Northern Europe: IT Workers Get Management's Ear

Informal workplaces help Nordic IT workers generate ideas that are heard by upper management and that build their professional and personal skills.

In the Scandinavian countries of Northern Europe, the walls in IT workplaces are noticeably absent -- both literally and figuratively. The companies are styled just as the employees want them: Organizational structures are flat, corporate climates are open, and relationships between managers and IT staffs are informal and productive. These Nordic IT professionals take it for granted that they can walk up to their boss's desk, speak their minds and suggest changes -- and most important, that their boss will listen.

But in addition to this casual and open atmosphere, Nordic IT professionals place a high value on their ability to develop their professional and personal skills and, specifically, influence their own working situations. And that's exactly how most companies in the region work. There's a conspicuous absence of hierarchically organized companies, and best employers know they need to create a culture that thrives on informal contacts and provides an open climate for existing staff and potential recruits.

One example is Ikea IT AB in Helsingborg, Sweden, the IT organization of the Swedish furniture giant. Maria Andersson, project leader at the company, says what keeps her happy at work are the opportunities to take on new responsibilities and develop her skills and the open ear that management gives to staff ideas.

After only one year as a programmer at Ikea IT, Andersson says she was offered the opportunity to manage a development project. She didn't hesitate to say yes.

The chance to take on leadership tasks early in her career is one reason why Andersson rates Ikea IT as a very good employer. "It is easy to take on new responsibilities and advance if you want to," she says. "There seems to be no limit if you want to get on or do something new." She says the company is also eager to develop the skills of the staff.

"Ikea IT is very generous about training," Andersson says. "If you want to take a course, they'll let you. So you're not held back in your personal development." Andersson joined Ikea IT right after graduation and has worked there for two years.

"There's an open and friendly climate with many nice colleagues. You can speak your mind, and there are no obvious hierarchies. One telltale sign is that [department] managers sit at desks among everyone else in an open office landscape," says Andersson. "Also, openness and a flat organization provide for outspokenness and makes management listen to the staff.

"Proposals from employees are taken seriously, and that feels great and rewarding," she adds. "If you have a new idea about how to do something, suggestion for improvements or other ideas, they listen. Managers and colleagues listen, and I appreciate that."

The Right Balance

For Scandinavian IT professionals, it's essential that their employers help them strike the right balance between work and private life. Since both parents in families with young children usually work outside the home, those workers need flexibility to take their children to school or day care and pick them up. Telecommuting is another benefit offered here.

"Freedom and responsibility is what Nordic IT professionals require. They want to be able to set their own working hours," says Bjorn Robertsson, an IT headhunter at Alumni, a recruiting agency in Norway.

Nordic IT managers excel at adapting to new values and empowering employees, even at the lower levels of the organization, he says.

"Employers are anxious to involve their co-workers in decisions. This doesn't mean that the top priority for IT professionals is to advance. To the contrary, there isn't much interest in that, compared to other countries," Robertsson says. "People do not believe very much in hierarchies here, and becoming a manager is no big thing. There is more interest in the specialist [technical] track."

At Norwegian consultancy Telenor Business Solution (TBS) in Oslo, everyone, including managers, works in an open office. There is no fixed seating. One day, a consultant may sit next to his boss, the next day next to a secretary.

"This is the embodiment of the new way of thinking and working," says TBS human resources manager Leif Naess. "There's been a paradigm shift, and this is probably the most advanced pilot when it comes to flat leadership structures in the Nordic countries."

At Novo Nordisk IT in Copenhagen, a combination of an efficient working environment and a strong focus on new technology has made the company one of the more attractive Danish employers for IT professionals.

This isn't just because of fitness rooms, staff parties or the cafeteria. According to IT labor experts, what really attracts IT professionals and keeps them working at the company are the jobs themselves. The company works with a broad range of new technologies, and workers have access to innovative projects.

But even if there is little interest in becoming a manager, there's still interest in leadership in Scandinavia. Ikea IT has a leadership program for young employees, and there are plans to launch an international program for potential leaders.

"We have many young leaders here with us, and that requires us to provide support. But it's somehow part of the Ikea philosophy to give responsibilities to young people," says Christina Nilensjo, human resources manager at Ikea IT. "You do not have to prove yourself first, because you can get the opportunity without having the formal qualifications."

Salaries at Ikea IT, as in many other IT organizations at major corporations, are competitive. The staff doesn't receive stock options or many other cash-related benefits. "It's not the Ikea style to give flashy benefits to managers," says Nilensjo.

"We want to pay good salaries, not the highest salaries and not the lowest. In the way of benefits, we provide lots of them, such as good insurance, added parental pay providing for 80% of the salary and a 15% discount at Ikea stores. It is not part of the Ikea spirit to have a lot of fringes," says Nilensjo. "We prefer competence development and a good working environment instead."

Myren is news and careers editor of Computer Sweden.


Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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