And the best workplace in Europe is in Finland …

Vincit Oy.jpgThere is a ranking of the best workplaces in Europe, established by a research company called Great Place to Work®. And for the 1st time, a Finnish company is the European leader in the category “Best small and medium workplaces”.

So we were curious, and  we have interviewed  its Head of Human Resources,Johanna Pystynen, to know what makes Vincit Oy, a company from Tampere with more than 250 employees so special.

Here is the interview:

The story of the company

The company was established in 2007, with two persons, Mikko Kuitunen and Pekka Virtanen deciding to start their own company, Vincit Oy in Tampere.

The first thing they thought was, “We have to create a company where people are happy to come to work on Mondays.”  It was the way the company was established and its spirit, since the beginning. During the first year, 10 employees arrived, but there was only one customer, and it was not an easy situation to manage.

Today, we are on the market of software development and IT outsourcing. We have customers from many very different kinds of areas.  We have customers from the public sector, from the industry, but also start-ups.  Some are big companies, some are small, and so we have to be very flexible.  We develop software, including mobile software, we are also web development and graphic design, we cover a wide area of different kinds of technologies and different kinds of customers.

And we have more than 250 staff members, growing.

We trust our employees

One first thing which is making us special is that we trust our employees, so we can let them decide on things, and we can give them autonomy.  So, usually people appreciate that they can decide on their own work and welfare and these kind of things. 

How did we did it? We have deleted obstacles which were on their way.  We have tried to create a structure that helps staff members to have an influence on their own job, to decide on their own matters.  And it’s not easy, because if you just give carte blanche, then usually people don’t do anything, because they don’t know what to do or how to start to influence.  So, we can’t just ask them to influence.  We have to teach them or help them.  And that’s what we do.  When we talk about leadership, it means that we are creating a company or structure where it’s easy for everybody to decide and to find different kinds of paths to have an influence on what is going on. We have many different kinds of influencing channels. 

We have made it so easy that you can’t say “I didn’t have a chance to say my opinion”. For example, we have this kind of a discussion channel (social media) where everyone is discussing about company matters, and you can express your opinions on any topic, or ask for opinions from others and then decide, so people are helping you to make your decision.

Three steps for recruiting

For recruiting, we have this three-step process, where the first interview is a cultural interview.  It’s done by human resources.  And we talk.  We talk about the candidate’s own future dreams, what would be important to him or her, and then I also give the interviewees a description of our company, how we are working, what kind of environment we are.  We are equal, it is not a job interview, just an opportunity for both to see if we can offer the kind of environment that supports the candidate’s own motivation.

And it’s not easy for the candidate, because many engineers have not thought about these kinds of things before.  So, before, when I asked these things, they were just freezing, or they said something that they thought would be good to say.  They didn’t think about these things genuinely.  And that’s why, nowadays, I send those questions beforehand to the candidates, so they have time to think about it, and they can form their opinion and then be their own selves in the interview. Many engineers are coming with an Excel spreadsheet to organize their thoughts.  I have remarked that it helps them to talk about those things, it’s their way of processing their thoughts.  And if it helps them, it’s better for the interview.  

After this first step, if both are thinking that it’s a good cultural match, it’s a technical interview with their colleagues—their future colleagues, the team.  And of course, there is a technical part, the team wants to check if the candidate’s competence is enough for them.  And then, the other question is “Would I want to work with this person in a project?” what we call in Finnish “pääri suuntana mittari”, which could be translated by the peers’ fit meter.

The third phase consists in meeting with our CEO, Mikko, and at that point, Mikko just really gives the green light.  But it’s a symbolic discussion, also, showing that our CEO is interested in your wishes and hopes for the future, and that you can come to talk with him when you want. That is important and we want to keep that interview in the process.

And then, before you make a decision, you can come to our daily coffee break, where you meet your future colleagues, you can see the culture outside of the interview process, and then you can decide whether you want to come to our company or not.   And if you are not happy, you have 4 months to resign, a trial period, and you get anyway two months of additional pay if you leave.  It is mainly symbolic, but fair, to give people an opportunity to resign if they are not happy with the culture. Only one person has resigned, and it was a cultural issue, he wasn’t happy with the autonomy.  He wanted more structure.  So it was a good decision for him to go back to his old company. 

A women’s friendly company

I came in 2012 to the company, so four years now. When I came to the company, we had 50 employees, so we have grown quite fast. During these years, we became the winner of the Best Workplace competition in Finland, and I am quite proud about it.

Most of our employees are IT engineers, and we have only about 10 people doing other things. They are young, the average age is 34, we have also 22 students from the University, and we have 5 people over 50. As usual in the IT industry our software engineers are mostly men, but we do a lot to attract women. We have written many articles about how we want more women in the area.  We had a press release indicating that we wanted to recruit more women for our company, because we had only men, together with two women in the company.  And we actually got a call from the equality ombudsman telling us that we were discriminating against men! It was even going public, so after that, actually, women noticed that there is a company called Vincit. And now we have 20 women, so it was good for us that they got that interest in our company.

When you arrive, you get a credit card for your needs

When you arrive in the company, you get a credit card, so you can just buy things, if you need something to help you work better or feel better in your work.  There is a monthly limit at 10 000 euros, but it is not important, because people are responsible and order only what they need.

Generally, in our company, we believe that if you have a budget, you will use the whole of it. If you have a budget, you will use all of it, nobody returns the money.  And then you are probably not making great decisions.  You just think, “What can we do, as we have this limited amount?” or “What would be fun to do?  Because we have this much money left.”  And if you have all the power to use the money, no budget at all, but you have to make the decision behind it, then you take more responsibility, and you make better decisions.

So we have just deleted all these kinds of administrative paths, or bureaucratic paths, where you have to ask if you want to get a new chair or a new software or an access to an article or a book.  We have mainly tried to delete obstacles, and then give people tools to influence on things. This has totally simplified our administrative system. For example, we don’t have a training budget, we don’t have any team-building budgets.  People are just deciding what they want to do, when they want to it, and where.

I have never said no to an expensive training request

To be totally honest, there is one control: if a training is expensive, over 1 000 euros for example, then people are writing me an email, and they are telling why they want to go there, and what the benefits are for them and for the company.  And every time, it has been explained so well that I have said “yes” for that.  I don’t have to say no, because they have thought how it would help the company to be better.  So, it’s more a symbolic thing that they are asking, because usually their opinions are quite good behind the decision. And that’s more efficient training than if you are just choosing from the platter that “this could be interesting” or “this looks good on a CV” or something.

So, people are going to seminars, like these in San Francisco, and they are blogging on our internal system, so everybody in our company can read what is happening there, and what kind of new things are interesting, etc.  So, they are sharing the information for the whole company.  It is not a rule, they decided to do it on their own, because that was one reason why they thought it would be helpful to go to the training.

No budgets, no monthly follow-up on the costs of learning and development

We don’t have a strict follow-up of the monthly expenses in the field of training and development, and we don’t have a budget line or something specific for it. We just follow globally the expenses at the company level. It may change slightly, because we are going to be listed on the First North, Nasdaq’s European growth market, designed for small and growing companies.  We will probably need to provide more details on our situation.  But we try to do it so that we don’t have to change anything inside the company. 

An organization without middle managers

We had middle managers, but we decided to abandon the system, as it was not bringing value. Because the law requires that you have to have a supervisor, we have two supervisors for everyone, our CEO and myself, and no other managers.  We have project leaders, who are leading the project work, but they don’t have any typical supervisor role in the company.  So, people are now responsible for their own welfare and own work.  But we help them to make that easy.

So if people want to do distance work, or have their holidays, they have to decide with their team, not with a supervisor. And it works.  The team has taken the role of the supervisor, it is more cooperative. When you belong to two teams, you manage with them.

The interesting part is that there is a rule: if you don’t get unanimous decision with your team, then you can ask from me or from Mikko, our CEO, and we can make a decision, if there is not agreement.  But during these 2 years when we had this new system, we haven’t done any of that, because the teams are able to decide, as they know what’s best for them and for their project.  Before that, we had this supervisor who wasn’t daily in the same project team, and he didn’t know about the project facts or the reality of the project, so it was quite difficult for her or for him to make those kinds of decisions, and it took time.  Now people discuss between them what’s best, so “How can we manage efficiently the project so that you can be on holiday that time?”  And then, they usually find quite creative ways to do that.

Black Ducks, our black belts

Project leaders must ensure that the team works on a daily basis and that the customer communication works.  And that’s their main activity.  When you start as a project lead, on your first project, you have a mentor, who is an experienced project lead.  Initially, the experienced project leader leads the project, and you just follow how he or she does it, because no training gives you the full experience.  And then, when everything is going well, then you take the lead from this experienced guy. 

We have this Black Duck role, our internal Black Ducks, who are very experienced project leaders or technical guys.  It’s like a black belt, some kind of mentoring team for people who are wanting to learn new skills. We created this role recently, and we called for candidates, we interviewed them and we decided who would start this kind of program.  We have now Black Ducks in project leading, and we have technical Black Ducks in technical matters.  So, if the team wants to try something—for example,  a new technology, then they can have this kind of a mentor from that area, who is helping them to make the decisions.  But Black Ducks are not making decisions by themselves.  They are helping or facilitating the team to make the decisions on their own.

We have the HR support as a function in each team, but not in a central unit

Usually, in a company, you have the project or process world, and then you have the administrative world, where you have a supervisor, not necessarily knowing precisely your daily job, but trying to help you.  She or he spends a lot of time having these one-to-one discussions with you, defining your objectives, discussing your performance.  She or he is responsible for your wellbeing, for your holidays, all these things that work supervisors usually do.  But because they don’t know about the daily life, it’s not real.  They don’t have a real vision about, “How can I really help you?” because things are going well, or not going well, in your activity, in your project, and it influences more how you work and feel than anything that your supervisor can do.

So, we have decentralized all the decisions in the project teams. It meant a big change for our HR specialists: we have HR Black Ducks, myself and my colleagues, who are also in the projects, and not in a centralized unit: the project is the unit, the main unit, in our company.  And we have to integrate everything, all the support, including HR, in this unit. 

We are as team members in the project since the beginning. For example, when the project starts, we are having these one-to-one group discussions, which replace our development discussions, where, with our help, everyone shares what they need. The question is usually, “In this project, what should happen that would make you would say afterwards: it was a very good project for me?”  And then, people are sharing all the things that are important for them to implement the project. If a member of the team has a specific problem or difficulty, they can have their own discussions with their own coach, who is somebody from outside the company.

HR, support of project leaders

When we are an HR person on one team, we are facilitating these start discussions.  Then, we are supporting the project leaders. They don’t have any manager responsibilities—their only responsibility concerning the leadership is that they have to be interested in their team members and how they are feeling, and if they notice something, anything, that worries them, they have to tell it to their HR team member.

We don’t want them to talk with the people about their worries and challenges outside the technical field, because they don’t have the tools for that.  They are IT engineers, they are not trained in this field.  We also found out that if we train supervisors or project leaders  to have these kinds of discussions, then usually they tend to do it a bit too late.  They don’t do it on time, because they are not in their comfort zone in those discussions.  So, we try to get the signs as early, as fast, as possible.  And that’s why the only thing they have to do is, if they have any kind of concerns, they tell it to us, their HR team member, and we can help them then to decide what to do with the people, or we talk directly to the people.  We then can ask, “Is there anything we can help with?”  And then, people might tell those things to us more easily than to a supervisor.

So, in the project, we meet regularly the project lead and ask, “Is there anything that you are now worried about?  How are people feeling?”  And when you ask, they usually are starting to think that, maybe there can be something, and then we can start a discussion about it, “Should we do something?”  So, it is helping them to notice if there’s anything happening.

Nowadays, it is quite normal, and we even have direct contact from team members in our project, in particular using this chatting tool: we are sometimes just asking, “How are you doing?”  or “Is there anything we can help with?”  or “Are you happy with the project?”  With this discussion chatting tool, so it’s quite informal.  And it’s like I would ask from my friend “How are you doing?” or “Is there anything I can help with?” When you do it, usually people are starting to tell what is in their mind, and you can know exactly what is right and wrong. 

But if you are asking anonymously, as it is done through staff surveys in companies, generally you create this massive work wellbeing questionnaires with predefined options, and then you get the results and trying to guess what you should do.  But we don’t know exactly why these results are what they are.  We are just guessing that maybe it’s this or that.  And we lose the genuineness.  That’s the main risk in leadership, when doing these traditional management and leadership processes.  If you lose genuineness, then it’s not as effective as it should be.

Sure, with these traditional staff surveys, it’s easy for the managers. You have a process, it helps you to lead, and you are in your comfort zone.  But the reality is that there are a lot of relationships and problems and history. What we do is different, we jump in and try to help people with the real topics, not something that the management team considers as the answer.

But we have kept one thing: we have key performance indicators that we have chosen. We have, for example, how many employees resigned, we have a happiness index in our company, and we have an employee experience rating.  We have also a recruiting happiness index for newcomers. It helps us to improve.

Remuneration packages and salaries

We have an open salary model, everybody knows what the others are earning. If you are unhappy with your own salary, then you can just say, “I want to have a pay discussion.”  Every half year, we have salary weeks, we publish the salaries, everybody knows then what others are earning, and then you can book your own salary discussion if you are unhappy.

When you come to the discussion with me and our CEO, you have to think and explain how you create value to our customers and how you create value to your colleagues.  These are the two things that matter in this discussion.  And if we both think that your opinions concerning these things are right, then we can move your salary upwards.  And objectiveness comes from the openness. We do not have any metrics for measuring the value of what the person does, it is just an open discussion.

People can also suggest a raise for their colleagues.  Quite many are actually doing that.  So, if your colleagues are thinking that you are doing a good job, and you are in the wrong salary category, then they are telling us. I gave, I think, 5 or 6 raises to people because their colleagues had said so.

Before this model, the happiness index concerning our salary model was 85%, and now it is 98, so 98% of people are thinking that the model is fair.

External coaches support our staff on request for matters such as their future or their performance

I have mentioned these external coaches. We have those coaches for supporting staff members when they have difficult situations and choices, where they have for example to think about their own future or their own performance or possible personal difficulties at work, these kind of things.

When we had managers, we tried have them do that, but because it wasn’t their comfort zone, and not their area of expertise, it was quite difficult.  They tried hard, and we tried to train them to do that, but we never got it. It did not work.  So, that’s why we decided that we’d take people who can do that, who are interested in that, and who have the tools to help people to think about those things.  We work today with 4 external coaches.

Mainly, they are career coaches.  But you can go to talk with them about any problem, so if, for example, you have a divorce going on, and it influences your job, you can go to talk with them, or if you have a customer presentation, for example, and you are thinking, “How can I survive that?” you can go to talk with the coaches.  So, there is no strict area.  If it’s a problem, you can go to talk with them if you are feeling that they are the right persons to talk with.

Quite many people, 40 or 50, have used those coaches.  It’s your own decision if you want to use them or not, but the company is paying the costs of those discussions.  And we don’t know what people are discussing in those sessions.  We just get the bill and trust that, whatever it is, it helps them to do a better job, also. And people are happy about it.

Doing big things with small steps

It is important to understand the way we developed the company, and our HR system. Agile thinking is originally an IT thing, it is part of the culture of the production, as it is in many companies. The same goes with lean management. But there is a contradiction, if in the same company you have an organization with traditional hierarchical models and methods.  It is not the same world.  So, we are just using this agile thinking for organization development and human resources.  And that’s why everything we do, we try it first with small steps.

So, for example, when we removed the manager role, we tried that with one team, and then we saw problems emerging, and we just made the model better.  That is the way we achieved quite big things, also, with little steps, so we could actually see what happens, not trying to guess anything. Usually, problems appear when managers are doing some kind of planning thing, trying to guess what will happen, making plans not based on reality.  And when people are saying that it’s not working, then the management accuses the resistance to change, but in fact it means simply that the planning has already gone in the wrong direction.

Anybody has an idea, and if it looks interesting for the colleagues, we try it

So we are different: usually, if anybody has an idea, we discuss it, and we try it if it looks interesting. We don’t have a traditional steering, for example, for the company.  We have project leaders who are responsible for their own field, and they are doing decisions on their own.  And then, if colleagues have some kind of a new idea, we are discussing who could help in working on the idea, then we get those people together.

It usually starts on our internal chart channel. Somebody gets up in the morning, and they get an idea when bicycling to work. When they arrive, they take their coffee, and post their idea on our internal chat channel. Then a group joins, discusses it, finds it brilliant, and often nowadays they have decided to try it even before the CEO or I have read about it.  Two years ago, when we established this internal chat channel, there wasn’t much discussion going on, but nowadays they are making all the decisions on their own with it. Something like “OK, we can try it in this next project, and let’s see what happens.”  And usually, half of those ideas are great, and we benefit from them, and half of those are not great, and they are discarded.

Reacting fast to changes by giving people freedom

It is a different way of thinking: we don’t believe that we, in our management team, could make any decisions concerning which technologies, for example, we will need in 3 years, because we don’t know all the areas, or because in this area, things are changing so fast that nobody knows what we will need after three years.  So, it is more efficient that people are finding what they’re interested in.  And when they know and can do the things they are interested in, then they have good chances to be ahead of the change.  They know what is happening in their field.  They are having contacts. They are looking for interesting training. They join the right network. Having some managers supervising it would be counter-productive.

So, when staff members are driving those things they are interested in, then we have a chance to react fast when the change is coming, no matter what the change is.

Not knowing what will happen tomorrow requires flexibility and a vision, not a strategy

In old times, it was perhaps nice to have a strategy, or a plan for the next year, but the problem is that, because everything is changing so much in our area, and we have different kinds of customers from different kinds of sectors, we don’t know what will happen next.  We just know that something will happen, for sure, and when it happens, we have to be fast to find new solutions or new possibilities.  So the only possibility is to be flexible, that’s our strategy. And because we’re a growing company, and we want to continue to grow, we have to create now some kind of HR methods and structure that supports people to be flexible.  And that’s why we have choosing a different path compared with others. The one thing that people are proud of about our company is the courage to do things: we are quite ready to try new things, and even when we don’t know the answer or how it’s going to work, we try it.  And usually, the big things are done this way. 

So, for example, we have a new satellite office in California, because people in our company discussed about whether we should go outside Finland, and people were into it, so that’s why one of our staff members went to California, found paying customers, and now we have this satellite office in there. We didn’t have a document that says we are going to open an office in California. When the idea came, it took 3 months, and we had this office, because there are a lot of interesting possibilities.  So, we are just seeing those possibilities and seeing, “Would this be the best way for us to do things?”  And the time will show how it’s done, and if it is a good decision or not. 

We cannot motivate people to take care of themselves, it must come from them

From the point of view of wellbeing, we do a number of things.  We have strict rules concerning working hours, it is 37 ½ hours a week, and it is largely sufficient. Nobody goes over it, or sends work related emails outside the working day.  But of course, some people, when they go home, are doing their own programming hobby projects, for example, and it might be too much for them, if they are just sitting all this time in front of a computer.  But we believe that nobody else than you can say when it’s too much.  And that’s why we try to give people tools to notice fast when they are carrying too much workload.

We have also a questionnaire that goes to staff’s mailboxes every second week.  It’s called “How are you doing?” in Finnish, and there are 6 questions l, for example, “My work with the project leads goes well,” “My work with the teammates goes well,” “My work is in balance from a timing point of view,”.   And if you put something in the red area, then the information goes to us, and we ask from the person straight, “How can we help you?”  We are not asking anything from the project lead.  We first ask the person himself or herself, and it’s easier for many to say these kinds of things right out, when they know that it is some kind of neutral HR person getting their answer, not a supervisor, which is better because many times their problems come from the project lead or the relationship with the project lead.   We try also to ask people to think about their own workload, for example, with these questionnaires.

Inside of the company, we have a gym room, with exercise machines. We have also free massages, so people can go get a massage during the working time.  And then, we have different benefits for practicing sports, etc.  We are trying how to put these small things into daily life, for example people can work standing with an electric desk, which is pretty standard in Nordic businesses. As engineers love this kind of devices, we have also fitness watches and activity trackers, that we offer to people who want them. We have five different models from different companies.

But I believe that we cannot motivate people to exercise or take care of themselves, it must come from them, and the first thing is that they notice that they need to exercise to be happy or be more fit.  So, we create situations where it happens and we try to do it as easy as possible for them. For example, we offer cholesterol measurement during the coffee break, and people have these “ah ah” moment that make them think that maybe they have to do something. It doesn’t help that to have an exercise day, if people are not knowing why they should exercise.  I remember, in my previous workplace, we used to have exercise hours.  And the people who came were already exercising.  They were fit, and they were motivated.  So, there was no point to organizing it in the company.

We have used also mindfulness training, which can help people realize that they are under stress. We have had three pilots, and there were altogether 70 employees involved.  First, when I proposed it, people were saying “No, this is some Buddhist thinking, not for me.”  But then, the trainer was a snowboard world champion, and people were coming and were quite interested, when they heard him explaining how he has used these exercises in his own practice. People are not obliged, they can say “no”, and we don’t put any pressure. But I remark that if you find the right perspective, then it usually is adopted.

No written set of value, but a dream

We have not a set of values, because a lot of people who come to our company are seeing values as some corporate stuff, which are made because corporate has to have values to look good.  We try to avoid that feeling, that there is something called values that we just put on a paper and oblige people to try to do things according to it.   Our culture comes through discussions, because we have this common discussion channel, and people are adopting our culture from that.  They are seeing how people are treating others, what kind of decisions are made, how we are talking with each other…

But we have what we call a Vincit Dream, which is like a vision for us.  It comes from the dreams of employees, and it is a united dream, it starts from everyone’s own dream about the future.  We have done different kinds of workshops when trying to create that dream.  We have had picture workshops, where people were asked in teams to think about what would be the best future for us in 2020. Each team has produced pictures describing their vision of our future, and we took one picture from each to put on the wall, so that everybody sees them every day.  And there were a lot of symbolism in the pictures. It was more interesting than a workshop with papers put afterwards in a drawer.

And now, we are going to continue with reality classes.  People have to use virtual reality to describe the elements they would see in our Vincit future. We use these technical equipment to create the dream.   So, people are waiting to do that, they are enthusiast.

Practical discussions on ethical topics

For our ethics, this electronic discussion channel helps a lot for us, because our staff sees how other people, and not only the top management, are reacting to different issues.  For example, last fall, we discussed whether we can say our opinion as a company on this equality marriage law.  We discussed about what we can say to the press, for example. 

There was a discussion recently when Mikko, our CEO, had an interview with Helsingin Sanomat. He said during the interview that in the company people could choose their projects, and that’s not exactly right.  People have an influence on what project they are involved in, they don’t choose always. So people took that to the discussion channel, and said that you cannot say that in the press or media.

An interesting thing is that, on the discussion channel, the members of the management team can take part as individuals, as all the other ones do, and disagree. I can have an opinion different from Mikko’s opinion and express it publicly. Everybody’s seeing that we have a different opinion, and it is not a problem. That is different from other companies where the management team agrees before the discussion on a collective decision, and stick to it. We don’t. The way we do it, it helps to build trust.

A summary of the company’s HR principles

I think that what defines us is the trust in people, the way we develop the company, the courage, the willingness to take risks, the openness in our company with people knowing what happens and able to influence our future, and also that people who are recruited in our company are really wanting to do this job, and are keen to develop the company all the time.

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