work gets done as long as it gets done. That should be the most important thing for managers.

Our task is not to exercise control, it is to see that the work gets done and it gets done as well as possible. Managers should not be in the position to exercise power over other people but to deliver a team result.

Your embassy makes working from home an example of "modern diplomacy"?

You know embassies are often a bit old fashioned 19th Century institutions that have for a long time been sitting in ivory towers and not been very accessible. We have a general obligation to modernize the way we work and to project a modern 21st Century image of ourselves.

Adopting modern working methods such as working from home and taking advantage of all the opportunities that technology is offering is a part of this.

The diplomats have black cars with blue number plates in Helsinki but I move around on a bicycle. That is also a way to project a modern image. One of the dedicated CD parking spots in front of our embassy is equipped with a bicycle rack. It is all part of the same package.

How do the Dutch and Finnish working life differ from each other?

One difference between the Dutch and Finnish working life is that very many people in Holland work part-time or flexible schedule such as three or four days a week, or five half-days. And also the working times are not from 8am to 4pm but some people come in at 6am and leave at 2pm and so on. In Finland it seems stricter.

Anything you would like to add on the topic of working from home?

I think I can see that the staff members who can work from home feel better. Their atmosphere in the office is more cheerful. In the 1960s you would have called them good vibrations!