I’ve lived in Sweden for almost 8 years now and fortunately, I’ve been gainfully employed this entire time (crossing fingers). These years have given me a lot of insight into how different it is to work at a Swedish company when compared to an American company.
Here’s a few of my observations over the years… Treat this as a cheat sheet to understanding Swedish business culture just a bit better!
- Hierarchy takes on a different form. Everyone says the Swedish business culture is very flat. Swedish organizations appear to be flatter because company executives are more accessible and everyone gets to speak their mind without a large fear of reprisal (see #7). Don’t be surprised if you see colleagues making their superiors aware of their brutally honest opinions. However, I’d say that hierarchy is just as important in Sweden as it is in the US. The difference is that Swedes don’t feel the need to explicitly announce the hierarchy and to make everyone aware of the pecking order, so organizations appear to be flat. That’s just a perception – at the end of the day, everyone knows who the boss is and who the actual decision maker is, and that’s enough for them.
- Don’t underestimate the power of fika. This is an incredibly powerful moment in Swedish business culture where you can discuss anything with your colleagues. I’ve solved many a problem via a small conversation during fika. There’s something about the change in environment that makes the brain work differently. If you’re not doing this yet, start doing it! Besides, who doesn’t like taking a break?
- Parents of young children will arrive late and go early. You see, Swedish kids attend “dagis” (daycare) so that their parents can work. Someone has to drop them off when dagis opens, and someone has to pick the kids up before dagis closes. This means that someone will come into work a bit later, and some will go a bit earlier. Each family has a different strategy for handling this, but rest assured, most parents will put in an extra 2-3 hours in the evening after their kids are down for the day. That’s why you get those emails from your colleagues so late in the evening…
- And related to that, parents of young children have to stay home when their kids are sick. Yep, it’s true – when kids are sick, they’re not allowed to attend dagis so parents have to stay home and watch them. This is called “vård av barn”, literally translated into “care of child.” It’s often turned into a verb, so that someone will “vabbar” for the day. It’s no day off for the parent – the sick kid is usually whiny, wants attention, and overall difficult to handle! I’m sure the parent would rather be at work.
- Work is work, and private is private. It’s not unusual for your colleagues to never ask about your family life. Don’t freak out when the company’s Christmas party is “for employees only” – again, quite normal.
- Sharing hotel rooms at work conferences. This will vary a bit between companies and the budgets you have for conferences, but it’s not entirely unusual for colleagues (of the same gender, mind you) to share hotel rooms at work conferences. If you insist on having your own room, you’ll probably get one… but it’s rather non-Swedish to ask because what makes you so special? (See #10 below) Of course, if you require your own room for medical reasons or what not, you’ll get one and no one will bat an eye.
- Yes, meetings can be very inefficient and ineffective. After 8 years I still find Swedish meetings to be extremely inefficient and often a waste of time. However, this is part of the Swedish consensus-building culture; everyone has to have a chance to give their thoughts and make their voices heard, regardless of whether the actions favor them or not. This is a part of the decision-making process, and unfortunately it means rounds and rounds of discussions. For me, the worst part is coming out of the meeting not knowing what we agreed on. I combat this by demanding (politely) that actions are set with a responsible owner as we work through the agenda.
- Swedish vacation time is sacred (and the law!) Don’t even think about making your Swedish colleagues work during the summer if they don’t want to. They have the right, according to the aptly named “Vacation law” (semesterlag), to take up to four weeks of vacation from June to August.
12 § Om inte annat har avtalats, ska semesterledigheten förläggas så, att arbetstagaren får en ledighetsperiod av minst fyra veckor under juni–augusti. Även utan stöd av avtalfår en sådan semesterperiod förläggas till annan tid, när särskilda skäl föranleder det. Lag (2009:1439).
- Bosses will delegate important decisions. The importance of consensus has a side effect where strategy and decision-making tend to be delegated. That’s not always a bad thing, but sometimes I feel like important decisions should be made and communicated by the leaders of an organization, and the rest of the organization should rally around the leaders to help execute. I guess that’s my American-ness speaking out.
- When equality becomes detrimental. Swedish culture in general puts a lot of weight and focus on equality. Therefore, it can become very uncomfortable for Swedes to give higher performance ratings to one person over another, because by doing so you’re acknowledging that one person is better than the other. Therefore, as long as everyone is roughly performing how they should be, everyone gets the same rating and no one feels uncomfortable. The flip side of this is that high-performing individuals are driven out because they aren’t acknowledged for their performance. This isn’t so much the case in newer for-profit companies, but I see a lot of this in older, classic Swedish organizations.
This is not a comprehensive list nor is it applicable to every case – these are generalizations and based on my experience. Regardless, when you’re sitting at work wondering why something is the way they are, maybe this will help shed some light! It’s only truly Swedish 🙂