Set them free

Why is choosing the right people one of the most important decisions a company makes?

Reetta Räty, 02.09.2016

Long form

What happens when an employer hands out a credit card to all of the employees, telling them to use it as they see fit? Why is choosing the right people one of the most important decisions a company makes?  Journalist Reetta Räty delved into different workplaces, asking employees and experts what it takes to create a good corporate culture.

An open and honest workplace that looks like us

A Facebook update of Communications Specialist Miia Savaspuro pretty much sums up the corporate culture at her workplace:

In my development discussion, I told Kirsi theres something special about the corporate culture at Ellun Kanat. You cant necessarily put your finger on these things, but good management, and being able to make our workplace look like us play a major role. We all make decisions, nobody is left on their own, and we bring things out in the open, while always staying friends. And we know that management is always on our side.

The person mentioned in the status update is Miias boss Kirsi Piha, owner and founder of communications agency Ellun Kanat.

You often hear that you should invest in the corporate culture when times are good, as it will become vital when it gets harder.

Its of course a pleasure (and perhaps a little envy-inducing) to hear of such a nice workplace. Were friends! Management is always on our side! But its worth paying attention to what Savaspuro says. Its not only about having fun at work; in addition – or above all – Ellun Kanat is reaping excellent results, and currently undergoing a heck of a rally, as the companys press release describes its growth.

The communication agencys 2015 turnover rose to EUR 3.16 million, with profits amounting to EUR 701,000. Ten per cent of net profit was distributed as bonuses among employees. Weve worked damn hard together, so we also celebrate together, Kirsi Piha explains her decision to share profits with employees. 

You often hear that you should invest in the corporate culture when times are good, as it will become vital when it gets harder. 

Savaspuro has noticed a direct link between a good corporate culture and personal motivation, and thus also company profits. 

When you are trusted as an employee, you only want the best for the company. You care about what happens to it, and want to be a part of the development. It makes you feel like its your own even when it isnt.

How can you create a corporate culture like this? Or is it something that either appears or doesnt appear - something you cant put your finger on? 

Miia Savaspuro is a former financial journalist, but like many others took a leap into communications, which is growing, unlike the media industry where times are bleaker. Ellun Kanat was established in 2008, currently employing just over 30 people. 

In my previous jobs, someone who became a manager would lose all their human qualities, and turn all formal and stiff.

Theres a huge difference compared to the corporate cultures of my former employers, evident for instance in attitudes towards titles and managers, she says.

Here, the managing director isnt some MANAGING DIRECTOR you try your hardest to please, and she doesnt behave as her title necessarily suggests, either.

The Managing Director of Ellun Kanat is Taru Tujunen (b. 1970), former party secretary of Finlands National Coalition Party, and renowned for speaking her mind. 

In my previous jobs, someone who became a manager would lose all their human qualities, and turn all formal and stiff. Its bit much, as we are all human after all, no matter what the position, says Savaspuro. 

The corporate culture at Ellun Kanat wasnt born by accident. The companys public blog mentions investments in corporate culture, going on to describe the companys attitude towards hierarchy as follows (27 August 2015): 

Typically, rapid growth is governed by adding a whole load of structures, processes, and hierarchy. The semi-anarchistic operating model of Ellun Kanat doesnt really gel with hierarchy. The company solved its growing pains in a way true to itself: investing in corporate culture.

According to Miia Savaspuro, corporate culture is hard to explain and verbalize; its something seen and felt on a daily basis. If Savaspuro were to sum up the vibe at Ellun Kanat in just one word, it would be trust.

No-one ever breathes down the neck, which Im really glad about. Ive been surrounded with trust. I can come and go without having to report my every move.

Savaspuro claims that freedom to work in her own style and pace is motivating and efficient.

A grown-up in an expert role is entitled to feel they can work independently without others thinking theyre skiving. A surprising number of employers continue to think people need watching. In my previous workplace, even working from home was made difficult. Instead, you had to try and concentrate in a noisy editing office wearing noise-cancelling headphones, even though a remote day would have been far more efficient.

The corporate culture at Ellun Kanat was never taught as such to Savaspuro. She says you sense it. How exactly?

People dont back-bite, for instance.

Anything else?

You never have to try and solve something on your own unless you want to. Theres always someone ready to help, no matter how busy it gets.

Surely there must be conflicts even in the best workplaces...

Well yes! Absolutely!

How are those handled?

Instead of yelling, you may say that things didnt go quite as planned, Miia Savaspuro describes, adding that an atmosphere of trust involves daring to talk about problems without fear of getting fired or transferred to another role.

Here, you let the cat out of the bag and talk.

So do you have a perfect workplace? 

Savaspuro laughs. Its not perfect! But she does think that certain cultures suit certain people. Plenty of freedom and the ensuing responsibility arent for everyone. 

Many other companies that invest in corporate culture think along these lines, too: the idea is to recruit people who fit in with the culture. If someone is unhappy, its better for everyone if they find a more suitable place. 

Verbalizing and communicating the corporate culture has an impact on employer branding. That company has a fair vibe, Id like to work there! 

Recruitment is of key importance in this type of situation – finding employees who fit in with the culture, says Miia Savaspuro. Personal chemistry plays its part, too: whether you like someones management style, and it fits in with your way of working and thinking. Respecting managers and each other usually helps. 

The worst scenario is an indifferent employee who doesnt care what happens to the company.

Funnily enough, the work itself has less impact on job satisfaction than the corporate culture does; what a workplace is like matters more than whats done there.

During her career as a financial journalist and now as an account director, Savaspuro has seen all sorts of companies and corporate cultures.

The worst scenario is an indifferent employee who doesnt care what happens to the company.

No bosses, budgets, or clocking in

Software company Vincit is often described for what it doesnt have: no administrative managers, budgets, timecards – none of those tedious sides that seem to go hand in hand with traditional office work. 

But just as easily, Vincit could be described for what it has: a whole host of awards for its greatness in this and that, such as management practices, increased turnover, occupational welfare, and HR. Some of its other awards include: Great Place to Work 2015; Workforce 2015 Game Changer Winner; Company of the Year; Employee Act of the Year; Employer of the Year in the Tampere Region; Timangi prize of the Ministry of Employment and Economy And to top it all off, at least Vincits own surveys demonstrate 100 per cent satisfaction among customers. 

Services include: network services and information systems; mobile applications; and conceptualization and UI design. 

Lets recap Vincits miracle: being awarded for management practices but having no managers, and great results without budgets

Vincits HR Director Johanna Pystynen, how this is even possible?

A lot of our employees are fed up with the traditional corporate world, where employees are mistrusted and micromanaged. Here, its the opposite.

Pystynen listens patiently even though she has probably heard the question a hundred times. Groups visit Vincit even on a weekly basis to find out more about its novel corporate culture, and people at Vincit have visited hundreds of companies to share their thinking. 

We believe that highly motivated people achieve the most when they are independent, states Pystynen. A lot of our employees are fed up with the traditional corporate world, where employees are mistrusted and micromanaged. Here, its the opposite.

According to Pystynen, Vincits corporate cultures key words are openness and autonomy. 

Weve noticed that without autonomy, employees stay in their comfort zones without developing. We aim to create a framework where people have the guts to decide for themselves.

Pystynen mentions purchasing as an example. Everyone has a credit card they can use at their own discretion. 

When people get to decide for themselves, purchases are justified. Everyone thinks hard whether buying something is useful for the firm. Our expenditure is really modest despite employees having the freedom to decide even on larger training needs, recreational days, or getting a new office chair.

Recently, employees decided to add a Wii to their childrens equipment library that can be borrowed for a childs birthday party, for instance. A small investment, but a big source of joy.

Pystynen feels that also the companys rewards system encourages responsible financial management. When profits are up, everyone gets a proper bonus. 

Messing with our joint money takes away from everyone.

On the subject of recreational days, Pystynen is quick to correct a general misconception relating to good corporate culture. Theres a prevailing idea that a good corporate culture means lots of parties and a soda machine.

Yet, according to Pystynen, 95 per cent of a good corporate culture is the result of something else completely. 

Knick-knacks arent much help if the foundation isnt right.

Vincit believes its employees must be supported to achieve their own dreams. Recruitment is done with great care. The main focus is on whether the candidates personal dreams are in line with the company. If they are, everyone wins. 

Is this the right setting for your professional wishes? would be a foundational question. 

We think about ways to tackle fears and risks together. Thats what weve always done in a new situation.

Pystynen thinks you cant develop into a top expert without passion. As we sell top expertise, our corporate culture must also support top expertise. At HR, we dont need to worry about the type of technology people need to be trained in. Here, staff does their own scouting on areas they need to immerse themselves. They have an inner motivation to stay in tune with tacit trends, and find the relevant skills. This way, an employees personal passion and desire to develop are in tune with the goals of the company.

Vincit has offices in Tampere and Helsinki. In fall 2015, the company announced a merge with IT infra service specialist Javerdel Oy. The joint company now employs a staff of 220, with the 2015 turnover totaling approximately EUR 26 million. Most employees have an educational background in technology, with Pystynen, who studied adult education, being an exception. Currently, the companys staff includes less than 20 women, but the trend will hopefully change.  

Twelve people took part in recruiting Pystynen. She thinks people had their concerns that HR would come and ruin the companys relaxed vibe. Many thought this was where all that meaningless reporting would begin. Another concern was that people would have to start being tidier, as a woman was joining the ranks.

At the time of joining the company, Pystynen thought of herself as a modern HR professional used to a cutting-edge working culture in IT. But she soon realized she needed to even unlearn some of her reformist attitudes. 

Everything works differently here.

Such as? Lets dig out some more examples. 

I used to think the management team needs to have a shared vision for things to work out. But now Ive understood that its not necessary. People are critical here. Continuously challenging one another is part of the game, and the same goes for the companys vision.

The main attitude on the companys Slack is: sounds really weird, lets give it a shot!

Slack is a cloud-based teamwork tool that people at Vincit use to discuss, and at times argue about company issues. Currently, the discussion centers around what will happen when the company gets listed. Will it have to turn into a normal company? Will decisions still be made together? Will thinking in quarters ruin all thats good? 

Everything is discussed openly, the fears, and opportunities, Pystynen describes. She believes that Vincit will retain its defining features even as a public company. We think about ways to tackle fears and risks together. Thats what weve always done in a new situation.

How about development discussions, are they held? 

Of course not, at least not the traditional kind. There are after all no managers. Instead, the company may arrange salary weeks. This means publishing the salaries of anyone up for it (usually meaning everyone), so people can make their own comparisons. Those who arent satisfied can reserve a salary discussion to review what they have done for a.) customers, and b.) colleagues, also the latter affecting remuneration. Salary discussions involve jointly thinking about what an employee can do to make the same amount of money as X, who gets paid more. 

Kuitunen was fed up with what typically went on in big workplaces: dictating managers, and unjustified decisions.

There are also those who come and ask if they can do something more, so colleagues dont start to think why they earn so much.

Vincit was founded in 2007 by Mikko Kuitunen, MSc., Industrial Economics and Management. According to interviews with Kuitunen, the initial goal of the company was to get to turn up at work on a Monday morning without it sucking. 

Kuitunen was fed up with what typically went on in big workplaces: dictating managers, and unjustified decisions. His company would do things differently. Employees would get to decide. Projects are entered into an app, and each person gets to choose the projects they want to join. Employees influence what the company does, and who with. 

If our coders arent interested in a project for a customer, a deal wont be made, Kuitunen states in an article in Finlands main daily Helsingin Sanomat (11 July 2014). 

Vincit is continuously on the lookout for new talent. This spring, the company is offering summer jobs. On the companys website, last years summer team praises the firm with the usual lingo: Not a bad place to hang out – chili garden, table tennis room, and top-notch working areas. In addition to working, we did all sorts of other fun things together, from karaoke to climbing.

Its important for everyone to understand why we do things the way we do; corporate culture isnt something you superimpose.

Its easy for a successful software company to grow chilies and talk about dreams. But how can you revel in freedom in a monotonous factory job, or in the crisis sector, where vacancies are hard to come by?

Pystynen and her colleagues are used to people saying they could try something new but just cant.

Weve talked about corporate culture and job satisfaction with people in manufacturing, says Pystynen. She thinks the biggest hindrances for change are beliefs that steer peoples conduct in the workplace. So many things can be done or left undone without causing any damage. People just dont believe before they try.

So Vincits model could be put to the test at a pulp mill? 

Definitely!

Pystynen protests against the notion that things would be financially simple and risk-free for Vincit. Thats not the way it is at all. The downturn affects customers, and the entire software industry. Vincit was actually on the verge of bankruptcy in its early stages. But the company has held on to a belief that money woes are not solved with tighter control. 

Vincits corporate culture is facing a challenge right now after its merge with a firm that has a so-called normal culture. 

We dont want to force the integration of our different cultures, Johanna Pystynen says. That would be too much. People need to be given time to adjust and process things. Its important for everyone to understand why we do things the way we do; corporate culture isnt something you superimpose.

A hierarchical authority testing its limits

The yellow, colossal main building of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland is situated in the Katajanokka area of Helsinki. There are sturdy, locked gates, large inner courts, and readers for access cards. Inside, its all hushed, with under-secretaries, chiefs, and officers working away in their own rooms along lengthy corridors. 

Theres no cozy kitchen, like at Ellun Kanat, or table tennis table, like at Vincit. 

The Foreign Ministrys Director General of Communications Jouni Mölsä is well aware of the cliché: The ministry is a really hierarchical authority.

But how about in reality? Is it all stiff and strict? 

Also in public administration, you can shape your own work quite a bit, says Mölsä. 

Everyone knows how to sail in light winds, but if you want to be a boss, you have to be ready to navigate deeper waters.

Mölsä applied for the position at the Foreign Ministry without knowing his first task would be to cut down the staff at the Communications and Cultural Department by half. 

The phone rang at 4.12 pm on an early summer Friday in 2012. On the other end of the line, Secretary of State Pertti Torstila brought the news that Mölsä had been chosen as the new communications director, but would have to face cutting down staff numbers by 40 man-years. Mölsä was Press Councellor at the Embassy of Finland in London at the time. 

I said Id like to think it over until Monday, says Mölsä. By Saturday, I reached the conclusion that if I wanted to try being a director, I had to be ready to try it also when times are challenging. Everyone knows how to sail in light winds, but if you want to be a boss, you have to be ready to navigate deeper waters.

The changes didnt just apply to the number of staff. Erkki Tuomioja, who was Foreign Minister at the time, gave Mölsä a task: revamp the Foreign Ministrys communications. 

So began a change process that didnt end until summer 2015. 

Mölsä calculates that his current position is his 17th employment relationship.

Is the working culture in the public sector that different from the private sector? 

According to Mölsä, in certain terms the answer is yes. 

First of all, the task of a public organization is not only down to the head. The Communications Department, for instance, cannot just expand into another sector, or abandon a product or service as they choose. The Director General of Communications doesnt decide on employees salaries, or delegate roles within the organization as he wishes. The pay grade is determined according to the official job description; in other words, the salary is the same for the same position regardless of how well you do the job. 

Some Foreign Ministry employees take part in career circulation, whereby a key person may get transferred to another role even at just two days notice, without the boss having much to say. 

A public sector director doesnt have all the tools as in the private sector. And as you cant motivate employees with money, you have to do it through content, describes Mölsä. 

From the viewpoint of change management, not measuring everything in quarters is one of the public sectors good sides. We were able to get on with our own change process in peace. I dont think we would have had as much time in the private sector. 

Unbending hierarchy and lack of creativity are often considered the downsides of the working culture in the public sector. Mölsä and his colleagues have been determined to create a new way of working right from the start of the change process. The aim was a process thats as engaging as possible, says Mölsä. He thinks the limits inside our heads are the worst, and more restrictive than the working culture inside the organization. You can do a whole lot, as long as you refrain from thinking this or that is impossible. We concentrate on answering just one question: What would our department do, if it was established now? 

John P. Kotters eight-step change management model was applied to leading the change.

Mölsä had come across the model through Pekka Mattila, Group Managing Director at Aalto EE, who had held a speech at the Annual Meeting of Finnish Heads of Mission in 2010. In practice, the entire change plan was built around Kotters process model, which helped keep the process that involved hundreds, and even thousands of decisions as a manageable whole, describes Mölsä. 

In addition to the austerity plan, the Communications Department suddenly faced a roof renovation, and was forced to move to temporary premises for nine months. After the initial shock, the department started to think about ways to make the boxy 1980s space into a tool that supported the new way of working. 

The initial mood was that due to our liability obligations, we all needed our own rooms and thats that, describes Mölsä. 

After talks and trials, the department opted for a multi-space concept with plenty of open-plan working areas. Only six of the 48 employees have their own appointed workspaces. The general feel is that working in the open-plan areas results in spontaneous encounters and exchanges of ideas. 

Silos between departments and units have been a typical problem in the ministry. Now weve reached a point where information travels spontaneously, people meet together in small teamwork rooms, and you dont have to spend lots of time looking for suitable slots on the Outlook calendar and sit down for official meetings. 

Mölsä has been sharing the experiences from his own department in other parts of the ministry. Usually the initial reaction is that people need their own room because of the nature of their work. However, at the end of the discussion, we move on to considering whether a project room where people could write up reports would be enough.

Among other things, the ministry handles foreign affairs and security policy matters that require electronically secured premises. But it doesnt mean all the workspaces need to be extra secure. Sometimes its enough if you have a locked box for the confidential papers, says Mölsä. 

The Ministry for Foreign Affairs is an interesting mix of a creative and hierarchical organization.

Despite employees being experts, the organizational structure is top-led almost like in a factory. Mölsä thinks the ministry needs to be seen as an expert organization. Commanding would only lead to cynical attitudes, playing it safe, and a fear of mistakes.  

You cant please everybody, especially when having to cut staff numbers. But you can show that you are listening, and arrange training for new types of positions.

Change resistance grows, if experts who do concrete work – experts in the Foreign Ministrys work – are bypassed in decision-making. 

Engagement and interaction can either be superficial, or genuine, joint planning. At least Mölsä seems to have attempted the latter kind, as hes arranged workshops, project team meetings, and working group get-togethers. The change process has been communicated over morning coffees, in blog posts, by email, at unit visits, and applying the management by walking method. 

You cant please everybody, especially when having to cut staff numbers. But you can show that you are listening, and arrange training for new types of positions.

Depending on the perspective and the day, the colossal size of the ministry is a good – or bad – reflection of its culture.

Mölsä describes his organization as a basic box model. As things begin to happen in the surrounding world, employees in the basic box model start to hustle. 

The latest hustles took place during the Paris and Brussels terror attacks in November 2015 and March 2016. When Mölsäs phone rings, it usually means trouble, and the same was true here. Are there Finns on location, review for the Minister, points to consider in press interviews, preparing for escalation The list of tasks goes on. 

But in case someone thinks theres no fun here, our communications department even has its own band. The way I think is that those who work here want to do this type of work. Thats what counts the most: being motivated for Finland and Finns. Thats what it all boils down to in the end.

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Experts: A Strong Culture Creates Competitive Advantage

Corporate culture. Work culture. Organizational culture.

Chief Experience Officer Susanna Rantanens eyes twinkle, as she uses these terms. She thinks its lovely that the theme has surfaced in biz talk.

More than 85 per cent of corporate decision-makers feel their urgent challenges relate to developing the organizational culture, Rantanen quotes a recent study by Deloitte.

According to Pekka Mattila, Group Managing Director at Aalto EE, work culture really is something worth taking an interest in. He talks about the hard side of culture, a strong corporate culture creating competitive advantage. Organizations with something unique and one-off about their culture have always done better than their peers.

Corporate culture isnt just a fad: it explains an organizations financial success.

Susanna Rantanen has two companies, both specializing in corporate culture. Emine, Employee Experience Agency, is a strategy-based organizational culture design agency. She, too, talks about culture specifically as something that boosts competitiveness. An organization should recruit people who fit into its organizational culture. The culture, on the other hand, needs to be in the right balance with the companys aims and strategy at the time.

Its important to consider what type of culture works best in supporting growth targets, and choose a director who fits the situation at hand.

She uses an example of a listed company firing its managing director, causing many to think how embarrassing to fail like that.

But thats not how it is! Rantanen protests.

If youre good at restoring a company, it makes strategic sense to get hired for the restoration phase. When seeking for new growth, you might be after other qualities. Its important to consider what type of culture works best in supporting growth targets, and choose a director who fits the situation at hand.

Rantanen believes recruitment decisions are some of the most important a company makes.

A managing director or owner should think in a straightforward manner: the right people have an innate motivation to put in the work and develop the company, making the directors life hassle-free, and reaping results.

This is where Rantanens second firm, Heebo, comes in the picture. Heebo develops and markets an online solution for developing and matching people with the company culture. The platform includes an online recruitment and job-seeking service, providing professionals with a platform to share more about themselves than typically listed in a CV. The aim is to find the right person. 

CVs are such a waste, as they dont state what really matters: what youve learned, achieved, and want to do. Questions like these allow a recruiter to assess whether the candidates sources of enthusiasm and motivation fit in with the companys culture.

Especially directors and managers need to be able to describe their corporate culture using the right words, says Susanna Rantanen. In March, her company launched the Organizational Culture Mapping app in London, which helps companies visualize the connection between the business strategy and the expected organizational behavior, in other words: the culture.

According to Rantanens idea, a corporate culture should be verbalized in precise enough terms so its at par with recruitment and remuneration criteria. However, you cant just copy corporate cultures from one company to another.

Corporate culture isnt just an outfit you can buy and put on.

According to Pekka Mattila, corporate culture is an efficient source of competitive advantage specifically because it is something you cannot copy.

Even if a company acquires the best talents, imitates the structures, and manufactures exactly the same products or services as another company, the culture is not transferred across. Its a black box.

Change is slow, and requires repetition.

A culture is created for instance through norms: whether a company encourages experimentation, and what happens if you fail. Above all, culture is about doing: shall we start today or next week?

Mattila illustrates how an unofficial organization inducts new employees in rules and codes – the companys culture – over lunch, in the bar, or in coffee room, whereas the manager provides the official cultural training: Here is your mouse mat and coffee mug with the company values, such as honesty.

Sometimes the official version is miles away from the truth.

Changing the corporate culture is hard, because it demands giving up what has prevailed. Growing companies can invest in recruitment, while others need to try and change the behavior and conduct of the people who happen to be in the workplace. A change in the corporate culture has to begin with action, rather than by drawing up a list of values and ideals with the help of a consultant. Directors cannot change the organizational culture themselves, as it is owned by the entire community. However, the director leads the change in activities.

Change is slow, and requires repetition, says Pekka Mattila. A director cannot command employees to change their attitudes. Instead, you can ask people not to come to meetings to sigh and roll their eyes – and not come at all, if its too difficult.

Gradually, the work community begins to see a new way of looking at things, and attitudes begin to shape in another director. Values take longer to change.

If an organization manages to change its culture, the new way of doing doesnt necessarily suit everyone. Change needs to allow doors to swing, Rantanen sums up. Many know that in practice doors dont always swing even if the cultures of an employee and workplace clash.

Pekka Mattila has come across workplaces, where management is ready to change the culture in a direction that would allow more freedom – and personal responsibility – for employees, but people arent enthusiastic. Employees demanding autonomy that managers arent ready to give isnt always the underlying dynamic. Employees may criticize the new director who doesnt focus on rules: why doesnt he or she direct and execute?

All of the employees and managers interviewed for this article mentioned a sense of freedom and autonomy when discussing organizational culture. Why is that?
 

The feeling of autonomy is extremely important in light of job satisfaction and passion, explains Mattila. Its important to feel you can shape your own destiny.

Entrepreneurship can prevail in a factory and office setting alike.

Is it possible to give factory workers the same freedom as creative professionals?

Mattila reminds that nobody who receives a paycheck has complete freedom. There may be freedom to a certain extent, but a regulated final outcome or working hours. A salary is paid for this exchange.

According to Mattila, the same principles apply to factory work as in office work. 

It has been demonstrated that productivity increases when employees get to organize the production plant themselves.

The extent of freedom depends on the job. In a line of work where human error can cause irreparable damage, freedom is regulated strictly in certain phases. Entrepreneurship can prevail in a factory and office setting alike. Similarly, organizational culture isnt defined by whether the workplace happens to be in the public or private sector.

Half of working hours can be spent on reporting what youve just done, even in the private sector, says Mattila.

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