Can we transform our habits for the better post-coronavirus?

It’s often said that human beings are creatures of habit. But in 2020 the rhythms and routines that guide our professional and personal lives have been completely upended.

Can we transform our habits for the better post-coronavirus?
Photo: Erik Fernholm by Therese Winberg Photography

We’ve been forced to find new ways of organising ourselves, staying productive and acting with purpose. In Stockholm, a city that prizes equality, trust and vision, both individuals and businesses are quick to engage with such themes – and to think about their long-term potential. 

What trends in work and home life could help to positively shape the post-coronavirus world by transforming some of our habits for the better? In this article, part of a series on ‘Imagining the post-coronavirus world’, we look at some of the changes being made by and inspired by Stockholmers. 

Understanding why behaviour goes viral

“Very few people know that behaviours spread just like viruses,” says Erik Fernholm, CEO of Stockholm-based 29k. “We shape each other constantly and we always have.”

The non-profit organisation offers personal growth programmes through a free app used by 40,000 people in more than 150 countries. Users are put in small groups and learn through scientific insights from the likes of the Karolinska Institute and Harvard University, as well as chat and video sessions where people open up about their experiences and challenges. 

Three new programmes focused on anxiety, relationships and meaning were released in the app in response to coronavirus.

Interested in Stockholm’s vibrant tech and startup scene? Find out more from Invest Stockholm 

Fernholm, whose background is in neuroscience and happiness research, says we influence our peer group in everything from gaining weight to whether or not to vote. That makes the choices we all make during our current challenges vital.

“The worst thing is that people feel they are passive passengers,” he says. “What usually drives deep transformation is a crisis. For maybe the first time in history we can look at where our trajectory was going and ask ‘Are we proud of that?’ ‘Do we want to change that in any way as individuals and as companies?’”

Hannah Boman, from Stockholm, has completed two 29k courses this year. She says the app has not only helped her but has also led to friends thanking her for opening up more profound conversations.

Photo: Hannah Boman

“None of the superficial stuff mattered,” says Hannah. “We were in a little bubble. Everybody poured their hearts out and you learn about yourself through listening to other people. 

“It helped me understand the phases I’ve been through during this crisis, focus on self-care and have deeper conversations with friends. My group also talked about working from home and the importance of taking a walk, of nature, or of doing yoga or meditation.”

Working from home: why flexibility demands responsibility

Working remotely has been a topic of growing significance for a few years. But now it seems central to the future of work in many knowledge-based industries.

Stockholm is known for its progressive attitude towards work-life balance. But also for an understanding that flexibility in professional relationships requires a correspondingly high sense of personal and collective responsibility. 

Find out more about the new work culture at Stockholm’s tech firms

“The fact that Swedes inherently have high levels of trust in others is especially relevant now,” says Meredith Popolo, of Trustly, the Stockholm-based payments innovator. “When there’s widespread trust among colleagues and leaders, we all hold ourselves more accountable to do our best work.”

Coronavirus prompted Trustly to bring in a remote work expert who offered guidance on scheduling, ergonomic workspaces and dealing with distractions. Some teams have seen rising productivity, says Popolo, and Trustly is seeking to understand if that’s due to working from home or new workflows introduced shortly before coronavirus.

Personally, she has benefited from the Pomodoro Technique for time management. “I focus on a task for 25 minutes, break to do three minutes of dishes, then repeat,” she says. “My work is better quality when I’m fixated on a single task for a set period of time, plus my house is a little cleaner by the end of the day!”

Photo: Meredith Popolo of Trustly

Fernholm says many people think they must be hard on themselves to perform – but in reality that can be emotionally draining.

“Users of 29k have changed their relationship to their mistakes and how brave they are,” he says. “People say they are more motivated and do better at work but at the same time feel less pressured because they are not as obsessively judging themselves.” 

Video meetings: valuing the informal

Video meetings are a crucial aspect of new working patterns. But Fernholm warns they could be counterproductive if they are too narrowly focused.

“If we aren’t honest with each other when we feel hurt in a communication, people can lose energy from video calls,” he says. “There’s less chance that you feel seen.”

Popolo, Trustly’s Head of PR and Communications, says good communication is now more important than ever. That means knowledge sharing but also finding informal ways to replace chatting with colleagues as you “stroll around the office”.

“In video calls with fewer than ten people, we encourage employees to keep their microphones on to inspire spontaneous comments and questions – unless there’s a siren or barking in the background, of course,” she says. 

Read also: Imagining the post-coronavirus world: six Stockholm traits that offer rays of hope 

Meaning in ‘post-traumatic growth’

The name 29k refers to how long we live for on average: around 29,000 days. Fernholm says the current crisis has led to spikes in anxiety and loneliness and he believes market economies encourage “selling solutions for symptoms” rather than root causes because “a ‘fixed’ customer is a bad customer”. 

But he also sees some hopeful signs of people seeking greater meaning, wellbeing and connection.

“I’ve discovered another dimension of humanity,” says Hannah Boman, reflecting on her experience with 29k. “It’s been so important during this time but also something I want to keep as part of the ‘new normal’.”

Fernholm says the intention with 29k, which was initiated by Norrsken Foundation and the Ekskäret Foundation, both based in Stockholm, is to provide “scaffolding” to help individuals mature into “wiser decision-making”. That, he believes, is the only true way to address global problems from inequality to climate change.

We are all now familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder. But Fernholm says research suggests “post-traumatic growth” could be equally as common. 

“These people are happier, more values-driven,” he says. “They learned a lot about who they are, what they want to contribute to and they’re now using the trauma to live more purposeful lives. Research shows that safe and non-judging relationships are the catalysts of these effects, which is what we built the platform for.”

As our collective shock subsides and another video call approaches, perhaps we can all find ways to grow through new habits as we begin to create the post-coronavirus world. 

Did you know that Stockholm is recognised as one of the world’s most innovative regions? Find out more about this start-up hub and let its official investment promotion agency help you get connected.

This article was produced by The Local Creative Studio in partnership with Invest Stockholm.

For members


Why you could land a job in Sweden but still leave within a year

As many as 70 percent of internationals want to stay in Sweden but only 40 percent end up doing so. What can be done to improve this figure?

Why you could land a job in Sweden but still leave within a year

Almost ten years ago, Stockholm Akademiska Forum started its Dual Career Network, a network for the partners and spouses of top academics at Swedish universities to help them find work.

“The starting point was actually that one of our biggest universities had problems… they lost top scholars they had finally recruited to Sweden, and almost every time it was because the partner didn’t find a job in Stockholm,” Stockholm Akademiska Forum’s CEO, Maria Fogelström Kylberg, told The Local during a live recording of our Sweden in Focus podcast held as part of Talent Talks, an afternoon of discussions at the Stockholm Business Region offices on how to attract and retain foreign workers in Sweden.

“We thought ‘we’re in a good position representing 18 universities and the city to do something’, there’s strength in numbers,” she said.

To date, the forum has supported around 1,000 people, helped by a collaboration with Stockholm Business Region, which opened the network up to companies recruiting international staff.

In a new report, the forum highlighted the financial benefits for Swedish companies in hiring international talent, calling on Swedish companies to be more open to hiring foreign workers.

“There’s a lot of cost involved when you hire someone from abroad,” Fogelström Kylberg said. “They are often too focused on the person they are employing, but often for more senior roles, it’s a question of the whole family, it’s a family decision to move abroad.”

Companies invest a lot of money in employing someone, she said, but if their partner can’t find a job, they could leave within a year.

“Our numbers show that 88 percent of our members, these partners, have left an ongoing career and they are ready to start working tomorrow… but in Sweden, also for Swedes, it’s quite normal for it to take a year to get a new job,” she added.

“It’s a complete waste, because the person leaves and also Sweden loses money, because we could be getting income tax from two people,” she said.

It’s not just income tax which Sweden is missing out on, either. Accompanying family consume goods and services in Sweden, contributing towards the economy even if they are not working.

So-called third country students – students from non-Nordic, non-EU countries – often have particular issues with finding a job in order to stay in Sweden, as they only have a short amount of time to secure a position after their studies are complete, Fogelström Kylberg said.

“We’re doing a pilot project now starting in October, called the Stockholm Student Academy, built on the same basis as the Dual Career Network academy, for 250 students, master students from all universities together in a common programme with the same content to get to know Sweden, how the job market is organised, meeting in six different universities, extra social activities together. We need to do something as it’s a really big problem, they cannot stay but they want to. Students are an important resource.”

Laureline Vallée, who moved to Sweden alongside her partner and found a job after five months, describes dual career support as “really important”.

“It’s really challenging for the following partner,” she said. “So they also need to be integrated into society, and if not, the company has a high risk of losing their employee. And it means another move for the family.”

The Dual Career Network run by Stockholm Akademiska Forum is based in the capital, but there are other similar networks available for people based elsewhere in Sweden.

“There’s a similar one in Lund, they have a bigger region, as they have Malmö and Copenhagen too, and they have other challenges,” Fogelström Kylberg said.

“There are also a lot of other good initiatives, like Korta vägen or Yrkesdörren, which can really help. So the situation isn’t hopeless, it’s started and it has to grow, as we don’t want to lose more people.”

Listen to the full interview with Maria Fogelström Kylberg, Amanda Herzog and Laureline Vallée in The Local’s Sweden in Focus Extra podcast for Membership+ subscribers.

Interview by Paul O’Mahony, article by Becky Waterton