The Multicultural Workplace: Lietsu

Talent Hub Joensuu vis­ited Lietsu Boutique Aparthotel to inter­view entre­pren­eur Maria Saastamoinen. A hotel foun­ded to show North-Karelian hos­pit­al­ity to for­eign­ers, Lietsu has taken full advant­age of the help offered by the sur­round­ing com­munity and inter­na­tional tal­ent to become a second home to trav­el­lers of all sorts.

In the old cream-col­oured postal build­ing in the town centre stands Lietsu Boutique Aparthotel, the brainchild of two stead­fast entre­pren­eurs: Maria Saastamoinen and Helena Puhakka-Tarvainen.  Opened in late 2019 just a few short months before the pan­demic hit, Lietsu has since carved out a place for itself as the face of North Karelian hos­pit­al­ity. During its time thus far, it has garnered mul­tiple rewards and attrac­ted mul­tiple for­eign employ­ees.

The stated goal of the entre­pren­eurs was to cre­ate a homely lodging ser­vice with a regional feel. In the lobby, guests are greeted by warm col­ours and old wooden fur­niture. The hotel’s 31 rooms has been hand-craf­ted to reflect the cul­ture, nature and his­tory of North Karelia, each with a spe­cific theme. The atmo­sphere in Lietsu is almost aggress­ively cosy. Maria Saastamoinen is the per­son behind the ini­tial concept. She runs the hotel full-time. Her part­ner Puhakka-Tarvainen also works out­side the hotel, which lim­its her time at Lietsu.

“The idea was born, when I spent a year and a half rent­ing out a spare bed­room through Airbnb to guests from all over the world”, Saastamoinen tells. Interested in cul­tural exchanges, she primar­ily advert­ised to for­eign trav­el­lers by post­ing her ad in English only.

“I enjoyed the cus­tomer inter­ac­tions tre­mend­ously, espe­cially guests from dif­fer­ent cul­tures, who could stay any­where from a day to months, and all the encoun­ters and things I could tell about Finland, the region and the city. That got me think­ing, “oh, if I could scale this into some­thing big­ger and more hotel-like so that some­thing of those cul­tural exchanges and the feel­ings of home­li­ness and hos­pit­al­ity would remain.”

Saastamoinen recruited Puhakka-Tarvainen as a part­ner. Neither had pre­vi­ous exper­i­ence of work­ing extens­ively in the hos­pit­al­ity industry, but both had a back­ground in inter­na­tional work. Although a sub­stan­tial por­tion of its vis­it­ors are nat­ives, inter­na­tional events and the prox­im­ity of the bor­der among other factors meant that Lietsu had to be equipped to serve for­eign vis­it­ors. When the hotel launched in 2019, the two entre­pren­eurs expec­ted a surge of Russian guests to arrive near the turn of the year. With that in mind, Saastamoinen and Puhakka-Tarvainen sought for Russian-speak­ing employ­ees, but the first recruit­ment drive yiel­ded no res­ults.

“We received over eighty applic­a­tions. We inter­viewed around ten or so people, but there were no Russian speak­ers among the eli­gible applic­ants. Either that, or the applic­ants were skilled in Russian, but had no real exper­i­ence in the field or proof of being able to work in the field. Unfortunately, we could not find a Russian speak­ing employee on the first round”, Saastamoinen explains.

“Nowadays, we’re lucky to col­lab­or­ate closely with local schools, Karelia University of Applied Sciences, and the Riveria voca­tional school. We’ve got­ten recruits through intern­ships from Karelia and Riveria, after which we’ve hired employ­ees with Russian skills, cul­tural com­pet­en­cies and under­stand­ing.”

Local edu­ca­tional institu­ations have proved to be  a fruit­ful source of recruits. Riveria in par­tic­u­lar has been very pop­u­lar with Russians. Three out of eight Lietsu staff mem­bers come from a Russian back­ground, and over the course of early 2022 Lietsu has employed sev­eral Russian-born interns. The immig­rant employ­ees have got­ten along swim­mingly with the rest of the team des­pite their lim­ited know­ledge of the Finnish lan­guage at the start. The rest of team has met its inter­na­tional mem­bers halfway, encour­aging open­ness and using a vari­ety of tools to help their inter­na­tional col­leagues accli­mate to the work­place.

“Take for instance the [inter­na­tional] employee we hired first after their intern­ship. They’re a stu­dent at Karelia, and they’re in fact doing mana­gerial train­ing here in Lietsu. They have been in Finland for a few years now, and their improve­ment in Finnish has been stag­ger­ing, and not just dur­ing but after the intern­ship as well.”

“Of course you have to con­sider how to express your­self, and I at least have noted a slight dif­fer­ence between how I talk to Finnish versus Russian employ­ees. [With Russians] I might, for instance, use simple sen­tence struc­tures, shorter sen­tences and more under­stand­able expres­sions. We want to avoid mis­un­der­stand­ings”, Saastamoinen con­tin­ues.

Another prac­tical mat­ter came as some­thing of a sur­prise.

“One thing we noticed over the course of hir­ing inter­na­tional tal­ent was that it was import­ant for an employer to inform their employee about the rights they have in Finland, mean­ing labour law, work­ing hours, and employ­ment con­tracts. They might be a little too inclined to be flex­ible”, Saastamoinen tells. “This one employee had a Sunday shift on the roster, and since it was a more peace­ful day, the employee said they don’t need to come to work, that they could come on Monday when there’s more to do. I’d noticed the same thing, that we had too many employ­ees in rela­tion to guests arriv­ing.”

“They asked me if they should come to work or not, and I said, ‘of course you’ll come’. That’s when I real­ized that they don’t know I can’t call off their shift on my own voli­tion. The way I worded it was that once given, I can’t take their shift away from them, but of course if you ask for it, it’s pos­sible for us to change that. We feel it’s a part of our social respons­ib­il­ity to remind employ­ees about their rights. Some employ­ers might use the oppor­tun­ity to take advant­age of their employ­ees.”

Other dif­fer­ences between the employ­ees have been minor. Saastamoinen has had to encour­age her inter­na­tional employ­ees to not be afraid of ask­ing if they do not know some­thing, but the dif­fer­ences are largely per­sonal and tem­pera­mental, not cul­tural.

“Every per­son is an indi­vidual. Take for instance a Finn who’s grown up in the coun­try versus a Finn who grew up in a city. Even those are two dis­tinct cul­tures, and you shouldn’t assume people all work the same. A per­son from a for­eign cul­ture could have more in com­mon with a Finn in some things than two nat­ive Finns,” Saastamoinen sums.

One thing that the Lietsu team had not pre­pared for was inter­na­tional con­flict. When the war in Ukraine star­ted, it came as a shock to Lietsu’s staff mem­bers. Saastamoinen has done the utmost to make sure her employ­ees are doing fine, lend­ing an ear and mak­ing sure the employ­ees know that Lietsu has their backs, should they need a break from work, for instance. With things as heated as they are, Saastamoinen was ini­tially wor­ried that her inter­na­tional employ­ees might face dis­crim­in­a­tion. Luckily, that has not been the case.

“We’ve made it very clear that if they exper­i­ence dis­crim­in­a­tion here or out­side work, they should know they have our sup­port. My worst fear ini­tially was how nat­ive Finns might react. Luckily there are around 2000 Russians here and Russian lan­guage is some­thing you come across in every­day life.”

Business-wise, the con­flict has not affected Lietsu, which remains as stable as ever. International tal­ent is vital to the busi­ness that has recently hos­ted for­eign sports teams dur­ing the Biathlon World Cup and other events. Saastamoinen remains con­fid­ent that the expert­ise of its inter­na­tional tal­ents will not go to waste in the future, as Lietsu con­tin­ues to build new con­nec­tions abroad.

Finally, when it comes to employ­ing inter­na­tional tal­ent, Saastamoinen acknow­ledges the chal­lenges, but firmly believes the effort is more than worth it.

“I get it”, she says refer­ring to hir­ing inter­na­tion­als. “We’re a small busi­ness too, so yes, tak­ing on new interns can be tax­ing from time to time. Training interns takes time, espe­cially with someone with a for­eign back­ground and lan­guage dif­fi­culties, who requires even more train­ing. But if one out of every five or ten turns out a gem, a truly valu­able employee, then it’s all worth it.”

“It just takes a little cour­age. There’s room in this soci­ety for diversity, people from dif­fer­ent cul­tures, and dif­fer­ent lan­guage fam­il­ies. At the same time, we can show our cus­tom­ers that we’re a diverse bunch and that we’re all equal here.”

We also had a chance to talk with Elena Tinus, one of the inter­na­tional employ­ees at Lietsu, who was happy to present her point-of-view.

“I moved to Joensuu from Petrozavodsk five years ago, and when I moved to Finland, I didn’t know any Finnish. Later, I got into Karelia University for Applied Sciences. I had to com­plete an intern­ship for two courses, which led me to Lietsu, and later I got the job. I’m actu­ally a travel guide by trade”, Elena tells.

Like her employ­ers, Elena has led a long and var­ied career. Elena has stud­ied nat­ural sci­ences in the Karelian State Pedagogical University, and worked as a labor­at­ory chem­ist for a dec­ade after gradu­at­ing. Later on, she stud­ied at the Petrozavodsk University to become a tour guide, and spent nine years guid­ing tour­ists, first on the payroll of tour­ism com­pany Lukomorie, and later the Kizhi State Open Air Museum of History, Architecture and Ethnography. Although her job at Lietsu is her first in hos­pit­al­ity, she already has extens­ive exper­i­ence in cus­tomer ser­vice.

Elena recog­nises the chal­lenges an inter­na­tional hire might face in the ser­vice industry. Nevertheless, her exper­i­ence in Lietsu has been over­whelm­ingly pos­it­ive.

“Lietsu is a very nice place to work in, and we have a really good team here. Sometimes I notice that a col­league might be hav­ing trouble com­mu­nic­at­ing with me, because I can’t under­stand some­thing or can’t give an elab­or­ate answer, but they’re always very friendly.”

Elena’s job includes tasks such as house­keep­ing, mak­ing and serving break­fast, recep­tion duties and serving the guests, among oth­ers. She plans to con­tinue work­ing in hos­pit­al­ity in the future as well. Although there’s still room for improve­ment when it comes to lan­guages, she remains pos­it­ive, and she feels she can handle cus­tomer work.

“I’m anxious about serving cus­tom­ers over the phone, but it’s easier face-to-face, of course.”

Text: Lauri Vuori