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NIVA restructured its entire business in one month and got flush with cash

NIVA restructured its entire business in one month and got flush with cash

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

The Nordic institution NIVA, with headquarters in Helsinki, organises courses within the field of occupational health and safety for participants in and outside of the Nordic region. When Corona hit, NIVA managed to cancel all future courses and replace them with online versions – all in one month.

“We should be a case for the Harvard Business Review,” jokes Henrik Bäckström, who has been NIVA’s Director for the past six months.

“Few companies have managed to turn their ship around so fast,” he tells the Nordic Labour Journal. We are standing on a balcony at Hotel Clarion in Helsinki with a view to Helsinki Shipyard, with its cranes and long history of manufacturing everything from ice breakers to cruiceships.

“It was, to be fair, quite a small vessel we turned around,” he says.

With Henrik Bäckström at the helm together with three other colleagues, it did not take long to make a decision. But the result was surprising: The digital courses got more participants and were much cheaper to run. As a result, NIVA’s finances improved so much that the owner, The Nordic Council of Ministers, has asked for a plan on how they will get their equity back down to normal levels – enough for three months of operations but no more. 

"To be fair, the major change of direction in 2020 towards a digital business happened while my predecessor Birgitta Fosström was at the helm. Thanks to the creativity and enthusiasm of our staff the transition was made possible," he says.

One out of twelve institutions

The Nordic Council of Ministers owns 12 institutions, but NIVA is the only one belonging to the work life sector. It was founded in 1982, which means it will turn 40 next year. NIVA has always had its headquarters in Helsinki. 

“What surprised me the most was how enthusiastic both my colleagues as well as speakers and course participants were about the new way of organising courses. It has also brought us new participants. We had, for instance, one person who was following a course from Brazil, despite the fact it meant he had to stay up all night,” says Henrik Bäckström.

When the number of participants passed 100 for some of the courses, NIVA’s digital transmission certificates became too small. But to invest in new certificates was cheap compared with the cost of travel, hotels, conference venues and food for the participants. 

Hybrid courses and social gatherings

During the whole of 2020, NIVA offered only digital courses, while 2022 will see a mix of digital, traditional and hybrid courses.

“There are of course limits to what you can do online. We have for instance one work environment course for people working in cold storage, and this is tricky to do online. But I, who have worked with courses for decades, am surprised at what is possible.”

Participants miss the social aspect of meeting new people and discuss with them after the course. 

“We open up the courses 30 minutes earlier in the morning to allow participants to socialise and they often ask whether we can organise something in the evenings too.

“We have also added one new item to the courses – an exercise programme for those working from home. This has become popular,” says Henrik Bäckström.

Doubling the business

He has reassured the civil servants who are guarding the Nordic Council of Ministers’ expenses that the money saved in the budget will not be spent on any extravagant 40 years celebration next year. Instead, they will launch twice as many courses as usual in 2022. 

Since the beginning back in 1982, NIVA has hired 13,000 experts from more than 40 countries who have participated and networked through NIVA. Some 30% of these came from countries outside of the Nordic region.

The digital courses have seen a slightly different distribution with 50% Nordic participants, 25% from EU countries and 25% from the rest of the world. 

NIVA usually organises some 15 webinars every year, as well as two to three conferences. The next conference is part of the Finnish Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers and will focus on how climate change and the green transition will impact on the Nordic labour markets.


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