New opportunities for Nordic startups post-Covid-19 as virtual offices become the norm

As companies adjust to digital office life in the pandemic era, a host of Nordic startups are already helping them convert these short-term fixes into long-term strategy

Sweden, Norway and Iceland are once again showing the Nordics to be a positive exaggeration of the rest of the world when it comes to digitisation, as companies prepare to take new ways of working into normal life.

Over the past four months, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, companies have been forced to rethink core operations, especially in a physical sense.

The idea of what an office should require, or whether it’s required at all, has accelerated the adoption of digital tools – firstly to mitigate remote lockdown challenges, but to then capture the best of this period on a longer-term basis.

Naturally, the Nordics have been firmly on hand to facilitate this transition. “From an office logistics perspective, we’ve seen many companies looking to make remote working a permanent setup, following the lead of global giants like Twitter, who have said they’ll allow employees to work from home ‘forever’ if they wish,” said Sebastian Andreescu, CEO and co-founder of Swedish startup Billhop.

The Stockholm-incepted company is a digital payment service that now serves more than 45,000 SMEs, sole traders and a growing number of corporates across Europe through its buyer-funded model.

“We’re a business that was set up to help other companies improve their cash flow, so we’ve been monitoring companies’ reluctance, acceptance and, finally, transition to more efficient, digitally driven means of working for several years,” said Andreescu. “While I don’t think the physical office is set to disappear altogether, there will definitely be a downscaling or re-imagining of what office space is used for.”

And it will be innovative startups such as Billhop that convert ideas into tangible infrastructures.

A new reality

With any substantial change of mindset and operating such as we’re seeing right now, companies inevitably need assistance. Not necessarily knowing who to turn to was a prime reason for a lack of transformation prior to Covid-19, but this period has left businesses with no option but to seek guidance in order to cope.

“There are so many strong services and offerings coming out of the Nordic startup tech scene, and they’ve all noticed an amazing opportunity to help companies who are now under pressure to digitise quickly,” said Øyvind Reed, CEO at Whereby – a Norwegian company founded in 2017.

“Our free, secure video conferencing platform experienced a 450% increase in global usage and a 180% rise in annual recurring revenue in March alone,” he said. “There is now a real demand for better tools and for management and leadership to evolve, based on the new reality we face.”

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Even before the pandemic, Whereby had noticed a rapid increase in interest around tools that could facilitate flexible and remote working away from the traditional office norm. 

“We firmly believe that work hours are an outdated way of working for many,” said Reed. “It makes total sense to allow your employees to work and perform well at their job when they’re at maximum efficiency; whatever those conditions may be.

“By providing great tools to facilitate flexible work, we believe that lots of people will see an increase in their motivation, thus enjoying work to a larger extent.”

From traditional to digital

Some industries are struggling more than most during this period, and coincidentally they’re often sectors that have resisted digital upheaval in the past, too.

Hospitality is one example, where face-to-face niceties and human personability have traditionally kept technology at arm’s length.

In Iceland, however, another area of society has come under scrutiny, including psychologists, behavioural therapists, nutritionists, addiction workers and a host of other operators across the healthcare segment.

“The Nordics are highly digitised but not so much in the public sector,” said Thorbjorg Helga Vigfusdottir, CEO and co-founder of Icelandic startup Kara Connect. Her innovative platform circumnavigates a lot of the difficulties and bureaucracy that often prevents people in need from being connected with those who could help.

This challenge has been exacerbated in recent months, leading to more and more professionals using this digital tool as a way to safely schedule, organise and conduct more meetings than ever before.

“We’ve even been getting customers in areas like divorce law for estranged couples who are unable to meet face to face, or from within churches, or schools,” said Vigfusdottir. “This whole area of society is famously overbooked and underused, but through this period more and more have realised that converting traditional interactions to digital portals can improve the situation even beyond COVID.”

A global workforce

She added that, as organisations rethink their office and operations strategies, they’re now thinking more strategically about digital transformation.

Whereas before, many would see digitisation as a knee-jerk reaction, they’re now seeing what areas of their business actually need safeguarding or improving amid the strains of lockdown life. To that end, they’re now working from those pain points, backwards; rather than investing in tech for the sake of keeping up appearances.

“It is important for startup ecosystems and associated tech providers to take on the role of informing and supporting companies, to better transition to a digitally-driven world,” said Andreescu. “Meanwhile, technology providers need to be flexible and open to create more bespoke solutions in order for companies to find a product that matches their desired culture and business model.”

Essentially, digital transformation isn’t just a reaction to Covid-19; it’s a preparation for challenges and evolution still to come. And in stabilising or enhancing their operational models through technology, businesses simultaneously expanding their ‘office’ potential too.

Reed at Whereby said there is no doubt there are fast and significant changes in the global workforce. “What we estimated would take several years, has now taken place within five months.

“Due to the cost of people and human resources, the Nordic countries have had to embrace technology for decades to be efficient and competitive in the global market,” he said. “We therefore understand better than most that to get the best people for your business, and to optimise their workflows, you shouldn’t think too insularly.

“As well as improving the way you work, new office dynamics built around digital gives you access to a global pool of skilled people to work for you, as they no longer need to be present in the same space. That therefore results in a heightened ability to compete in the global marketplace.”

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