Smiley Face! Futurice is Europe’s Best Place to Work

By David Knight |

Working culture is often highlighted as one of the big advantages of working for a startup. But tucked away just around the corner from Checkpoint Charlie is the Berlin office of what is now officially the best place to work in Europe – and it’s an agency whose customers include both corporate giants and up-and-coming startups.

Futurice was founded in Finland in 2000 and came to the German capital two years ago. Its culture of complete openness and trust has seen it land the prize for mid-sized companies from Great Place to Work. Silicon Allee spoke to Sampo Hämäläinen, who heads Futurice’s German operations, about what makes working for them so special.

The conference room in the bright and breezy office, sat atop a slender but pristine office building, holds a few clues at first glance. There is a poster with a list of names down one side and a series of various smiley faces, happy and sad – more on that later – and there are other hand-written posters adorning the wall. A surprisingly low-tech practice for an enterprise which offers software design and development, “helping customers to get digital” as Sampo puts it, including mobile apps.

Those customers consist partly of large telco and media players such as Vodafone, T-Mobile, RTL and Nokia, but also of cool startups – Futurice worked with EyeEm on its Windows phone app, for example.

It now has another string in its bow thanks to the accolade from Best Place to Work, a global research, consulting and training firm which looks at leading workplaces in 45 countries around the world. Having come 15th in the annual study last year, the Finnish company topped the list 12 months later after what Sampo describes as a “culture audit.” It is a complete study of an organisation’s working culture with all the employees participating in a survey.

“Everyone Makes Decisions”

So what propelled Futurice to the top of the list? When it had reached the 40-employee mark, Sampo reveals, a great deal of thought had to be put into how the company would be structured in the future. Conventional wisdom was adopted but quickly abandoned when they found it didn’t work. “Then we started thinking, well why should it work, because we only hire top notch guys who should be able to think by themselves.” They turned to lean management techniques, as pioneered by Toyota.

“We enable transparency as much as possible; all information is available for everyone, they can get that access to financial information and whatever. Everyone can make decisions by themselves.”

The model they use is called ‘three times two.’ The three refers to people, markets and numbers – the subject of the three posters on the walls – while the two means taking care of these things now and in the future.

“Everyone is a kind of director of the company,” Sampo adds. “You can make a decision as long as it follows these guidelines and is transparent to everyone. Of course, that means there is huge trust for every single employee and it also means a big responsibility.” It’s not suitable for everyone, and it means Futurice has to be picky when it comes to recruitment. But everyone plays their part in moving the company forwards. And every employee gets a 30 minute ‘speed date’ with the group CEO once a year.

The openness also includes the smiley faces, as Hanno Nevanlinna, the head of HR at Futurice, explains: “Every week the employees get together with all team members for a ‘Weekly Smile’ session to draw their own smiley face – happy or sad – on a board and to share their mood and thoughts about work and life in general. Burdens are shared and joys are celebrated together.”

A High Level of Trust

It certainly sounds like a cringeworthy management tool at first glance, but Sampo insists it pays dividends as people are encouraged to share not only what’s going well, but also what’s going wrong, even personal issues. It only works, he says, if there is a high level of trust.

“I had a friend of mine from a bigger consulting company visiting us here and he told me that if they had a similar kind of smiley thing, everyone would have a full smile every week…”

Assuming Futurice can find the right people, then, what other downsides are there to their open culture? One is the nature of the decision-making – if it is done by everyone, that sometimes means it’s done by no one, and as Sampo acknowledges, it is an industry where you need to be able to act fast.

But despite that, the big shiny award now sat on a Helsinki mantelpiece is testament to the fact that it works for Futurice. And you like the sound of it, you should be aware that they’re hiring…

Futurice will host talks about lean organisation followed by an office opening party on June 29 – more details here.