As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eeva Raita.
Eeva Raita is Head of Strategy & Culture at Futurice, a partner to global corporations and public sector service providers based in Europe that combines tech, business, and organizational know-how in a fast-changing and competitive world. The company employs over 600 people with offices in Finland, Germany, Sweden, and the UK.
Eeva leads a team responsible for helping both client organizations and Futurice itself find success in the digital era by creating better work cultures, innovating for growth, and leading change. She holds a Ph.D. in social psychology and combines her expertise in people and tech to help companies to foster learning and become more human-centric and data-enabled.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I often say this is my third career. I started as an actress-organizer-director-manager at a small theater, where I learned that even the most creative people need to know how to mop the floors before the show! All that time at the theater and on stage showed me the importance of not only storytelling but also teamwork — memorable stories are delivered by teams working towards one vision with everyone playing their part.
Despite my love for drama, I realized the theater wouldn’t be my vocation. I went on to pursue an academic career instead, starting by studying social psychology — it seemed to represent a chance to learn the structures and theory behind the social interactions I am passionate about.
As my academic career progressed, I saw the drastic influence new technology was having on social psychological phenomena. Researching people’s experiences with new technologies such as smartphones, I witnessed how technology was increasingly mediating everything from our social interactions to our self-image and self-esteem — what it meant to be a social being. Eventually, after successfully defending my doctoral thesis (PhD) on everyday user experiences, my career was at a turning point. I felt I would have to work for a tech company if I really wanted to change the world.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Mistakes rarely feel funny when they take place, but I’ve learned along the way to laugh at them. During my academic life, I was returning to work after the birth of my second child. I had been invited to attend a respected conference that took place in my hometown. With two small kids, babies really, I had not been able to prep adequately before the event. As I arrived at the venue I started to search for my name in the program. It was at that point I discovered I would be presenting in the biggest conference hall — shortly before presentations delivered by the two most admired researchers in our field.
To be honest, I panicked. My presentation wasn’t special, and I tried to fix the slides with the little time I had — but there wasn’t much I could do. I had no choice but to go on stage, present what I had, knowing that I was missing one of the biggest opportunities I would ever have to leave a good impression on my industry and peers.
I felt humiliated. At the time, I beat myself up and vowed to always be prepared from then on. But thinking back, I don’t think I could have done anything differently. Even if you are likely to make a fool of yourself, there are times when you have to be courageous and take the risk. I almost skipped the conference dinner because I felt so uneasy. I’m glad I didn’t because I ended up having a fun evening and meeting nice new people. We are all so busy being worried about what others think of us, but the fact is, our mistakes are not the huge events we feel they are from the perspective of others.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
This is a tough one! I love books, both reading as well as listening to them, so it’s totally impossible to name just one. One of the most influential books in my career was the Finnish version of ‘Introduction to Social Psychology’ which I pretty much know word-by-word.
I first crammed that book for my university entrance examination (two times in a row — it was really hard to absorb!) I revisited the book when I taught it at a cram school to help others to pass the examination, and I finally ended up teaching it at the University.
The book really is pretty amazing — a 400-page dictionary of the most valuable theories in social psychology spanning behavioral change and attitudes to social constructionism and the study of the masses. I still apply many of its teachings in my daily work, and many of the students that joined my open university classes have studied it in an effort to become better leaders.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I joined Futurice with a strong belief that I ‘had’ to work for a tech company. As a researcher, I often felt that while I was making interesting (and sometimes disturbing) findings about technology’s role in shaping our lives, I wasn’t influencing this development in any way. I believed I would be better equipped to drive the design and development of services and products aimed to improve lives as a consultant in a tech company, and it has proved to be the case.
In my current work, where I focus less on building services and more on leading related organizational transformations, this purpose has translated into an attempt to drive digital transformation from a human-centric approach. I believe that the more effort we put into creating organizational cultures and leadership that improves employee experience, the better user and customer experiences result. How could one put the customer or client first, if one does not experience the organization doing the same for them?
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
My number one principle is people-first. I believe no matter the challenge, being there for — and with — your people is the only way to solve problems. That doesn’t mean avoiding difficult decisions or not thinking about the numbers, but rather believing that happier people result in happier customers. At Futurice, our promise to our people is that with us they can become a better version of themselves, as we believe that helping our people to grow is the best way to also grow our impact and business. To meet our promise, we have put a lot of effort into caring for our people (also during these challenging times), from closely following our weekly well-being metrics to having almost weekly check-ins to see how our people are doing.
Crises like this are a true test of an organization’s culture and values — and those who are able to live by them also during difficult times are at an easier starting point afterward. If people feel that the organization is doing it’s best to support them, it’s easier for them to do the same in return. Sometimes, all that is needed are very small and simple things. For example, when our people started to work from home we soon realized many were struggling from impractical work setups — kids’ rooms, closets, warehouses, and even playhouses all featured. Small teams from our sites delivered chairs, tables, and even extra-screens to people’s homes to give them a more ergonomic working environment. Things like this make people feel cared for and make it easier for them to focus on their work.
Thank you for all that. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family-related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I think this pandemic has made me aware of how privileged I actually am in many ways. Working as a consultant for a global tech company taking our work to remote caused little friction as we are used to working in hybrid setups. In addition, most of our consultancy projects continued as our clients were in a growing need for help with their digital development. I have also been lucky in that my family, friends, and close colleagues have not caught the virus but instead we have all stayed healthy — and for this, I feel especially thankful.
This is also why my challenges have been on a smaller side really. As an extrovert, I have surely missed face-to-face time with my family, friends, and team a lot. Yes, we did organize many remote get-together both with my family, my closest friends, as well as my team. This did bring joy to our lives, but at the same time, they sometimes made us aware of just how much we missed normal face-to-face gatherings, and how uncertain we were when we would have a chance to do that again. But as said, this I see as a very small worry compared to what many have had to get by.
Last, as a mum of two, one of my challenges was balancing homeschooling and busy workdays. While my kids, (aged 7 and 9) are in many ways active and autonomous, they have needed quite a bit of help during the day to advance in their studies. Luckily we were able to balance these responsibilities with my husband, taking turns in which one of us tries to be the home teacher-cleaner-cook-consultant/director. Also, we did apply some of the principles and tools I typically use with client organizations to help them adopt more self-directed ways of working. For example, I made kanban boards for our kids’ daily school assignments and chores. We agreed they could choose which task to work on and also track their progress. Still, I am sure we all felt a sense of relief when the schools opened again.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The biggest asset for any business is its people. When the pandemic hit, the well being of our people and our clients was top of mind next to the potential business challenges. We have designed our operations and ways of working with the assumption that our people are smart and self-directing, so truthfully the move to a remote way of working was pretty friction less.
Instead, our leadership put effort into fostering human-to-human connection and improving transparency via weekly, company-wide communication. We agreed within the leadership team to pay especially close attention to certain metrics, employee engagement being one of them. Interestingly, instead of seeing a dip, engagement scores have actually improved in some areas, and we are now figuring out how to rebuild our operations so that we incorporate some of the benefits we’ve discovered during the lockdown.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Rather than giving advice, I think I’ve focused more on doing things for the people I love — I guess it’s a more natural way for me to care. With my family, we have made sure we don’t zoom out, but instead spend less time on social media & screens and more outside: gardening, going on small trips to the nearby forest, taking evening walks in nature with my daughter. In fact, here in Finland, even our endless forests started becoming crowded as all of us have gone back to nature.
Regarding my team, we’ve done our best to inject a little bit of fun into our week. We tend to work on different projects spread across several clients, meaning we only meet during our bi-weeklies designated for communication and sharing. We have reserved a slot during our sessions to play a game we call ‘people bingo.’ The rules are simple: we take turns reading out confidentially submitted funny facts about our team members (‘I have accidentally stolen the president’s umbrella’ was a highlight!)The person with the most correct guesses wins. Those 15 minutes give us an opportunity to laugh and learn about each other. It has made us feel less lonely and more like we are in it together.
Physical activity is also a huge factor. Morning yoga and evening runs have really saved me — I almost enjoy this new setup. Funnily enough, it took a global pandemic for me to get back to starting the day with yoga, and while I miss my dance classes, there is nothing like rinsing a whole day of screentime away with an evening run by the seaside.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-COVID economy will look like. But we can, of course, try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-COVID economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time, the Post-COVID growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-COVID economy?
Respecting no boundaries, COVID-19 has illuminated how interdependent and fragile we are as a global community. On the other hand, it has shown how big systemic changes we can make when forced to do so. When the global workforce went remote overnight, a behavioral change that would typically take years happened in a fraction of the time. I hope this experience has both opened our eyes to the closeness of other global crises, climate change being especially alarming, and also our ability as businesses and societies to tackle them.
Second, as digital and remote-first take a permanent slot in the mainstream, this will open opportunities for individuals and organizations alike. When the physical location doesn’t limit where you work, Silicon Valley and Helsinki become real options for job seekers. What is for sure is that companies will need to emphasize attracting the best talent: salary will be only a hygiene-factor, as the most attractive companies will be the ones with inspiring work culture and purpose-driven business.
Third, I feel this pandemic has accelerated not only the digital transformation but also automation. Knowledge workers have had the luxury of protecting themselves through physically distancing, but this has not been an option for those whose profession can’t be taken online. I’m quite sure technology will develop so more work is taken over — or protected by — machines.
Yes, this may cause jobs to be lost, but it will force us to invent new ones and will make organizations become learning platforms where people give birth to new professions. If anything, this pandemic will showcase the importance of flexibility and adaptability, which can only flourish in an environment where learning and continuous improvement are practiced daily.
Last, I believe many of us have realized that we might be living busy lives without truly understanding why we do so. I hope many of us seize this new opportunity to bring a bit more balance to our lives — and to also enjoy the small things. As many remote practices are here to stay, will this make people more highly value face-to-face interaction when they have a chance to do it? I sure hope so.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
This is a little hard to predict, as we have a tendency to overestimate the short-term and underestimate long-term change, but I do imagine that this will change our relationship to travel & remote setups. Instead of being either/or, it’s interesting that imposing some restrictions on movement might actually free businesses and individuals to find hybrid models of living and working that offer the best of both worlds.
I definitely feel many people have taken this time to reflect on whether it really makes sense to live so busy lives. Does non-stop action make us any happier, or should we aim to be a bit more balanced? It will also be interesting to see whether remote-only companies become widespread and how this influences urbanization. When people are not forced to live in crowded cities as they can work from where they want to, will they still continue to do so? These changes would then influence everything from construction and transport to urban planning.
On a larger scale, I feel global supply chains have been hugely impacted and a rethink is underway. We are becoming aware of the risks and negative effects of pursuing efficiency at any cost as it turns out the whole just-in-time structure of the global supply chain is extremely fragile.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-COVID economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-COVID Economy?
For me the interesting question is this — with all the talk about the ‘new normal’, are we really ready to change, or will we just revert to our old habits? Right now, many organizations are in a bit of a holding pattern. They’re avoiding big risks while securing cash flow and ring-fencing their most crucial operations. As the dust settles, we need to use this pandemic as a learning opportunity that forces leaders to make our organizations better for customers, for employees, and for the planet.
While it’s hard to do a comprehensive analysis of the implications of COVID-19 at this point, I feel we have received three crucial lessons. The first lesson is that of uncertainty: we knew we lived in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, but this pandemic has been a stark reminder of what these words mean in action. We’ve all experienced what it is to live, love, and do business in a world that changes faster than we thought possible. The second concerns interdependence: we similarly ‘knew” we lived in a globalized, networked world with complex inter dependencies. When COVID-19 made things grind to a halt, we were reminded of just how interconnected and interdependent we are. Last, this pandemic has illuminated our ability to change: As a social psychologist, I often remind my clients that behavioral change is the most challenging part of digital transformation. The most complex technologies are simple compared to the workings of a human mind. However, this pandemic has shown that lacking other options, people are able to change their behaviors overnight.
Becoming more data-enabled and fostering a culture of learning will be central in turning these lessons into opportunities. Unlike being data-driven (being led by data), data-enabled means learning to lead with data. We’ve seen many predictive and descriptive pandemic models on our news feeds of varying quality. How many leaders have applied similar practices in their internal communications? How many of us know what data to focus on — and how to turn it into insights about our company, people, and business — when we are faced with something as unprecedented as this pandemic?
Being a data-enabled continuous learning organization is something we try to inject into everything we do at Futurice, and it has helped us stay strong throughout this crisis. As we move forward we are putting even more effort into finding creative ways to support data-smart practices and lead with data. Transparency, trust, care, and continuous improvement have been the values guiding everything we do for over a decade, and we take pride over truly living by them. As we rethink, rebuild, and grow our business we are finding ways to stay true to these values and still challenge ourselves to transform and become a better version of ourselves.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would encourage leaders to ditch the ‘know-it-all’ attitude and to start learning how data can help them build more adjustable and resilient organizations. In practice, this means that many of us need to become a bit more tech-oriented — enough to make these technologies less of a black box. It’s important to understand that data about our company, people and business are of no value if we don’t know how to interpret them — and how to question their reliability and validity.
Becoming more data-enabled will help companies tackle uncertainty and interdependencies, but only if they are able to make the needed behavioral changes and foster a culture of learning. To lead this change, you need to build a culture where everything from tools to ways of working and mindsets support smart data practices and a curiosity to always learn more. I hope the future will see us build organizations where we use data to build hypotheses and experiment as part of our work. One of the key takeaways from agile practices and lean startup methodology is that everything can and should be experimented. The hypothesis-testing-iteration model will improve everything, from new offerings to internal capability development.
Last, even the best models offer only predictions and probabilities, so leadership as an activity of motivating groups of people towards a shared objective will not fade away. Instead, if anything, the role of good leadership in setting organizations apart from each other will increase. So actually us leaders need to find ways not only to become more tech-savvy but also more human-centric. We need to cultivate our emotional intelligence and ability to foster the psychological safety vital to a learning organization where everyone has a voice, and it’s not embarrassing to make mistakes, or disagree
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One that I cherish is something our former president, Tarja Halonen, said at an event organized to support female leaders. She said: ‘As a woman, you will always be either too young or too old, so never let your age or gender determine you or what you are capable of.’
Reflecting on recent events, I feel these words are now particularly topical. The Nordics have progressed far down the road to equality, but there’s still some way to go. I often worried as a young researcher that my opinions weren’t ready enough to be shared. I felt I would need to research more, to have something smart to say.
As a female leader in a male-dominated industry, I’ve learned to take my place and not excuse who I am or where I come from. In addition, something that is just as satisfying is to act as a mentor for other females just starting their careers in this industry. Thinking about the future of organizations and society at a large, the only way for us to move forward is to become more inclusive and diverse. A lot of work remains to be done, not just in gender equality, but also in terms of more broad inclusivity.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can follow me on Twitter (@EevaRaita), Linkedin (https://www.linkedin.com/in/eevaraita/) and I also share my insights in our blog from time to time (https://futurice.com/blog).