Five Finnish lessons for professional services staff

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The cycle of the academic year can often feel relentless, with little time to step back and reflect on the bigger questions of how we work and what skills we need for the future. With this in mind, Loretta Gibson (Director of Administration), Lizzie Little (HR advisor) and I stepped outside our daily routine to get some inspiration and insight from one of the world’s most successful educations systems: next stop, Finland!

We spent two days having open and collaborative conversations with professional services colleagues from Aalto University in Helsinki. Five take-home lessons from our trip were:

1. Entrepreneurship is for everyone

Design Factory - Aalto
"42 cups of coffee consumed yesterday": The secret sauce for Design Factory residents.

Aalto’s Design Factory is a space where students, industry and researchers collaborate to develop new products and business ideas. It's not surprising that students are taught to be entrepreneurial, but what did surprise us was that the university is also encouraging its professional services staff to be bolder and more experimental.

The Design Factory facilitates interactive sessions to tackle difficult challenges selected from the university strategy. Mixed groups of services staff and academics are asked to devise practical responses that feed back into the central strategy. This mindset of boldness gave us plenty of inspiration to take home to the Faculty of Engineering & Design at Bath, where we’ve begun a journey towards ‘facing the future’ within our professional services team.

2. Open-plan working is a mindset

Aalto University library
Aalto's Learning Centre is so much more than a library, with plenty of places to exchange ideas and collaborate.

Aalto's Otoniemi campus is full of space to collaborate. Inside the vast, open-plan buildings (designed by a host of Finland's most celebrated architects) nearly all staff hot-desk, including the Vice Chancellor. However, the mindset of collaboration is also embedded in the working culture. Hot desk areas are divided into those for noisy and quiet working but we were told that the quiet spaces rarely get use. We aren’t so consistently architecturally blessed at Bath, with some of our older buildings not conducive to open-plan working. In Engineering & Design we have been discussing how we can bring the open-plan philosophy into what we do through creative solutions.

 

3. Thriving at work is everyone’s responsibility

Aalto campus
The fan-like structure of the Undergraduate Centre designed by Alvar Aalto is surrounded by green space.

‘Work ability’ is both a leadership and personal responsibility at Aalto. Staff receive regular 360-degree health checks and surveys that cover their physical, mental, environmental health, as well as the risks and challenges of their working environment. These explore everything from mental wellbeing, to how noisy offices are and how often staff take exercise. A team of in-house physicians and ergonomists are deployed to tackle issues and mediators are on hand to resolve staff disputes, but the focus is on the responsibility of everyone to initiate conversations around burnout, wellbeing and work ability. There was plenty of common ground for discussion on this topic. Within Engineering & Design, our executive team recently received training on tackling wellbeing within the workplace, with the faculty making plans to conduct a university pilot project around staff wellbeing.

4. Digital upskilling is crucial

The Human Resources team at Aalto are leading a project to audit the digital skills of all professional services staff and upskill them for the future. It seemed dynamic that HR were spearheading this activity. They also pilot a lot of the new technology implemented in the university, including a move to cloud-based working. This goes to show that it is everyone's responsibility to develop their digital skills, and that we shouldn't leave it to colleagues working in digital to lead projects that impact our work.

5. Looking to the future doesn't just mean thinking about tomorrow

We were struck by the progressive attitudes of professional services staff at Aalto. They’re thinking about what the future of learning might mean for their roles, not next year, but ten years into the future. Modular, life-long learning is a big issue that's being discussed across Finland, and the university is already modelling what this means for how its services staff are organised.

What next?

L to R: Eliisa Lassila, Carita Pihlman, Riitta Silvoneinen, Loretta Gibson, Alice Ferns, Lizzie Little

The trip definitely wasn’t the end of our collaboration with Aalto University. We’ve got lots of ideas to mull over and plenty of plans for more Nordic/West Country knowledge exchanges, which are currently being facilitated by Microsoft Teams. We definitely felt inspired to raise the bar and would urge anyone to look internationally for inspiration on how to do things differently.

Our trip was supported by funding from Erasmus and the Faculty of Engineering & Design.

 

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