Can my boss force me to return to the office when Sweden scraps home-working recommendation?

From September 29th, Sweden's national recommendation to work from home if possible will be lifted, along with most other pandemic restrictions. But can your boss force you back to the workplace?

Can my boss force me to return to the office when Sweden scraps home-working recommendation?
With home-working recommendations set to disappear from September 29th, office workers might either be dreading or longing for the return to the workplace. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

While many people have been going to work as usual throughout the pandemic, such as healthcare, retail and school staff, national public health recommendations to work from home if possible have been in place for over a year.

This guideline will be removed on September 29th, along with most other pandemic recommendations and the legal restrictions on restaurants and events. 

What this means in practice will depend on your employer, the work you do, and any other special circumstances. Several major companies have announced a permanent shift to optional home-working, while others may have cut down on office space during the pandemic. 

So can your boss force you to return to the workplace?

The answer is yes. An employer always has the right to decide where work should be carried out, and that includes the option to mandate office-working.

This was even true during the pandemic. The national recommendations and guidelines obliged employers to allow home-working if possible (including making reasonable adjustments to facilitate it) and to make other arrangements to reduce the risk of infection, such as staggered working times or increased distancing at the workplace, but it was ultimately up to the employer to decide whether working remotely was feasible.

But if your boss asks you to return to the workplace and you don’t want to, you have a few options.

“It should always be possible to agree with your employer on what applies to you,” union lawyer Sofie Malmkvist told the TT newswire. “Then, there are several collective agreements which include sections on distance work.”

If there is nothing specific in your collective agreement (kollektivavtal) or individual employment contract about your place of work, you can speak directly to your manager or HR department about what would work best for you.

Even if your employer is bringing in a company-wide policy, there may be room to make exceptions for a good reason. This could be anything from requesting more time or specific days in the office or at home to fit around childcare commitments, or explaining if you are at a higher risk of serious illness from Covid-19 and don’t feel safe commuting. Even if it’s just a matter of your personal preference, after a year of home-working you might find that workplaces formerly opposed to allowing remote work will now be more open to it, especially if it means retaining happy employees. 

If you are concerned that your employer isn’t taking reasonable precautions against Covid-19 at work, there are a few routes you could take. You could speak directly to your manager, especially if they have taken a proactive approach on Covid-19 or other work safety issues. Your employer should be able to explain the steps they have taken to ensure a safe working environment, and this now includes reducing the risk of infection.

If you are a member of a union, you can speak to your union representative. Even if your workplace doesn’t recognise a union, you can still get advice on the best course of action, but in that case the union itself will have less influence.

And if your workplace does not recognise your union, you might still have a skyddsombud (work place environment representative), and if you don’t, the employees of the company can elect one. A skyddsombud is 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.

Another option to consider is speaking to your colleagues. If you have concerns, it’s likely others do too, and speaking up as a group often helps employees feel more secure and may make employers more inclined to listen.

At the other end of the scale, some workers might be keen to return to the workplace, for example if their home environment makes their work difficult to do. In that case, it’s unlikely your manager can force you to keep working remotely, according to Sofie Malmkvist.

“Just like before the pandemic, it depends on what you and the employer have agreed on. If you worked exclusively in the office before the pandemic, I have a hard time seeing that the employer can decide that you should work from home,” said the legal expert.

There may be exceptions, for example if your company has made a permanent switch to distance-working. 

A final thing to remember is that in Sweden, your employer is always responsible for your working environment, regardless of where that is. They need to take all reasonable steps to keep you safe and healthy, which might include providing office furniture if you work from home, or ensuring good ventilation if you return to the workplace.

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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.