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International talents boost innovation and problem-solving

Finnish companies are increasingly turning their focus on building diverse, international teams.

Business Finland / Mikko Törmänen

As Finland faces a talent shortage, more companies are considering hiring international talent. The benefits are clear, including diverse expertise, faster problem-solving, increased creativity and richer cultural experiences.

A vibrant innovation ecosystem, a booming startup scene and the happiest country in the world title. Finland has plenty to boast about. But to continue to thrive and help its companies to grow, the country needs a diverse, international workforce. The current talent shortage in Finland is well acknowledged by the government, which aims to at least double work-based immigration by 2030.

“The roadmap for education-based and work-based immigration provides us with long-term tools to create a receptive and non-discriminatory working life that offers attractive career opportunities,” Minister of Employment Tuula Haatainen said in a statement. “At the same time, we will enable employers to find skilled workers from abroad.”

This is already business as usual for global companies and tech startups based in Finland. For them, hiring talent from abroad or international professionals and students already in the country is an ingrained part of their processes. Industrial giants such as Nokia and Kone have cultivated an international work culture for decades. Meanwhile, younger companies, such as the 2013-founded analytics software company Supermetrics, have been born with a global attitude.

Today, Supermetrics employs 240 people across nine locations in Europe, Canada and the US. Over 50 per cent of the employees who work at its Helsinki headquarters are originally from somewhere else than Finland.

“Especially in the last decade, the Finnish workforce has become increasingly diverse, attracting people from all over the world, offering a broad spectrum of life experience and outlook,” says Supermetric’s Nelli Rovamaa. Image: Supermetrics

“This diversity naturally sparks innovation and fosters growth,” tells Nelli Rovamaa, people operations lead at Supermetrics. “It enables us to create the best solutions more quickly for our customers and is, therefore, one of our growth drivers.”

Maija Meriläinen, talent acquisition partner at the music education company Yousician, agrees. The Helsinki-based company has over 140 employees representing 28 nationalities. For Meriläinen, it’s all about finding the right talent for the right role.

“Diversity brings culture and new views to problem-solving,” she says. “Currently, we have 20 million active monthly users. How could a company build a product for multinational customers without having people who represent those customers?”

Companies across all sizes and sectors are starting to realise this fact. Finland is a relatively small home market, and companies need a global mindset to grow. A case in example, work-holding specialist OK-Vise. The company, based in Jyväskylä, Central Finland, exports 90 per cent of its products. It has just hired the first international member to its 10-people team to boost its marketing and sales.

“[International thinking] is a must nowadays. People buy products differently in different countries, and it’s important to understand the local industry,” Olavi Meriläinen, managing director at OK-Vise, emphasises.

Be inclusive

The numbers speak for themselves. It is estimated that Finland needs 20 000 work-related immigrants a year to bridge its talent shortage. This means plenty of interesting job opportunities for international talent, as well as access to the Finnish way of life. Manageable work hours, good work-life balance, safe society and closeness to nature are advantages often cited by expats living in the country.

But there are potential cultural shocks too. Cold winters and dark Novembers can’t be helped, and Finns’ love of early lunches comes as a surprise to many. Then there is the language. Hiring global talent comes easily for a company that is used to working in English. But, despite the fact that Finns on average have excellent language skills, the shift to English is perceived as more difficult by those who are used to working in Finnish.

Still, there isn’t much that cannot be mitigated by a well-prepared employer. Yousician’s Meriläinen wants to encourage all companies to look past the language barrier and bring more diversity to their organisation. And she has a few practical tips to share.

“Being open-minded and inclusive is a good starting point. It is often a bit of a leap of faith for both sides, but worth it,” Vaisto’s Ville Aittomäki says, advising those considering hiring international talent for the first time. Image: Vaisto

“Companies should do all they can to make the new employee feel welcome,” Meriläinen advises. “For example, we have a buddy system where we assign a buddy to each new employee coming from abroad and we prepare them for Finnish culture. We also offer a lot of opportunities to socialise and get to know people.”

When it comes to language, Yousician makes sure all discussions – even at coffee breaks – are in English. This ensures everyone feels included. This doesn’t mean companies shouldn’t encourage their employees to learn Finnish. For example, both Yousician and Supermetrics offer their international employees weekly Finnish language lessons.

Use support services

Many initial challenges can also be helped by, if possible, hiring more than one international talent at a time. It will force people to be inclusive and use English as their working language. This is the advice of Raghunath Koduvayur, an expat himself. Koduvayur came to Finland in 2008 to work for Nokia and now leads marketing communications at quantum computing startup IQM. He has seen a significant change in the local atmosphere in the past 15 years.

“It is definitely more expat-friendly and international. Also in terms of opportunities,” Koduvayur says. “The startups [growing here] have opened up a diverse side of opportunities, which earlier you would only get in Amsterdam or in Stockholm. Now you can find them in cities like Helsinki and Tampere.”

Still, there is a lot of work to be done. In particular, Koduvayur would like to see more international talent in CEO and board-level positions in Finnish companies. Many startups are already paving the way, such as IQM, whose CEO and co-founder Jan Goetz is German and CTO and co-founder Kuan Yen Tan is Malaysian, but change is slow.

Building quantum computers is based on deep academic research which is global in nature. IQM’s Raghunath Koduvayur sees different perspectives and diverse expertise as the key benefits of employing an international team. Image: IQM

Slow is also the processing of work permits in Finland. International recruitment comes with a pile of paperwork, and residence permits are at the top of that pile. The good news is companies don’t have to figure it out alone. The Finnish Government is currently working to speed up the processing times, simplify bureaucracy and continue initiatives such as Talent Boost, which support companies of all sizes in finding and hiring international talent.

OK-Vise and Tampere-based software developer Vaisto have both tapped into the programme’s Talent Explorer funding. It is earmarked for companies looking to hire international talent. So far, the experiences have been positive.

“We applied for the grant to lower the initial bar and risk of hiring when we were smaller in size as a company,” Ville Aittomäki, CEO of Vaisto, says. “We give the process an overall rating of smooth. Easy and simple enough and the decisions arrived pretty fast.”

Support also flows the other way. For those thinking about braving the Finnish climate, the Jobs in Finland portal aggregates open positions where Finnish language isn’t a requirement. For those who have already made the leap, a free online course, Finland Works, offers insight into the local working life and advice on how to build a career in the country.

Make diversity a priority

But not all international recruitment requires relocation. There is already a vast pool of international professionals and students in Finland, looking for opportunities in their adoptive country. This is where organisations such as The Shortcut are helping talent and employers to find each other.

Kristina Sweet, CEO of The Shortcut and an expat herself, would like to see in particular small and medium-size companies (SMEs) open up more to hiring international talent. About 98 per cent of companies in Finland are SMEs, which don’t necessarily have a lot of experience with international teams yet. For Sweet, the crucial starting point is to make diversity a priority across a company.

“If everyone isn’t genuinely invested in that process, we struggle to get the positive outcomes that could come from having a truly diverse and inclusive environment. It’s really important that the message set at the top is followed through all the way down,” she explains. “The same goes if you have diversity at the bottom level but not at the top level.”

The bottom line is that to respond to the needs of an increasingly diverse and international customer base, companies need to reflect this also in their workforce. The first steps are always the most difficult ones, but the benefits heavily outweigh any initial challenges:

“[Diversity] brings to all people in a company a sense of belonging, and it benefits everyone’s personal and professional development,” Yousician’s Meriläinen summarises. “It’s also fun to work with people from different parts of the world.”

By: Eeva Haaramo