Breaking the language barrier in the workplace
English is as close as it gets to being the lingua franca of global business and communication, but outside the anglophone world, that doesn’t always translate to more choice in employment opportunities for professionals who haven’t mastered the local language. As companies hesitate to adopt more inclusive language policies, they pay a heavy price – without necessarily even realizing it.
Even in relatively international business hubs throughout Europe, organizations with English as their corporate language are still typically in the minority – and by a considerable margin.
While some companies are able to adapt their language requirements to welcome international professionals, this group is relatively limited. The harsh reality is that many organizations are still constrained by a culture that doesn’t offer much in terms of flexibility or willingness to accommodate exceptions. The most unfortunate cases are categorically opposed to the very idea of changing their language policy.
It’s hardly a surprise, then, that for example in Finland, international professionals see strict language requirements as the largest career obstacle affecting them. But why exactly is that the case? Experts seem to agree that reluctance to step out of the comfort zone and make arrangements is a good guess; outdated attitudes and conscious or unconscious biases – sometimes even outright prejudices – are another.
But that’s not all there is to it. A 2021 study commissioned by Finland’s largest private staffing agency Barona suggests that the lack of adequate English skills on the employer’s part is also a substantial contributing factor. Nearly 40% of the companies surveyed were not ready to accommodate English as a working language.
Three out of four companies in Finland suffer from a shortage of available talent, but at the same time, nearly half of the affected companies insist that international employees speak native-level Finnish. Connecting the dots presented here shouldn’t be particularly hard, but the requirements still don’t seem to budge.
Futurice has increasingly invested in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts over the past few years. Using English as our company language is a key part of offering an inclusive working environment, and it also helps us reach a much wider group of potential recruits. The main reason for us to promote this topic is to actively help and encourage other organizations to benefit from making the same move.
Even slow change is change
Cherry-picking potential hires based on their language skills rather than their proficiency in the field they’ve mastered is massively shortsighted. In doing so, organizations are actively limiting their access to the talent pool. Especially in fields heavily affected by the shortage of talent, this can have far-reaching consequences.
But things seem to be changing, albeit slowly. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the change has started from the most severely throttled domains – such as software engineering or design – where the educational pipeline simply can’t keep up with the demand of the labor market. Out of necessity, organizations have had to come to the conclusion that language does indeed come second, and professional skills, especially when in high demand, matter most.
What may surprise you, though, is that for example in Finland, public sector organizations are actually driving this change. The Barona study (report available only in Finnish, ironically) found that four fifths of the public sector organizations surveyed did in fact employ international talent, making them more international than private companies.
Karoline Kwon moved to Finland in 2013 to study new media design at Aalto University. She has since worked at a number of Finnish organizations, all the way from startups to large enterprises like KONE. She has previously worked at Posti – a long-standing Futurice client – where she was the first solely English-speaking person to join the in-house design team back in 2019.
“During my time as a consultant, Finnish used to be a requirement to work with public sector clients. So, when I interviewed at Posti, I felt unsure if I would be the right fit because I wasn’t fluent in Finnish,” Kwon says.
Born in Korea and raised in Canada, Kwon has had to do a fair bit of adapting during her time in Finland. Her outsider perspective has also helped give her a good understanding of what it’s like to work at Finnish companies as a non-Finnish-speaking employee.
“A question that a lot of foreigners get is, ‘How’s your Finnish?” Even though using English may be openly agreed upon, you can miss out on things if you don’t also know Finnish – because small interactions between Finnish people will obviously still happen in Finnish.”
At Posti, English was eventually used as the office language in the design team and beyond, although it was never stated to be the official company language. Being the first English-speaking person in the team was hard at first, but the organization’s commitment paid off and things improved.
“Even though most people were comfortable speaking English, it wasn’t a habit. It feels uncomfortable when you’re the only one and when others need to change for you. You can’t help but feel a little guilty,” Kwon recalls.
“I’ve tried to learn Finnish for years, and it hasn’t been easy. I was working and traveling a lot for work so it was very difficult to focus on language skills.”
Whenever the language issue made Kwon feel frustrated or self-conscious, she would turn to her manager.
“Whenever I told him I felt bad that everyone needed to switch to English for me, he would always tell me it’s only a big deal if you make it a big deal – and point out that most people didn’t mind the change or saw it as a positive thing.”
As it turns out, that was exactly the case.
A leap of international proportions
For a lot of people in Finland, Posti remains synonymous to its original function as the Finnish postal service, but over the years, it has also developed into a full-fledged international logistics and ecommerce service provider with a strong presence in Sweden and the Baltic states. As you may have guessed, the international growth spurt coincided with the Posti’s decision to embrace non-Finnish-speaking talent.
“I believe a lot of it boils down to the mindset change that Posti went through as we started our transformation into a modern ecommerce company,” says Posti’s Design Operations Lead Angelos Arnis. In early 2020, he was the second non-Finnish-speaking person to join the Posti design team.
“The mandate was that we really have to focus on this now, so let’s hire the best people we can find. There are only so many people in the talent pool and the demand is higher than the supply – language can’t be an issue,” Arnis recounts.
Karoline Kwon’s experience working at Posti ended up being a positive surprise, and she was impressed by the way people recognized that things were changing and new ways of working were desperately needed.
“On the whole, the people there were really supportive. I’ve been in larger meetings where every single person apart from me was Finnish, including people who had never had to use English at work, and they never complained. Many of them were excited and eager to try new things,” Kwon says.
Posti’s language shift is not the only such case in the public sector in Finland. At the state-owned railway company VR, the change has followed a similar pattern, all the way down to positive experiences within the organization. VR is another important Futurice client in Finland – one we’ve supported in reinforcing their situational awareness as well as developing their ticket sales.
In fact, the sales channel overhaul is what VR’s Director of Digital Services Marika Schugk identifies as the turning point that sparked the change. During that project, VR started welcoming non-Finnish-speaking software engineers, and not too long after that, designers as well.
“We gave it a lot of thought from the perspective of having access to the best talent on the market. Although our own developers had all been Finnish-speaking until that point, we realized that wasn’t a policy that we desperately had to cling to,” Schugk says.
“International teams have since both grown in size and become more commonplace at VR. After that initial decision, the practice of hiring international talent has spread out into other functions as well.”
The shift has not gone unnoticed in other parts of VR’s organization, and it has been easy to accept. Given the nature and importance of the strategic problems they are solving, the necessity of international talent is not questioned.
“Good experiences with the first teams helped us build a nice momentum, which, in turn, has made it easier to reinforce the practice and do the same elsewhere. It’s also much easier for us to work with our partners, many of which have international professionals in their teams. We have been able to put together really high-performing teams, and we are very satisfied with the outcome,” Schugk praises.
Building the momentum is also massively beneficial from the perspective of international employees. Karoline Kwon notes that the change at Posti really picked up the pace when Angelos Arnis joined the design team as the second non-Finnish-speaking person.
“When Angelos joined, it made things so much easier. He helped amplify the positive impacts of diversity and change. It took a lot of the pressure off being the only non-Finnish speaker, and we were able to start building the momentum for that change and go, ‘Hey, could we be more inclusive here?’ whenever there was room for improvement,” Kwon says.
In the next hiring round, new people pushed the Posti design team to a 50-50 split between Finnish-speaking and international employees, which made it easier to continue in that trajectory and keep converting the team’s work into English.
“A lot of employers still have Finnish as a job requirement without really questioning it. In reality, it’s just one skill of the many someone can offer in a role. During my two years at Posti, there were few cases where Finnish hindered me or our team’s work to create positive change. In the end, we always found a way to work together and use our diverse skills to support one another,” Karoline Kwon reflects.
And that’s the thing – naturally, language does still matter in some roles, but certainly not all of them. At VR, Marika Schugk points out, customers expect to get service in Finnish or Swedish for example when dealing with customer service agents or train conductors.
“But the work of software engineers and designers is very different in comparison. It’s fairly universal and independent of language, and there’s typically no need to interact directly with the customers. Whenever we need usability testing, for example, we can translate the feedback so that our teams understand it,” Schugk says.
When making changes to things like a company’s language policy, there’s bound to be some friction. In Angelos Arnis’ experience, adjusting to new ways is usually harder for the people with more years of service under their belt.
“I’ve worked at a couple of companies in Finland, and when it comes to attitudes towards language, things depend a lot on how many people have been at a company ‘forever’. It can be a pretty steep hill to climb with people who have been there for ages,” Arnis says.
Karoline Kwon has a very similar impression based on her past experiences.
“The longer you’re used to working in a certain way, the harder it is to change, or even want to. Sometimes people didn’t reply to me if I wrote in English or acted like I could understand when I really couldn’t,” Kwon says.
Arnis has faced no issues with language at Posti, but his observations at previous workplaces suggest that if there’s just one non-Finnish-speaking person involved, people are more prone to just keep having meetings and doing things in Finnish.
“I’ve sometimes been the only English speaker in a meeting that was held in Finnish, so I would just have to sit and go through my emails while waiting for the others to finish, and then get a summary from someone afterward,” Arnis says.
Both Arnis and Kwon chalk the successful language shift at Posti up to one thing in particular: an exceptionally skilled supervisor. He had tons of experience working with international teams, and he was very pro-diversity in the one he steered.
“He had previously worked at Google, and when he joined Posti, he simply started to hire the best people in design who could do what the company needed. He would never consider language as a restriction,” Arnis says.
“It’s a huge motivational boost when you don’t have to justify being able to understand what’s going on around you,” he adds.
Similar trends have also been recognized at VR.
“Our product owners have been accustomed to working in large global teams, and that’s a big benefit. Working in English comes very naturally to them, and that has helped us drive and expand that change,” VR’s Marika Schugk says.
But as talented as a supervisor or product owner may be, their reach only goes so far. In a large organization, it is absolutely mandatory for upper management to be committed to the change as well.
“Something like this requires a considerable change in mindset, and it takes a lot of leadership effort to demand and ensure that the chosen language sticks. There’s a huge difference between just letting things run their course, and actually nurturing the decision you’ve made and ensuring that it’s honored throughout the organization,” Schugk argues.
“There are countless details to take into account – for example, paying attention to having sufficient language skills on the supervisor and product owner level, and offering support for those who want to brush up on their English.”
Why international talent is more important than ever
Embracing international teams isn’t exactly a cakewalk, as we’ve established by now. It takes plenty of effort to get things to run smoothly, and there is a wide range of pitfalls to look out for at the same time. This begs the question – why should organizations go through all that trouble in the first place?
One of the main reasons that comes up time and time again is the connection between a team’s diversity and its creativity and capability to innovate. Both Karoline Kwon and Angelos Arnis seem to agree with that notion, arguing that a fresh perspective is a considerable strength in any creative task.
“Having different experiences and perspectives can contribute a lot to your perception. When you’re not used to the way things are done here, you have a great way of seeing and solving problems in different ways,” Karoline Kwon says.
The real impact comes when you multiply those perspectives, and end up with an amalgamation of different viewpoints:
“Diversity comes from the fact that you can combine all these different cultures and perspectives together. If an organization is predominantly Finnish, and you add all these people with their own backgrounds on top of that, it’s a unique opportunity because they apply their expertise from a different point of view,” Angelos Arnis says.
Experts have also found a correlation between the diversity of a team and its performance. When you consider this from the language angle, the implication is fairly obvious: If you are willing to hire international talent, your options open up drastically. You can hire from all over the world, not just the local talent pool.
“Being able to welcome the best professionals out there into our teams is the biggest advantage there is. There’s already a massive shortage of talent in the software industry, and digitalization is certainly not slowing down. There’s just no way we can train enough people in Finland alone to meet the demand,” Marika Schugk says.
And really, when you think about it, language is just one of many skills and characteristics that you might be looking for in a candidate. Are you really going to let one thing hold you back from hiring a great candidate? And can you afford to do so?
“There’s nothing to lose by hiring international talent, but so much to gain. If you consider individuals, there are so many more skills beyond language that a person can contribute to your organization – not to mention their unique motivations, interests and perspectives,” Karoline Kwon sums up.
“You can’t stay in your own bubble forever, because there’s no space to grow there. And it’s a horrible excuse to not want to change because you’re afraid or you think it’s going to be a hassle.”
Founded in Helsinki, Finland in 2000, Futurice has used English as its official language since 2007. At the beginning of 2022, we employed more than 650 professionals representing 52 nationalities. In Finland alone, 14% of our headcount consists of international employees covering 38 different nationalities.
- Pekka LehtinenHead of Content