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Welcome to the employment office

Data collected by the KEHA Centre takes the reader into the daily life of TE Offices, where customers’ life stories are sometimes sad, but where just a smile can make the day. These stories are useful to the planners of the regional government, health and social services reform, but decision-makers could also learn something from them.


Noora Mattila



Sometimes it happens that when you are looking for a solution to one problem, you find an answer to another. This can happen, for example, in the TE Offices (employment offices). A customer comes to ask for help with unemployment, but it turns out that they need sick leave first. That is when we get to the root of the problem.

Service is not necessarily as seamless in all TE Offices and, as a result, the customer may have to hop from pillar to post.

As part of the regional reform, TE Offices will be shut down and merged with regional growth services. This is the time of change, says Jouni Toikkanen, who works at the KEHA Centre that develops TE services. With the reform, customers will be served more comprehensively, so that employment services, for instance, will co-operate more tightly with SOTE (health and social) services.

“Not only is that more sensible from the customer’s perspective, but it is also more cost-effective than being divided into silos,” Toikkanen says.

Change was a starting point when the KEHA Centre started its SenseMaker experiment. It asked for experts at the TE Offices to describe situations involving customer service that they could remember from the previous week. The objective was to find out how customer orientation is visible in employment services and how it could be managed better.

But as often happens, the data answered a different question, too.

Empathetic champions

If there is an assumption that TE Offices are filled with bored pen-pushers, at least there are none among the respondents. The majority of the respondents seem to genuinely empathise (narrative 1: see the narratives below this article) with the joys and sorrows of the unemployed, and to help them as far as possible.

They say that they delve into customers’ worries and describe themselves as problem solvers who are motivated by the mere cheering up (narrative 2) of a customer’s day. As much as 72 per cent of the respondents estimated that the experience affected their work motivation positively or very positively.

Frustration was mostly expressed when the customer was reluctant or aggressive – or when the limits of bureaucracy prevented them from helping.

Jouni Toikkanen and the other person behind the design of the survey, ELY Centre’s service designer Taru Hillamo, were satisfied with the results in two senses. First, they confirm the theory that self-management makes expert work meaningful. More than half of the respondents estimated that they base their activity on their own expertise.

“Motivation was connected to the type of situation in which ‘I made such an observation and knew how to act.’ That created a feeling of success,” Toikkanen says.

Another pleasing observation was that experts at TE Offices were already aiming at customer orientation (narrative 3) in their work. In many stories, they grabbed a phone or called in a social worker, if the customer’s situation so required. There is a wish for a comprehensive service already, now we just have to enable it better.

“Services have been led for a long time by looking through the rear-view mirror. We have been looking at individual actions, such as the number of phone calls. In the regional reform, we are moving towards results-oriented management,” Toikkanen explains.

It means that the provider of employment services will receive a performance reward when a customer becomes employed. The reward is not depending on the methods used.

There are also risks involved, as the services are purchased from the market.

“Does this mean that the providers have the opportunity to select customers? There are many people whose employment does not depend on whether or not the right procedure is done,” Taru Hillamo points out.

Many stories, same models

What is especially interesting about KEHA’s data is that many respondents did not actually write about themselves as much as they did about their customers, often in great detail.

The data consists of 262 stories detailing the kind of people who visit TE Offices.

Meetings involving the following groups are becoming more common, according to the replies: young people under the threat of social exclusion (narrative 4), who do not necessarily want to leave their homes; unemployed people of around 60, who often have illnesses or outdated knowledge; and immigrants, who have varying capacities for working life, starting from hopeless crying.

Very few seem ready to look for employment.

At the same time, the ministry is preparing an independent employment model, in which an unemployed person would have to apply for at least one job a week to avoid a penalty of two months without benefits.

“People are very different, but in legislation, the same model is made for everyone. It is pretty different to follow the model when you can barely survive everyday life,” Toikkanen says.

“Our task is to inform the decision-makers so that their situational picture corresponds to reality. We also give them reports using modern methods, but it still feels as though the law is affected more by thoughts of how the economy and employment politics work in theory.”

According to Toikkanen, politicians’ experience may be based on news stories, which might, for instance, describe situations in which individuals are actively avoiding work. But they could gain a larger picture quite easily: by asking people working in customer service. Toikkanen and Hillamo find it difficult to explain what they have learned from the SenseMaker data. How can you formulate a press release from a mass of stories, and does anybody even read press releases anymore?

“Of course, people that took part in our management training will be there in the work groups preparing the regional reform,” Toikkanen points out. “The understanding moves along with them.”

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