We often talk of a Nordic-style utopia setting an example for the rest of us when it comes to better living, working better and just – well – being better.
And when it comes to nurturing the brightest minds in tech and innovation, the success stories speak for themselves. Spotify, Skype, iZettle, Klarna, Nokia, and many more technological pioneers were born in the Northern European region and as a result, the startup scene here is buzzing.
The Nordics and Scandinavia have long been a hot bed for advances in technology, particularly owing to the fact that people there have long been fast and curious adopters of the latest software.
But what is it that fuels the fascination with innovation in this part of the world and what are the factors that build this futurist mindset in their workforce?
Conversely Finland was last week voted the happiest place on earth in 2021 for the fourth year running in a UN-backed annual report. I cannot help but wonder if the two are linked.
British-born Matthew Hanwell, head of HR tech at Finnish tech company TietoEVRY, and previously HR Director at Nokia, believes there is an openness and trust towards new technology that he’s not experienced anywhere else in the world.
“One of the reasons I love working in Finland and across the Nordics is there’s an openness and a trust built into the mindset and very much a non-hierarchical approach to work,” Hanwell tells me.
“There’s a directness as well which defines our way of working. There’s a phrase in Finnish which I like. I didn’t understand it at first, but it essentially translates to: ‘Let’s just put the cat on the table.’ Do you know what I mean? It’s a better way of dealing with any problem that could arise.
“What I’ve always appreciated in the Nordics is the willingness to commit to something and get on and do it, whereas in other markets I’ve seen certain decisions become much more political internally. Particularly in the UK and the US you have to read between the lines more when it comes to decision-making. Whereas in the Nordics there is much more openness and transparency and a real willingness to jump onboard when it comes to technology adoption.”
So are technology and happiness linked? Hanwell agrees they could be.
“It’s well known that Finns can naturally be introverts,” he explains. “I think on a very intimate level this is part of the reason why they have such high technology adoption. Also factor in the high adoption of the internet and a very good and reliable high-speed connectivity infrastructure. I think physically in Finland, people have been almost happier to isolate themselves and work remotely in the pandemic because they already liked working this way and due to the disparate nature of some of our teams they were already living this way. I do think people are happier communicating through technology and having their own space to breathe. Though nothing does beat a face-to-face meeting. We tried virtual coffee mornings and they just didn’t work. We didn’t want the office whispering, we need to have a solid reason for getting together.”
Talking to me from his home office in Helsinki is nothing new for Hanwell.
“Even when I was at Nokia I had a home office, in fact I’ve had a home office since 1986! So it was always expected in tech companies here that you could work from home if you liked. But I know in other companies if you are not physically at work where your boss can see you then there’s always a suspicion that you’re not working. But again, this comes down to openness, transparency and trust which a huge part of working culture here. So we’ve always had that willingness to adopt the tools to allow us to work from anywhere and use them for clarity in our workplace communication.”
The Nordics tech scene is growing fast: since 2014, over €2.7 billion has been invested into Nordic tech startups. It’s also a maturing market; the 12 biggest tech firms here have a combined value of €60 billion.
And as an industry leader in rolling out HR tech as well as experience within the brightest minds of the tech business, Hanwell sees the advances in innovation triggered by the pandemic as a positive for his workforce.
“Last year we managed a merger 100% remotely so I tend to label 2020 as the year of the year of integration for us and it was a big success.” But 2021, he says, is “all about growth.”
Finns, Hanwell explains, are naturally more outward-looking because of the modest size of their own national markets. Many Nordics and Scandinavians study and work in English so the thought of a global scale-up, multi-market approach, employees relocating abroad, or pitching to an overseas investor isn’t intimidating.
“This year is really being labeled as the year of growth for many businesses here,” he says. “We’ve all witnessed the acceleration in digitalization and our team adapted and adjusted with relative ease. So while there might have been some pauses last year in terms of investment decisions, this year, companies are really looking to build on and maybe even accelerate their own digital transformation. And being an IT service company who helped companies do that, of course, that means opportunity for us.
“From an HR point of view we are constantly pushing to find ways to support that growth agenda. How do we help companies digitalize? How do we also use our own experience in our own ways of working to demonstrate how other companies can digitalize and grow?”
Hanwell says this excitement for progressing new technology underpins his plans for 2021.
“Have we learned new ways of working? Yes – of course. And we want to learn more. So we can better progress. I think personally, in my job, as is probably true in all technology jobs, there’s always more you can do, there’s always more value you can create, there’s always new features, new functions, or even old functions that you can look back on and go, can we get more value? Can we do more with the systems and the investments that we’ve made?
“I’m continuously looking to improve based on the technology we have, based on increasing or decreasing the integrations, increasing the transparency, increasing the collection and usage of data about our people. Because I think, you know, the better the better we use data, the more informed we are about the future.”
So is a more futurist outlook part of the reason why Finns are happier?
In Anu Partanen’s book, The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life, she argues that the freedom and opportunity Americans so outwardly cherish in the American Dream are currently thriving more in Nordic countries than in the United States. But she also pushes back—albeit gently—against the trendy notion that Nordic countries are paradises. Partanen’s principal question is the following: What’s the best way for a modern society to advance and seize opportunity?
Within that big question, Partanen poses more pointed questions about contemporary life in the United States: Is “freedom” remaining in a job you hate because you don’t want to lose the health insurance that comes with it?
Is “independence” putting your career on hold, and relying on your partner’s income, so you can take care of a young child when your employer doesn’t offer paid parental leave or day care is too expensive? Is realizing the American Dream supposed to be so stressful?
“What Finland and its neighbors do is actually walk the walk of opportunity that America now only talks,”
“It’s a fact: A citizen of Finland, Norway, or Denmark is today much more likely to rise above his or her parents’ socioeconomic status than is a citizen of the United States,” Partanen writes.
So what can other HR leaders learn from Hanwell’s approach in Finland to empower their workforce to succeed and grow?
“You have to get the basics right, and focus on the user experience,” Hanwell reveals. “I think there are always improvements you can make to just help employees and managers better use technology, make it more intuitive make it simple. I think HR generally tends to complicate things, and use language that perhaps the normal human being isn’t familiar with. So I think user experience is one.
What I’m looking for this year is more on the interaction side. Definitely the more chatbot functionality the better. We have a couple of examples of chatbots already. But I think that kind of conversational interaction with technology will hide some of the complexity from humans. And we’ll make it easier to sort of, as we all do on shopping channels like Amazon now, talk to something and work with it and get answers in the language that we use, rather than the language of the technology. So I think that that’s exciting to roll out.”
“The other big focus for me is data. As you know, we run a lot of transactions in HR, we have a lot of information about people. But are we putting that information to the best use? Can we turn that data into information into insights, and ultimately to stories that drive business decisions? I’m looking at more ways of discovering the data and using more reporting tools, and probably some statistical tools to really analyze data in a more complete way. Can we turn that data into information into insights, and ultimately to stories that drive business decisions?”
“One of the holy grails is and everyone uses the word analytics. But analytics, to me isn’t a report or a dashboard in a system. Analytics, to me is a study to prove or disprove a hypothesis or a business question. And it’s taking that question, unpacking it and looking at what data or evidence you might have, or you might be able to collect, collecting it, reviewing it, and answering the extent to which the hypothesis is true, based on the data. And that, to me is a very exciting area.
“When I was at Nokia, we used to do myth busting, as I called it with analytics, and it was fun in a way to sort of to test and prove the extent to which that certain statements that HR would say were true. Do we pay for performance or not? Do we have equal opportunities or not? To what extent do we do this or to what extent we do that? And I think the data is there. We just need to have the right tools and the right people who can present it in the right way for people to understand what it’s telling us.
“So I am constantly looking for new technology to help me gather and interrogate data. For 2021 this usually lies in AI. And moving forward it’s those data-backed decisions that will help you be better,” he concluded.