Prepare for bringing people back to the office with the Nordic tech startup blueprint

Business can learn lessons from Nordic tech startups to prepare employees to return to the office after Covid restrictions

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW Europe: CW Europe: Nordic tech startups create blueprint for post-Covid working environment

This year, after the global workforce has collectively discovered the best traits of remote working, and subsequently proved their worth in reaching targets and maintaining productivity from home, the onus is on employers to lure them back into physical spaces.

For many employers, this will require reimagining office life and office layouts, and they could do a lot worse than have a look at the Nordic tech startup blueprint for guidance.

Traditionally elsewhere, even more innovative and nimble environments in the tech startup space have conformed to the “row of static desks” norm. A new coffee machine or “dress-down Fridays” represented an olive branch being extended to employees as a way to bring fun or dynamism to their office lives. Ultimately, however, this small appeasement was still being delivered via a CEO, with a rigid nine-to-five dynamic.

Meanwhile, a cultural breaking down of hierarchy, linear structures, collaboration, trust and freedom has seen Nordic office spaces evolve in a completely different direction in recent years – driven by its prolific startup contingent.

“It all begins with our very democratic landscape,” said Pierre Lindmark, CEO at Winningtemp, a Swedish artificial intelligence (AI) platform that facilitates business improvement, insight and transformation. “We have a flat structure which is complemented by a more society-driven focus on innovation.

“It’s a natural feeling for youngsters entering industry to have their voices and ideas heard, not just by their immediate peers, but by decision-makers. And this societal way of working functions best when an office is flexible, open and equal.”

Creating a home

Winningtemp’s office layout has been designed to reflect this culture of flexibility. An open landscape is flanked by more traditional “call rooms” for those who need less disturbance at various points, and this is of course complemented by the option of remote working if preferable.

“It’s an openness that comes from trust,” said Lindmark. “By placing the choice of how they work in the hands of our employees, we’re giving them a sense of accountability and responsibility.

“I think that empowers them, especially as one of the rooms or chairs available to them at any given time is my own. It’s essentially our home, and you wouldn’t create a home that is owned and dominated by any one person who lives in it. If a room, desk or chair is available and suitable for what they want to achieve at that moment, then they can use it.”

The reason why Lindmark feels confident about employees’ satisfaction with the office is because they helped to create it.

“I think many organisations outside of the Nordics forget who they’re designing an office for when starting out or moving premises,” he said. “That is likely to change as the shift of power has been moved towards employees after the events of this year. And I think CEOs will find a more committed, enthused and loyal workforce at the other side of it.”

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Stockholm-based digital presentation platform Mentimeter has adopted this rationale to its advantage since day one, as a result becoming an employer of choice and growing beyond capacity this year.

Johnny Warström, the company’s CEO, said the decision to create a dynamic, social and open workspace was simply representative of the same dynamic, social and open company he wanted to create. It will also inform the new office it will move into in April.

“I have a British colleague who moved here from London recently and she was shocked to find me doing the dishes in the office kitchen – she found it absolutely crazy,” said Warström. “That really hit home to me about how different the Nordic setup is, even though it makes perfect sense to us.”

Warström thinks the reason why the rest of the world has traditionally been hesitant is that notion of trust.

“If you’re not at your desk, or not even in the office, how can I control the reality of you being productive?” he said. “I think that’s the scepticism on one side. And because that’s such a deeply embedded way of thinking in places like the UK or US, workers themselves also lack a bit of trust in themselves to work in new, agile ways.

“However, after being forced into remote working this year, that latter side of the equation has been solved, and companies therefore also need to drop their mistrust.”

What the employee wants

Faced with this reality, CEOs outside the Nordics will now be focusing on how to redesign their office space, rather than whether they should do so. Warström added: “There is no point sitting in their grand executive room waiting for a cup of tea to be brought to them, if everyone has chosen to work from home.”

This change of mindset will result in a complete overhaul of office aesthetics and functionality. Global fishing platform and social networking app Fishbrain says this should be built around what the employee, not the employer, wants.

“It’s about giving everyone options, and knowing that providing such freedom and choice will be paid back in terms of productivity, engagement and loyalty,” said Johan Attby, the company’s CEO. “It’s not just a way to appease workers, it actually yields better results, for tech startups especially.

“Our office is designed so that there are a number of open spaces, which facilitates collaboration and water cooler-type discussions. We don’t want employees to feel confined to any one place, as that would kill creativity and dampen morale.

“It’s so important to be able to get up and move around, speak to different people from different teams and build up relationships.”

Attby has already been liaising with his employees during lockdown to assess what more can be done for them, and what the future Fishbrain office should look like in the short, medium and long term.

“We strongly believe that our office, and others, should be more flexible, and based around the differing needs of employees,” he said.

Celebrate your new culture

While Nordic startups are looking to react to an even fresher set of obstacles, restrictions, guidelines and requirements resulting from Covid-19, at least the mindset of collaboration and communication already exists. For other regions, all three companies believe change will require a two-pronged approach, beginning with a tangible sign that tech business leaders are willing to change their relationship with workers.

“The argument of keeping offices traditional can’t be around productivity any more,” said Warström. “People have proved this year that they can be as good, if not better, working from home. And if remote working therefore becomes a longer-term option, then businesses need to take big steps to make the office just as attractive.”

Winningtemp’s Lindmark added: “This begins with autonomy – placing trust in them to continue performing as they have done this year in a more flexible space. Hopefully, that trust will have been built over the course of this year.”

And Fishbrain’s Attby said: “Expectations of working life have changed and employees’ power in determining how they work has been speeded up because of the pandemic.

“With this shift, the purpose of the office needs to evolve with the times, but there is no one-size-fits-all approach. It’s about finding what works for you, and establishing an office that celebrates the new culture you want to create.”

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