Have coffee with the manager, wear jeans to work and leave earlier to pick up the kids? Some things that are obvious to Swedes can become a culture clash for anyone who just moved here.
You’ve taken your first step into the Swedish labor market and landed your first employment. Which is great! However, in order to be happy at your new workplace and be able to do your best job, it’s important that you understand the culture in the workplace. Of course there are differences between organisations, but there are many common denominators that generally characterise most Swedish companies.
In many countries it’s not always okay to contact whoever you want directly if you have a question. Swedes, on the other hand, are neither hierarchical nor particularly formal. Therefore, you turn to the person in the office you think has the answer, regardless the position they have. It wouldn’t be strange to go directly to the marketing manager, instead of turning to an assistant first, for example. For many who come from other cultures, talking to a manager directly can be both difficult and uncomfortable, but in Sweden it’s just natural.
In Sweden there is no culture with assistants at different levels. And if there is an assistant, that role is usually tied to a department, rather than to a person. Although, there may be a marketing assistant, but rarely an assistant to the marketing manager.
Another expression of the flat organisational model that characterises many Swedish workplaces is that it’s often not possible to see visible signs of hierarchies. In the US you can easily see where the boss is, as they have the largest room with the best view. In Sweden you can pass someone sitting with a laptop on the sofa and maybe think that it’s a trainee, when in fact it can just as easily be the company’s CEO.
Lunch and especially the “fika” culture is strong in Sweden. For the most part, there is a more or less organised fika-break both in the morning and in the afternoon. It’s absolutely not compulsory to participate in the joint break, but if you’re always absent you quickly fall behind socially, which then could also affect you job-wise. Many work-related issues are dealt with during the fika-break, even if the conversations are mixed with more private talk.
At lunch, no one raises an eyebrow if you slip away to run some private errands- but don’t do it every day. Just like the fika, the lunch is an opportunity to create cohesion and an opportunity to meet people you do not work as closely with as you do in your own department. Often managers and employees eat together.
Is the coffee brewer in the lunch room empty? Then reload it – and win the hearts of all your colleagues.
What do you eat for lunch? Sometimes you might go out to eat or you simply go buy some take-away that you bring back to the office. But most common is often to bring a lunch box – yesterday’s leftovers or food cooked just to be brought to work. Here, too, is the lack of a clear hierarchy: the manager can also carry a lunch box. And would the manager ask any of the staff members to run out and get lunch, it would probably be perceived as more or less as rude – unless the manager ran out and got everyone lunch next time!
Many companies have some kind of “after-work-drink-culture” (which is simply called AW) or other activities that are carried out outside working hours. Therefore, it’s obviously voluntary to join. However, there is an implied expectation that you will participate, at least occasionally.
Each organisation can have its own clothing policy and it differs greatly from industry to industry and between different professional roles. But overall it’s a very casual attire that applies in Swedish workplaces. If you would describe the general dress code in most offices, jeans and a shirt would be the standard, rather than suit.
The environment in a Swedish workplace is often a bit more vibrant than in many other countries. Maybe someone is playing music in a corner, while some others are chatting. The tense mood that can be felt in workplaces in many other cultures is not as common here.
Swedes are not super personal at work. At the same time, many talk a lot about things that belongs to the private sphere. It’s also not considered strange if you sometimes bring your kids to work, if your partner comes by to say hi, or if you bring with you a good friend to the after work drinks. You basically share what you would normally share on social media – your personal life, but not your private life (and by the way, it’s ok to follow your colleagues on Instagram).
While the Swedes are often perceived as quite relaxed, paradoxically, they are also perceived as stiff. Swedes like structure, order and readiness. Many Swedish companies has an habit of documenting things, setting routines and writing policies for how things should work. So while Swedes are not formal, they like to formalise.
In many cultures, you should preferably be at work before the boss and not leave until the boss has left. That attitude is not very common in Sweden. If you are new, and work during the lunch break and remain late in the evening, you are more likely to be perceived as unsocial and over ambitious. Many organisations also have some kind of flex hours.
Often you are not only given permission to, but are encouraged, to leave early if you have children that needs to be picked up from school or daycare. This also applies to people in managing positions.
At the same time, the work ethic is high in Sweden: most managers have a great deal of confidence in their employees, the employer trusts that they do the job they are set to do.
Decisions in Swedish organisations are primarily made with some form of consensus. In Sweden, people want everyone to participate and decisions are often made by the whole group. A Swedish decision-making meeting often ends with a “then we say so” – and then you really mean it. As a newcomer, you shouldn’t expect someone in a higher position than you to give you strict orders, it’s more of a mutual agreement on what should be done and by who. You are also expected to come up with suggestions, ideas and take initiatives, even outside your own area of work.
Is it okay to speak English or do I have to learn Swedish? Some organisations have English as a formal language and then it’s obvious that English is the workplace language too.
Swedes are also generally good at English. Therefore, it’s easy to think that you don’t have to make the effort to learn Swedish. However, much of the interaction in a workplace takes place in the informal contexts, such as over lunch or when it’s time for fika. If you don’t learn the language then it might be difficult to keep up with the small talks. And should the colleagues feel bad for leaving you out and switch to English, it might not be the same type of relaxed and personal conversations.
Sweden is often described as the country of milk or the country of law – the country where nothing stands out and everything is just the same shade of gray. But nothing can really be more wrong. Sweden stands out internationally in several ways. A clear example comes from the worldwide research network World Value Studies, which studies people’s socio-cultural, moral, religious and political values. Here you measure how secularised and rationally different societies are, as well as how much you have to devote to your daily survival versus self-realisation.
By far the most rational, secularised and with the highest degree of self-realisation is – Sweden.