What the Dutch can teach the world about remote work

The Netherlands may have figured out something about working from home (pandemic or no) that the rest of the world has yet to learn.

8 July 2020

If you’ve been balancing your laptop on a precarious stack of cookbooks, or lamented VPN speed from your kitchen table, you’re not alone. Ever since restrictions were put in place to slow the spread of Covid-19, companies have been scrambling to enable colleagues to work from home.

As we adapt to the much-cited ‘new normal’, some experts are predicting that remote work might be here to stay. This is leaving many nervously eyeing up our makeshift home desk set-ups, and wondering how on earth we can handle the backache.

But for some, remote working is just another day at the office. Thousands of workers in the Netherlands benefit from the country’s astonishingly flexible work culture. While the percentage of employed persons usually working remotely before the coronavirus outbreak lingered at around 4.7% in the UK, and 3.6% in the US, 14.1% of the Netherland’s workforce reports usually working away from the office. The Netherlands has long led the global shift toward remote work, with only Finland catching up in recent years while other countries lag behind.

“When the pandemic started, I suddenly found myself playing the part of a remote-work coach for my wife and our neighbours,” says Yvo van Doorn, an Amsterdam-based engineer. “I was suddenly answering questions about home networks and video conferencing. It was eye-opening because I’d taken these things for granted.”

Across the globe, many companies have found that the shift to remote work has been a less-than-smooth transition. Setting up usually office-based staff with computer equipment, and recalibrating working culture to keep employees connected, has been a significant shift for most. But for the Netherlands, the country’s already sizeable remote workforce means that the adjustment has been much less dramatic.

“Dutch people had certain advantages when we went into lockdown,” explains van Doorn, whose employer Auth0 gives all workers the option for flexible work, offers a budget to create a comfortable and productive home working set up, and helps to arrange coworking spaces if needed. “We’re fortunate enough to be a country where 98% of homes have high-speed internet access, and the Netherlands has the right combination of technology, culture, and approach to make remote working successful. I’m judged on whether I deliver value, not on the fact that I sit at a desk for nine hours a day. ”

A culture ripe for remote work

As we begin to tentatively imagine a post-pandemic future, there will be many who find themselves looking wistfully toward van Doorn’s permanent home working set-up.

Results of a recent US poll, conducted mid-crisis, suggest that 59% of remote workers would like to continue to work remotely as much as possible once restrictions on businesses and school closures are fully lifted. Major international companies, including Barclays and Twitter, have already suggested that expensive city office space may become a thing of the past. Both have already hinted at an end to the commute for its employees, planning potentially long-term remote work policies for after the pandemic.

Dutch King Willem-Alexander working from home in a posed photo at The Hague in April. Many Dutch have been working from home, even pre-pandemic (Credit: Getty Images)

Aukje Nauta, an organisational psychology professor at the University of Leiden, who is researching how companies can enhance individuals in a dynamic work context, believes that employers could look toward the Netherlands for inspiration as they consider how best to implement remote-work policies and set up virtual offices.

“Values such as democracy and participation are deeply rooted in the Dutch working culture, so managers place more trust in their workers than elsewhere in the world,” she says. “For example, ING bank [an influential Dutch company based in Amsterdam] now has a policy on unlimited holidays implemented for pilot groups of workers, who can take as much holiday as they want as long as their tasks do not suffer. Employers elsewhere are now learning that employees can be trusted to work from home, and I believe that in post-corona[virus] times, smart combinations of working from home and meeting in real life will emerge more and more worldwide.”

But there are also broader economic and social contexts that enable remote work to flourish in the Netherlands.

“Physical infrastructure is well developed, and public and commercial remote-working facilities are plentiful,” says Bart Götte, a business futurist and psychologist based in Amersfoort. “Public libraries have reinvented themselves as massive and comfortable modern working spaces, and there are an enormous number of small, quality coffee shops that service the remote workforce. Employers in the Netherlands have also seized the opportunity to cut costs and become more productive – they need less square metres of expensive office space, and strict sick pay legislation in the Netherlands means that they are motivated to make sure that their workers have healthy working facilities at home.”

The explosion of remote working facilities in the Netherlands hasn’t just benefited employees of large companies. Around 1.1 million workers in the Netherlands are self-employed, and the normalisation of the virtual office has made it easy for freelancers and small business start-ups to operate without the need for dedicated office space.

“I’m a solo-preneur and currently work from home,” says Lara Wilkens, an event producer in Amsterdam. “Working from home is better for the environment, and we have great paid co-working spa

‘The power to reorganise’

With the Netherlands displaying an admirable level of trust in its employees and an understanding of the digital frameworks needed to support remote work, other countries may now be looking towards the Dutch as they plan a post-Covid future.

Many countries struggle with a culture of presenteeism, with 83% of UK employees reporting having observed pressure within their workplace to ‘show up’ regardless of whether their mental or physical health allows it. In the US, around 15% of homes do not have broadband, and one in five employees report feeling guilty about taking time away from the office, worrying that this might make them seem less committed to their job. While the Netherlands displays a combination of attuned infrastructure, investment in a digital future, and culture of trust that makes it an aspirational archetype of a well-oiled remote world, companies in other countries still have much to understand and adapt to as Covid-19 ushers in a less office-based future.

“What we have seen over the last few months is the power to reorganise,” says Götte. “We are now working remotely on a massive global scale. I think that we will come out of this crisis more digitally literate, aware that many of us are capable of working remotely, with more autonomy, and perhaps an aspiration to become more independent. Due to the accelerating forces caused by Covid, other countries are in a turbulent learning curve, and people are rethinking old policies, procedures, customs, and values. When circumstances change so massively we simply have to learn by doing, and that is perhaps the most important lesson.”

Source: BBC