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A Finnish innovator finds new ways to work that earn big returns in a tough sector. - Alan Tillier reports

Smart in yellow uniforms, staff hurry about in Finland's $60 million-a-year Sol cleaning company carrying laptops and the latest Nokia mobile phones, as well as heavy-duty vacuum cleaners.

This is a company in which people work when they like, and flexibility is being strongly tested. It is one that Dr Joseph Juran, the management guru based in New York, considers to be the future.

Sol's owner, Liisa Joronen, a slim, charismatic brunette of 50, back from a 90-mile keep-fit cross-country ski run in Lapland, says that she has thrown out traditional management styles and hierarchies in favour of people motivation and the strict auditing of targets.

She has brought fun to the workplace in a nation noted for its engineering innovation, but also for its people's shyness and introversion. This most extrovert of Scandinavian business leaders sometimes dresses as a sunflower and sings at sales meetings if it will help. The company's name is from the Spanish for sun, and its sun logo has a curved line turning it into a smile. The key words around Sol are freedom, trust, goals, responsibility, creativity, joy of working and lifelong learning Ms Joronen says. people's creativeness is restricted by routine and traditional office hours. As work becomes more competitive, so we need more flexible, creative and independent people.

Japanese style motivation

To help staff towards independence of mind, Liisa has abolished territorial space, such as individual offices and desk and organised a communal area similar to a social club. It has colourful playground, with trees, caged birds and small animals, nursery, a billiard table, sofa, modern art and kitchen corners.

Staff sit anywhere. There is not a secretary in sight. The boss makes the tea if everyone is on the phone to the field teams. Headquarters can be empty in the day and busy in the evenings and weekends. One headquarters worker, keen to go to midweek tango classes, was switching tasks with a colleague. The person supervising the cleaning of Helsinki's metro was working from home.

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Flying the country Economy Class, Liisa tells 3,500 staff at 25 branches to kill routine before it kills you. At Sol Days, Japanese-style motivation sessions, she has the whole hall dancing, and urges staff: The better you think you are, the better you will become. Half the country sees Liisa as a revolutionary boss, and several television programmes have been devoted to her. The other half thinks she is crazy.

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