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AI is transforming the Nordic workplace – and it won’t stop there

Nordic startups are applying artificial intelligence to address workplace challenges, with HR and operations managers across the world watching

The modern workplace has evolved rapidly over the last decade and enterprises and operations, as well as HR departments, need to change how they create the environment, with artificial intelligence (AI) an increasing theme as workers are offered support in managing their time and using IT.

In high-profile cases across Norway and Sweden in particular, the region is seeing the workplace transformed through AI.

The notion of the work-life balance, trendy and quirky startup offices, remote working, flexible working and general employee satisfaction has become synonymous with the Nordic startup ecosystem in recent years. So it seems apt that they’ve been among the first to the party when it comes to using AI to enrich workplaces.

“AI is always best when applied to a really important and recurring problem that has been in existence for some time,” said Mathias Mikkelsen, CEO and founder of Memory. “It means that the problem attracts data and feedback for machine learning to leverage, learn from, inform and ultimately solve.”

Memory has developed Timely – an app that tracks a person’s daily routine, agenda, schedule and activity to create a completely data-driven time management system.

“In my previous work, I hated time tracking and I knew others did too, and while companies had tried to introduce solutions in the past, they had never taken off,” said Mikkelsen. “With the rise of AI and machine learning, which we’ve incorporated into Timely, it can be truly simplified.

The idea of introducing AI to remedy long-term challenges makes complete logical sense when applied to a workplace setting.

In 2013, Huddly – founded in Oslo by Stein Ove Eriksen and Anders Eikenes – foresaw a similar opportunity in the video conferencing space, noting that video meetings were becoming more frequent but were not always satisfactory. Huddly uses AI-driven analytics, such as counting people in the room, to plan and understand the use of the various meeting rooms within the enterprise.

“We essentially saw a need for flexible tools to support these new workflows,” said Vegard Hammer, the company’s VP of engineering. “Our Huddly cameras are designed to meet the unique technological requirements of these spaces, while our AI-powered automated user experiences support the way in which people work and collaborate today.

“We didn’t necessarily set out to create a product that uses AI, but to solve a daily problem in the workplace that we then realised could be solved with AI.”

Read more about artificial intelligence in the Nordics

AI itself gained early recognition from innovative uses in China but, as ever, the Nordics were quick on the uptake. Mikkelsen cites a particular love of new technologies and their potential impact on traditional society and routines as a possible reason for this, and this view is echoed by Winningtemp in Sweden.

Created in 2014 to dig deeper into the personal experience of office life, Winningtemp is software as a service (SaaS) that addresses the ways people work together to improve their mental health.

Jacob Österberg, head of business development at the Gothenburg-based HR startup, said: “Through the collection of real-time data that measures job satisfaction and wellbeing among employees and providing recommendations to management, we help our clients not only to identify best practices and issues, but we also provide recommendations for activities and action plans that aid the development of managers and employees alike. We understood the power of AI right from the start and have grown stronger by integrating the technology early on.

“The world today revolves around gathering and interpreting information and, as such, it would be a serious oversight on our part not to harness AI when it comes to shaping the employee experience.”

Smart functionality

Österberg believes AI has developed about five years ahead of most people’s expectations, and this is almost certainly why all three of these Nordic innovators remain relatively unchallenged in their niche sub-sectors. Even Silicon Valley has struggled to conjure up like-minded, nimble, entrepreneurial protagonists to assist in such nuanced spaces.

“AI is developing so fast right now, and I expect completely new markets to evolve and thrive under its influence,” he said. “Since the technology is so broad in its applications, it seems likely that we will utilise it almost everywhere in one way or another. For the Nordics specifically, this presents a complete alignment of ideologies, as the region is naturally quite curious and eager to try new ways of doing things – so I really think we will stay on top of the trend.”

Hammer agreed, adding that the idea of “simplicity” and “smart functionality” is a key link between AI and the Nordics. “You only have to look as far as Ikea,” he said.

“The Nordic mindset is all about solving problems in a way that is perceived as easy, and AI thrives by taking complexity away from the user, almost as if by magic. It just works in the background, solving your problems, with very little manual input into the process.”

Timely innovation

Mikkelsen alluded not just to the entrepreneurial mindset, but also to the consumer mindset. It is a theory that explains not just the region’s success with AI so far, but why the Nordics could become an overwhelmingly dominant force in these niche areas as the trend evolves further, and even as global competitors come to the fore.

“If you, as a potential user, realise you need a tool to fix the issue of time tracking, for example, and you have providers from Silicon Valley or Norway to choose from, then many would choose the latter because of the country’s affiliation with work-life balance, quality of living, personal wellness and the like,” he said. “When it comes to personal enrichment tools, it is often sensitive data that is being utilised as well, so that brings in areas of trust, where Nordic countries also score highly.

“Ultimately, we are a collection of small populations displaying nimbleness and speed in tackling big problems. As a potential customer, the prospect of solving longstanding grievances in this innovative and timely way will continue to stand us in good stead as AI continues to evolve.”

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