Published April 18, 2018

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.

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.”


Hindrances to employment

My customer in vocational guidance and career planning services is a 35-year-old man with a university degree, who has not found his place in working life despite his excellent degree. He has completed training geared towards job-seeking and searching for one’s own professional direction (purchased services), and had work try-outs in various places. Despite being very diligent and committed, he does not feel as though he gained anything that noteworthy from the training. Our meeting this week was the fourth one (timed over a longer period). As the trust had been built before, we went straight to the point. We had a deep conversation about why it is so difficult for him to apply for work and be successful in interviews. We talked a lot and from various angles about his difficulty in accepting himself, and how he tries to justify his whole existence through a tiring pursuit of perfection. As he always compares his own knowledge to perfection (instead of the average), he is always hit by huge self-doubt in relation to every possible work opportunity, which is reflected to the employer in job interviews as tangible uncertainty. Suddenly, halfway through our conversation, the customer said with his eyes glowing: “You know, now we are talking for the first time ever (anywhere!) about the real hindrances between me and employment! Once I get these basic problems sorted out relating to myself, I will definitely find my place in working life.” I felt the same way. I gave him exercises to do at home relating to his own values and expectations and we agreed to meet up again in three weeks’ time.


Start the weekend in a good mood

A highly educated applicant was directed to a service supporting part-time interviews. The service provider informed us that the applicant was not able to apply for work at the moment > we called the applicant. At the beginning of the phone call it turned out that the applicant had been diagnosed with moderate depression and she was not able to fulfil the employment plan sent to her. She felt that the actions required by the TE Office were too much for her. > we created an action plan together with the customer over the phone. The applicant was told what the procedures meant in her case and she was asked if the officer could approve the plan on behalf of the applicant. The applicant gave her approval and felt that she was being helped, which decreased her anxiety. We talked about changing the line of service and what it would mean in terms of the applicant, and what services there were available to her PL3. The applicant was very satisfied with the change of service line. The applicant was asked to send a doctor’s note to the registry office. The address was sent to the applicant in a text message. At the end of the phone call, the applicant thanked us for the good service. I believe that in this case both the officer and the customer started the weekend in a good mood.


In drug replacement therapy

This is an unusual story about quick co-operation between authorities, which saved time and clarified the customer’s need for service without unnecessary bureaucracy. A customer in substitution treatment came to tell a customer service agent at the joint service point that Kela expected him to be a jobseeker because of an issue with income support. He had been moved as a customer to social services in 2015. The customer was registered as an unemployed jobseeker. I asked a social worker who was present for a trialogue. The customer was called in and we interviewed him. Social services mapped out his work abilities and agreed to contact his treatment providers and wrote their own statement for Kela. An activating plan for the customer was made in the trialogue, in which it was stated that he was not suitable for guidance to services offered by the TE Office, in other words, there was no change to his substance abuse. The customer’s job search was concluded. I am telling you this story because we also need fast, on-call type service. – I am also telling you so that people would understand that such a service would not be needed if authorities did not function in such a bureaucratic way.


More questions than answers

An 18-year-old boy who had been diagnosed with depression and neuropsychiatric symptoms came to a meeting. He had quit his vocational training because of the aforementioned reasons. No courses of study interested him, and he did not want to move anywhere from his home town, not even if he could find interesting study opportunities elsewhere. The boy lived as though in a bubble of his own: he said he became anxious if anybody forced or obliged him to do something he did not want to do. He could not plan his life ahead at all. In the interview, I realised that the boy was very talented. After the meeting I wondered how much of this is really going on: that somebody is left outside everything in society because of their health or characteristics and largely out of their own free will. And since this is the case of a grown-up person, he decides on his business entirely independently if he so wishes, even if it were possible to improve his quality of life. Or is he right in his decision? Who gets to master the lives of others and pretend to know what is best for everyone?

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