Unlocking the mystery of Portugal’s inflexible employment market

 In Start-Up

Portugal is on the tip of everyone’s tongues right now and justifiably so. It is fast becoming Europe’s new startup capital and will host the world’s biggest technology fair Web Summit for the next 10 years. Yet in many areas it still lags behind its European partners, particularly in flexible working practices. Young and dynamic consultant James Tattersfield and his small team at Polar Insight are trying to understand why

At Lisbon’s ground-breaking coworking space Second Home, secluded behind the mass of indoor pot

plants, a young Englishman and his team are trying to unlock the puzzle of why Portugal lags behind most other European countries when it comes to modern and flexible working practices.

To do this James Tattersfield, 28, Managing Director of research company Polar Insight has been leading a consortium of businesses, academics and policy makers, all of whom are interested in the topic.

According to the most recent EU data available (2015), Portugal ranks as one of the least work flexible countries

in the EU28, beaten only by Lithuania, Cyprus and Bulgaria and long hours and high levels of overtime are common.

That might sound surprising when Lisbon is currently touted as the new start-up capital of Europe with a plethora of co-working spaces like Second Home and business incubators dotted around the city celebrating the ability to work flexibly, but then as James Tattersfield explains, “From our research so far, our feeling is that Lisbon and the start-up scene is very much an exception rather that the rule when thinking about flexible working, so we wanted to thoroughly research working practices in Portugal and canvas ordinary people’s understanding, views and experience on the issue – not just the international or expat set.”

“We had expected a lack of flexibility from some Eastern European countries, but not from Portugal and thought it would be interesting to look at the reasons behind this, especially given that post-recession Portugal is currently going through a major transformation in which traditional organisations are clashing against new organisational models,” James says.

“We wanted to examine the environment in which these changes were taking place in Portugal and understand why and how far the flexible and remote working model is the driver behind them and, furthermore, how the overall working environment is being impacted.”


For James Tattersfield Rohan Silva’s Second Home is an interesting model for understanding the changing relationship between work and life because it demonstrates that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. “I believe that if you can establish a set of conditions where people feel like they are relaxed or at home in the workplace, they will be happier and work better rather than feeling they are chained and constrained to set working hours in a conventional office environment,” he notes. Tattersfield says that while the research sector, in particular, lends itself well to the flexible model, but points out that as a model for other types of businesses it has not been explored as much as it could be.


“Over the last decade, major cultural, professional and technology changes have changed our relationship with work,” explains James Tattersfield. “As a result, many organisations are now allowing their employees to choose when and where they work. While very beneficial in some ways, this has also had a number of undesirable associated effects, such as an erosion of worker’s rights and precariousness,” he adds. “It’s something that clearly needs to be explored in more detail.”

In Lisbon, Polar Insight has taken on two new staff members to work on the project.

Conducting the research with CEPCEP (Centre for Portuguese Speaking Peoples and Cultures) at Lisbon’s Católica university, Polar Insight’s research combines representative views from across the country with in depth analysis and case studies from large companies, start-ups, digital nomads, business psychologists and government entities.

Through its network of researchers, the project is speaking to over 1000 members of the Portuguese public about their perceptions and understanding of flexible working. The research is complemented by interviews and a minidocumentary about flexible working with businesses. In February 2019, Flex will also organise an event and create a website designed to highlight and discuss the findings.

James Tattersfield says that Polar Insight commissioned the Flex project because flexibility in the workplace is not only central to the way that the company delivers research projects to its clients but to the changing needs and circumstances of its clients. “We want to understand flexible working in Portugal so we can more easily work with clients in the country.”

So, what are the advantages of flexible working? James Tattersfield says that apart from being core to it’s own business now and in the future, he believes it will be the future of working practices more broadly because it has been shown to alleviate various engrained social problems such as the gender pay gap, it offers workers a more informal and relaxed working environment and provides companies with the ability to manage their fixed costs.


But there is more to Polar Insight than this current project on flexible working practices in Portugal. The company, which has a €300,000 turnover (achieved this without any financial investment from venture capital companies), also provides user research and advisory services for sales teams that are bidding for regional or national-scale service contracts (usually services being outsourced by government).

“We help these sales teams win more contracts and drive sales by arming them with the specialist insight they need to design complex services that surpass the expectations of the end-users or citizens involved, as well as demanding public sector customers and commissioners” explains James.

This includes everything from quantitative studies (pricing, appeal , etc.) to interviews, films to applied ethnography, depending on the needs of the contract at hand.

“As a focus, I’m particularly interested in mobility, both within society and across borders, and as such, try to support projects and clients that are designing clever ways to remove friction from mobility” says James.


Polar Insight has a network of researchers across the UK and Portugal that it calls ResearchOS, OS standing for ‘operating system’.

“We work with our freelance researchers on a flexible basis, building project teams of experts that are suited to our clients challenges. This is good for the client because they get expert talent and it’s good for us because we keep overheads low” says James. Polar Insight takes on the infrastructure, budget and project management, leaving the researchers to focus on delivering good research.

“We’re always on the look out for new researchers and have sponsored conferences like ‘Why the World Needs Anthropologists’ in Lisbon to recruit the best talent,” he says.


“My assumption so far is that Lisbon, by its very nature, has lots of organisations and innovation hubs like Second Home, but these probably represent anomalies in Portugal as a whole at the moment.

“Another interesting finding regarding startups is that just because an organisation is small, doesn’t mean that it is flexible”. James points around the Second Home open workspace. “Some of the people working here might be flexible workers based within a large organisation with a more traditional working structure.” he continues. “Customer service work can be done online and remotely using the flexible model, whereas other staff and the directors of these organisations and even startups may not necessarily be working flexiblyat all,” James ponders.


It wasn’t just his desire to discover why Portugal lagged behind its European partners in terms of flexible working that led the entrepreneur from Windsor, England to up sticks and move to Lisbon in August 2018. “Polar Insight is growing fast and apart from its well-educated workforce which has a high degree of fluency in English and other languages, it’s a great place to live in terms of lifestyle quality and a great place to build a business,” he says.

Wanting to expand to Europe, the fact that he had an Irish passport allayed any possible fears over Brexit while the Lisbon is well-connected and near to European hubs and the Middle East and North Africa region as well as having the same time zone as London.

“I had been working from Second Home in Brick Lane, London but wanted to get into a different environment and was in a position to do that” says the entrepreneur who studied Economic History at Edinburgh University, specialising in energy and security politics, Scottish independence, North Sea oil and the relationship between the two. These are researchers who understand the value of what they do and sell expertise which is useful when delivering a project where experts in a given focus area are needed and the company has to be able to demonstrate to the client what it can do.


In the future, James Tattersfield says that he may set up additional offices in other European countries while still running projects in Portugal. “Back office management can be done anywhere and within Europe it’s really easy to fly around from one place to another,” he points out. And while the Flex project is Polar Insight’s first foray into self-commissioned research, an important step to be taking for building the brand, he banks on it not being the last.