Bruce Oreck came to Finland as the U.S. Ambassador to Finland, appointed under President Barack Obama in 2009. Living and working in Finland, a country quite different in many respects to the U.S., didn’t deter Oreck. Quite the opposite, he fell for the country and ended up staying after his official post concluded in 2015.
Oreck has never shied from new adventures on his rather “unusual and unpredictable” path over an impressive career. Currently, he is involved in the start-up scene, real estate development, and teaching at Aalto University School of Business. Humble as he may be, joking that he has “learned nothing” from all of his successes, we were excited to hear his thoughts on working life, differences in American and Finnish working cultures, and what’s in store for the future of work.
A Balanced Work and Home Life Is Key
When coming to Finland, one of the things that surprised Oreck was how long the holidays were for Finnish employees. Americans tend to equate a good work ethic with working a lot, but is that division of work and leisure doing them any good in the long term?
Finland’s work-life balance is among the world’s most generous with over 30 days of government-mandated paid holiday leave for full-time employees. This difference struck Oreck: “It took me quite a while to culturally accept that it’s okay to take that much time off, but it’s probably a good thing”.
Perhaps this comes as no surprise, considering in the U.S. it is up to the employer to decide about holiday leave and the national average is closer to two weeks a year. This is one way in which Oreck believes Americans can learn a lot from the more balanced Finnish model: “I don’t think you have to work 24/7, but work smarter instead”, he insists.
Awakening the Finnish Entrepreneurial Spirit
Americans also have a few things to teach the Finns it seems and some of their attitudes would be good to take on board. For example, Oreck emphasizes that Finns could learn especially from the go-getter attitude that many Americans have towards work: “What I would love to see, and what I’ve already seen happening in Finland, is the cultural shift and the growing entrepreneurial mind-set”. Essentially, “creating the future that you want”.
Instead of being afraid of mistakes, Oreck, with his experience and expertise in numerous fields, encourages Finns to take on a mentality that embraces possible failure. It is essential to learn to accept the fact that mistakes are inevitable and see them as learning opportunities. “Failure is simply another way of saying ‘education’”, Oreck illustrates. By incorporating this mind-set into working life, this could further awaken the Finnish entrepreneurial drive.
Finland Should up Its Game on the International Stage
What about greater success internationally? What could Finland do better? Oreck answers within seconds: “Nowadays there is only one economy, the global economy”. Therefore, Finns need to make sure that they are playing at a global level in order to succeed.
To put it in everyday terms: “You cannot expect to play in the NHL, if you are playing hockey on a local club level. Finland needs to make sure that, in all the ways it is interacting with the world and the economy, it’s playing it’s ‘A game’”, Oreck states. What’s more, this ‘A game’ needs to extend to every facet of business, whether it’s in marketing, production, sales, or service.
Questions about whether the Finnish language is a barrier for doing business makes Oreck chuckle. He jokes that it is not, if you indeed know Finnish. Yet, in all seriousness, in order to attract people from outside of Finland, Oreck emphasizes that there needs to be an internalization of the business language in Finland.
Flexible Working Spaces Creating Communities
Remote work is common for knowledge workers these days, but Oreck wonders about its efficiency. Although many of us need privacy to concentrate on our work, Oreck points out that most of us also want to feel the safety, acknowledgement, and connectedness of a working community.
“We are communal creatures and even the Finns like to be with other people”, Oreck laughs. Finland is getting the memo on this and over the last few years, the number of coworking spaces have exploded – if we look back only five years, there were none. This helps to bring together the benefits of flexible remote working, but also takes into consideration the need for togetherness and networking that Oreck argues is important to all human beings.
Along these lines, Oreck predicts that how we see the space in which we work will change. In his view, many of us have lost most of our sense of community and one of the last places where we can still maintain this is, in fact, at work.
“Anything that the creative landlord can do to create those touchstones of community is going to be really valuable. It’s not just about the physical space – that’s not the core issue. “It’s about who can be best at creating home for work”.
More stories from pioneers of modern work.