On 12 March 2020, the Finnish Government declared a national state of emergency and adopted crisis legislation. The Parliament also deployed many restrictions and preventive measures. No more than 50 of the 200 MPs were allowed to participate in sessions simultaneously, and the plenary agenda was limited to issues concerning the pandemic. The Parliament House was closed to visitors. All employees were ordered to work remotely.
Even after the state of emergency in Finland ended on 16 June 2020, the restrictions and preventive measures at the Parliament continued. Restrictions were slightly relaxed in the Parliament as plenary sessions started again in September. The Parliament also approved temporary legislation concerning remote voting in plenary sessions. However, to date there has been no need to incorporate that voting method.
An exceptional year at the Records Office
March 2020 was an extremely laborious period for the work of Parliament, which enacted crisis legislation urgently. Several sessions a day was common, and the days were long due to interruptions for committee meetings. Sittings often extended past midnight.
When the essential crisis legislation was enacted, the workload became more moderate but the unpredictability prevailed. Plenary sessions were often either cancelled or announced at short notice. Sometimes sittings were very long, sometimes surprisingly short. One never knew what the day would be like beforehand. Nevertheless, the sessions grew remarkably shorter after the first few weeks.
In the autumn, the plenary agenda broadened and more debates were allowed. At first there was strong pressure to avoid normal political debating, but gradually the opposition began to criticise both the Government and its actions in response to the pandemic. Overall, the restrictions meant that plenary sessions were shorter than in previous years. An exceptional year also ended exceptionally: the passage of the state budget was completed in less than 40 hours, compared with the usual 60.
In addition, the Records Office took on a completely new and important task. As the European Union Directive on the accessibility of the websites and mobile applications of public sector bodies entered into force on 23 September, we began making public transcripts of permanently available parliamentary video recordings such as public committee meetings and Speaker’s briefings. This service has been a collaboration between the Records Office and the Parliament Information Office. It has gone well, but arranging and launching a completely new service remotely has also meant a lot of work in exceptional circumstances.
Reporting during the pandemic
The order to work remotely was given on 12 March 2020. By Monday 16 March, all employees had to work remotely unless the tasks demanded working at the Parliament House. All members of staff had laptops and, if necessary, stronger internet connection was provided. Screens, keyboards, headphones, foot pedals and in some cases even office chairs were moved home from the office.
Almost everything was up and running very quickly. A few of us had already done remote work on a regular basis during sessions, so we knew that working remotely was entirely possible. Of course, the scale of remote work was quite new.
Since March 2020, almost all staff have been working remotely. There is only one task that cannot be done remotely: in every session two reporters take turns working in the Plenary Hall, monitoring and controlling the recording and other technical systems, making notes of events and passing that information to colleagues using our electronic systems.
Convenient work process and electronic systems
Our normal process is optimal for remote work. Typists and reporters work in the office except the two Plenary Hall reporters. Almost all employees work in separate rooms and the communication between reporters and typists is mainly electronic during the session. We have two digital systems, a recording system called Solina and a case and document management system called Eduksi. There is no need for paper at any point. There are components within both Eduksi and Solina that support electronic communication. For example, you can add informal notes on both systems. Thus, we already had suitable work processes and electronic systems that made the transition to remote work easier.
We started using Microsoft Teams for internal communication. The instant messaging in the platform turned out to be useful. It is a convenient tool to discuss professional matters with colleagues. In the past, when editing a difficult speech, we would visit a colleague’s room, but now we explain the problem in Teams and share that information at the same time. Help is easily available, and the process of solving problems creates many fruitful discussions. In a sense, instant messaging has increased communication between colleagues.
We also introduced regular virtual meetings in a video call half an hour before the plenary session. In these meetings, the head of the office or the senior reporter shares information about the day’s session and other matters. There is also the opportunity to discuss and chat. A written summary of the meeting is saved in Teams for those who are unable to participate in the meeting. Informing the staff promptly and accurately of changes or breaking news has been very important.
We have also started a pilot project on an automatic speech recognition system. Our current process is biphasic: a typist makes a draft and then a reporter makes the required corrections to the draft. Speech recognition has especially helped the work of the typists, but sometimes it has even replaced the typist phase entirely.
All things considered, reporting has gone smoothly. Reports have been published on a normal schedule and the quality has been maintained. Internet connectivity, Parliament’s virtual environment and its crucial systems have worked reliably, allowing the employees to concentrate on our jobs. Working remotely has also given us the opportunity to review some current production methods.
Experiences of working from home
The experience of working from home has been largely positive. When sessions continue past midnight, working from home has a clear benefit. There is more time to rest and sleep if you eliminate the daily commute.
On the other hand, it has not been easy for everyone to set up a decent workplace at home. Particularly during the period when schools and nurseries were closed, it was difficult to combine work and taking care of children. The lack of personal and social contact are other big downsides. The sense of community suffers when everyone works mainly alone.
Despite the obvious cons, many of us hope to be able to work flexibly either at home or in the office in the future, according to circumstances and individual needs.
The restrictions and preventive measures now in place at the Parliament are likely to continue, and the order to work at home stands until 30 June 2021. We have adapted to the situation, but we miss one another. Hopefully, we will be able to meet again in the office soon!
Maarit Peltola is the head of the Records Office in the Parliament of Finland. Pauliina Peltokorpi is a senior reporter in the Records Office.