Heidi Henrickson: Being connected to people is an important part of feeling good about work

‘I see colleagues making an effort to make one another more comfortable. They are saying: you are not alone’, says Heidi Henrickson, a Networking Platform Manager and academic coordinator, in the 'Walk in my shoes' interview.
Heidi Henrickson, photo: the Finnish Union of University Researchers & Teachers
Photo: The Finnish Union of University Researchers & Teachers.

What is it like to walk in Heidi Henrickson’s shoes?

My work in the Aalto Networking Platform involves bringing people together, so I don’t sit in just one building on a given day. This means I walk 10 000 to 12 000 steps meeting people in three different buildings: at the end of Vuorimiehentie, Dipoli, and Väre. With little time between meetings, in addition to comfortable shoes, I need the ability to pack up the computer fast, take my tea with me, and go!

Luckily my time in high school marching band playing the alto saxophone is still valuable today. If you look at how I walk, you can still see some evidence of marching band there: we roll our feet to make the walking softer, and the distance between the steps is very precise.

What do you think is the optimal way of doing teamwork?

Optimal teamwork starts with identifying what we want the outcomes to be. Then we turn to the stakeholders, the people who would be affected. Good teamwork is understanding this: what is the problem and what are the goals, but also identifying that every team member has a completely different way of approaching it. Each person has different skills and thinking, and we should let them shine.

Why is networking important to you?

Knowing other people and what they do at Aalto makes it easier for me to work efficiently and be effective at what I do. Do I know anyone who has the required skillset? Also, offering solutions to people just feels good.

Getting or staying connected with people at work is an important part of my personal well-being. Being connected helps me feel good about work and to be recognized for that work. Then I might have the focus and energy to say to the person next to me: ‘you did a great job, that was a nice presentation, your ideas are really inspiring, or that was a really strong argument’.

What do you think is the most effective way to create cross-disciplinary cooperation?

We’ve been promoting cross-disciplinarity top-down and bottom-up already, and throwing €30K at a project is a good way to get it off the ground, to combine projects or change the way we work together. But what if we could come in sideways? What can happen when you work across disciplines by rethinking your assumptions or the starting and end points?

For example, when you try to approach a challenge, you could throw away the idea that X has been done before. In BATCircle, for instance, they crushed old batteries and reused valuable components in new ones. Now, they are side-stepping some of the refinement altogether and are finding non-destructive ways to recycle. I guess that’s sideways thinking. Rather than making something more efficient, let’s just crush the materials and reuse them or stimulate them another way entirely.

Heidi Henrickson with a group, photo: Valeria Azovskaya.

Each person has different skills and thinking, and we should let them shine.

Heidi Henrickson

What inspires you about meeting people?

Showing our humanity. When people turn to one another and say: ‘that was awesome, I’m having kind of a hard morning this morning, or thank you for your patience while I find my notes’. I have a background as a sociologist, and I see colleagues making an effort to make one another more comfortable. They are saying: ‘you are not alone’.

It might be someone coming in with a tray full of samples and they need to get through the security door. Then someone goes out of their way to open the door for them. It can also be opening a meeting with a moment of reflection instead of just ‘let’s get down to business’.

Can you share a story about your work?

I had a really great experience when putting together the Materials Platform exhibition for the Aalto stand at Slush in 2018. There had been a call to research projects, and a couple of Master’s students from ARTS were hired as designers. Watching it happen from a scientist’s early application to an exhibition stand – that process was fascinating! Everyone was stepping out of their comfort zones.

One of the beautiful outcomes was watching PhD student Arman Dastpak collaborating with MA designer Liisa Poskiparta, who thencame up with an idea that instead of just showing little metal squares with brown coating on the top, show the application of the innovation. Poskiparta created a small city scene out of pieces of raw steel protected by lignin.

Although I was responsible that the project was done, in the end, it was these two young researchers who came up with the great outcome. It was cool just watching them do amazing things!

In your free time, you read science fiction/fantasy and volunteer as an international sport official. Why are these important to you?

I’m a lover of speculative fiction. It helps me imagine worlds, and it gives me the idea that we don’t have to organize things the way we always have. Even a small development now could, in 10 or 20 years, have a huge impact on everybody’s lives. Fiction provides a bit of bigger picture in that sense.

At Aalto I’m trying to invent research services and support, to put myself in the shoes of the researchers figuring out what would be the optimal working environment for them. What the researchers really want to do is just to put their heads down and work on a research problem instead of fundraising, grant applications and other administrative tasks. How can I help?

Because I volunteer as a sports official, I’m able to do quick judgements. And sometimes I must be the bad guy. I might be the person saying ‘no’, these are the limits of the playing field. In research support, we must be creative and come up with a solution that fits inside the restrictions.

What would you like to change at Aalto?

I think we should schedule more time in meetings with ourselves. It wouldn’t mean sitting at a computer, in a meeting, working on something. Instead, it would be just relaxing in a chair and looking out the window, having cup of coffee or tea with time to think, relax and reflect without interruption. That allows me to be creative.

And what would you like to strengthen?

I’m privileged in my work because I can take someone’s idea and turn it into an initiative. If the initiative doesn’t work out, then let’s celebrate failures. And we need to share why something didn’t work, because otherwise someone’s going to do the same thing again.

Some of the things they are doing for instance in Space 21 are great. It’s a place to play, talk and experiment. I can just pop in on Thursday once a month, have a coffee, stay quiet if I want to, and learn what other people are doing. It would be nice to see more of that. It doesn’t have to result in something significant. There’s an opportunity to interact, and that could lead into something more.

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Walk in my shoes

Inspired by the saying that you should walk a mile in someone’s shoes to understand them, the ‘Walk in my shoes’ series aims to share some of the experiences, thoughts, perspectives and challenges faced by another Aaltonian.

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