Working in Sweden: Can my boss force me to return to the office?

As Swedish authorities urge people to work from home if they possibly can, what are your options in a workplace that doesn't support this?

Working in Sweden: Can my boss force me to return to the office?
The short answer is 'yes', but you do have options if you feel you're being sent back to work too soon. Photo: Vidar Ruud/NTB scanpix/TT

The recommendation from the Public Health Agency is to work from home “if possible” to minimise the spread of the coronavirus; that's been in place since March and continues to apply at least until the end of this year, and likely for longer.

This means that the final decision is up to individual employers.

Of course for many it's not possible to work from home. Staff at public transport, the care and medical sector, and schools have mostly been continuing to work from their usual workplace throughout the pandemic.

In fact, that's one of the reasons for the 'work from home' recommendation – if people who can work from home do so, it reduces crowding on transport and in city centres, making it safer for those who cannot work remotely. 

If your work can be done from home, the message is clear that your employer should not only encourage but actively ensure that this happens. Many of the regional coronavirus recommendations now in place across most of the country include a call tot employers to ensure home-working to a greater extent.

Passengers at the Slussen bus station in Stockholm. Photo: Naima Helén Jåma/TT

Some Swedish companies have announced plans for long-term home-working. Others might be taking a phased approach, where offices will be filled to only partial capacity, or staff will have the option to come in only on certain days of the week, or only to work on tasks that require being on-site.

If you have a specific reason to work from home – for example if you belong to a risk group for Covid-19, or if you have symptoms consistent with the virus – you should speak to your employer and get your union involved if needed.

This might be particularly useful for jobs that are usually not possible to do from home but where it may be possible for individual exceptions to be made. And if you belong to a risk group and cannot do your work, you can also apply for compensation, which was recently extended up to the end of March 2021.

Others may not belong to a risk group but want to work from home in order to help curb the spread of the virus, as authorities are recommending. If you are in this position and your employer is not supporting home-working, it can be valuable to band together as a group with other employees to explain your concerns. Your employer has a responsibility to provide a safe working environment, and that includes taking protective measures.

Be aware that refusing to work from the workplace could be seen as refusal to work which can have serious consequences, so try to approach the issue proactively, presenting your manager with your proposed solutions.

It may be possible for you to continue working from home, or you might reach a solution such as only working from the office for a limited number of hours per day or days per week, or staggering your working hours to avoid rush hour on public transport.

If you're a member of a union, you should have access to support from them. The influence that they have depends on whether your workplace officially recognises the union; if they do, then the union can raise these issues on behalf of employees, and if not, they can still give you advice about your rights and possible courses of action.

Even if your workplace doesn't have union recognition, check if you have a skyddsombud (work place environment representative). If you don't have one, the employees of the company can elect one.

This person will be responsible for representing employees on the subject of workplace safety and environment, including involvement in discussions and risk assessments about the work environment, requesting additional measures, and even asking for work to be paused if they judge there is a high risk to employee safety.

If you have any questions about working or living in Sweden, please email our editorial team at [email protected].

Member comments

  1. Be very careful with this. The boss at my company threatened to fire anyone who did not come to the office even though we were all on permittering and supposed to work 40%. Eventually he did fire half the staff. Unionen did absolutely nothing. The company fired them under the pretense of restructuring and Unionen said small companies (under 10 employees) can do that and there is basically nothing that can be done.

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For members


EXPLAINED: Can you negotiate a pay rise in Sweden to offset inflation?

With Sweden's central bank expecting inflation of nearly 8% this year, everyone working in the country is in line for a real-terms pay cut. We asked Gunilla Krieg, central ombudsman at the Unionen union, what scope there is to negotiate a salary hike to compensate.

EXPLAINED: Can you negotiate a pay rise in Sweden to offset inflation?

With Sweden’s central bank expecting inflation of nearly 8% this year, everyone working in the country is in line for a real-terms pay cut. We asked Gunilla Krieg, central ombudsman at the Unionen union, what scope there is to negotiate a salary hike to compensate.

How soon can I get a pay rise to compensate for high inflation? 

Probably not for a while. 

About 90 percent of workers in Sweden are covered by the collective bargaining agreements made between employers and the country’s trade unions. The last round of salary deals was negotiated at the union-employer level back in 2020, and most of them will remain valid until March or April next year.

This means that most employees in Sweden will not see their salaries adjusted to take inflation into account for at least nine months. 

“Under this special model that we have, we already have a level for the wage increases for this year, so you can’t get compensation for the inflation right now,” Krieg explained. 

You might be able negotiate a pay rise in addition to what the unions have agreed in your personal salary review, she added. 

“Of course, you have that freedom. Whether you work in a small company, or a big company, a company that has a collective agreement, or one that doesn’t, you always have the freedom to ask for a salary rise,” Krieg said. 

The only issue is that most unionised companies only offer personal salary reviews once a year, and for the majority of employees, the window of opportunity passed in the spring. 

“You have to find out when you have a salary review as part of the collective agreement you have at your own workplace,” Krieg recommended. “For most collective agreements, that is in the spring, although some collective agreements have it in the autumn.” 

What if I’m not part of a union? 

If you are among the 10% of workers not covered by a collective bargaining agreement, you can ask for a pay rise whenever you like, but unlike union members, you have no right to a pay rise. The decision is wholly up to your employer. 

Gunilla Krief is the central ombudsman for the Unionen union. Photo: Patrik Nygren/Unionen

So will the unions eventually negotiate above-inflation pay increases? 

Probably not. 

Unions in Sweden have historically been quite responsible, and understood the risk of creating a wage-price spiral by demanding wage increases that match or exceed inflation.

“Twenty-five years ago, we had a really high wage increases in Sweden, and we had very, very big inflation, so people got more money in their wallets, but they couldn’t buy anything, because inflation went up much higher than wages,” Krieg explained, putting the union perspective.

“We always take responsibility for the entire labour market, and that’s good in the long term,” she added. “There’s been much more money in the wallet for employees in Sweden over the past 25 years. That’s why we think we should we should not panic because of inflation. It may be that for one year it will mean less money in the wallet, but in the long run we benefit.” 

Can I argue for an inflation-busting pay rise in my salary review? 

You can certainly argue for a pay rise of 8 percent, or even more, but you don’t cite inflation as a reason for it. 

“Everything is individual, so you can, of course, negotiate up your salary, and there is no limit to how much you can ask for,” Krieg explained.

“If you have a job or an education for which there’s a shortage on the Swedish market, then you can get a much higher wage increase. Up in the north of Sweden, where we have [the battery manufacturer] Northvolt, and we have mines and the steel industry, they are looking for a lot of competence right now, and there you can have a much higher rise in wages.” 

But, particularly if you’re covered by collective bargaining, you can’t really cite inflation as justification, as that is one of the factors that unions and employers are supposed to factor in during their negotiations. 

What’s the best way of getting a big pay rise? 

The best way to get a pay hike of as much as 5,000 kronor or 10,000 kronor a month, Krieg suggests, is to apply for other jobs, even if you don’t end up taking them. 

“You can get offers from other companies, and then you can tell your employer that ‘I really liked it here, I enjoy this work, and I want to stay here, but now they are offering me 10,000 kronor more at another company, and if you can raise my salary like that,  of course I will stay here’,” she said.

In a normal salary interview, she adds, it’s important to be able to demonstrate your results. Look again at your job description, and what your goals are for the year, and identify concrete achievements that meet or exceed these goals. If you have any additional duties, you can cite them to argue for a higher salary. If you’ve done any courses, or learned any skills, you can cite these. 

At any time in the year, if your superiors praise any work you have done, keep those emails, or write it down, so that in your salary review, you can say, “you said that this report I did was ‘the best you’ve ever seen’,” or such like. 

Finally, you should find out in advance if there are any salary criteria being applied, so that you can argue that you exceed them, and so demand a higher raise than that agreed for the company as a whole with the union.