Got your sights set on moving to Sweden for work? Or do you have a Swedish client you need to impress? If you answered yes, you’d better keep reading. Work is done a little differently up there. Knowing about Swedish business culture and etiquette will set you up for success – and we could all use a bit of that.
Obviously, there are differences in every workplace. What’s normal for doctors in a Malmö hospital won’t quite be the same for a small publishing office in rural Sweden. But some things apply to the whole country, and that’s what we’re going to get to the bottom of.
Ready? Let’s dive in!
General information about Swedish business culture
The Swedish workplace, by and large, reflects Swedish society as a whole. But what does that mean exactly? Well, there are a few things you should know about the Swedish psyche when it comes to business.
Firstly, can expect your new place of work to place a lot of emphasis on work-life balance. You can also expect to have fewer but closer relationships with coworkers. Sweden prizes equal opportunities and employees’ opinions – on everything. We’ll go into these things in more detail later on.
Moreover, Sweden is an individualist society. That basically means people are largely expected to take care of themselves and their immediate family. However, there is a safety-net in place to help you in the way of free or subsidized education, health care and equal rights for parents. Family is extremely important in Sweden.
The safety-net is paid for through taxes. In Sweden, your employer actually organizes your tax declaration on your behalf (if you’re self-employed, it’s up to you). This means that filing your taxes in Sweden can be as simple as sending a text message, provided the records are all correct. Learn more about that at skatteverket.se.
Because of the welfare system, you should bear in mind that unless you’re working for a foreign company in Sweden, you’ll more than likely lose out on “work perks” such as private health insurance. You have the option of paying for your own, private, insurance if you wish.
Lastly, not knowing Swedish won’t necessarily eliminate you from securing work. Most people speak English and many even speak another language on top of that. You should try to learn some Swedish though!
Business ethics in Sweden
Let’s start with some basic top tips for thriving at work in Sweden. What makes the office tick? What is an absolute no-no? Here are four golden Swedish business culture rules:
Swedes will do anything to avoid conflict and do not take kindly to raised voices or aggression. To minimize the risk of conflict, Swedish offices use the “consensus process” (förankringsprocessen) to give everyone an opportunity to air their thoughts or grievances about a topic or decision. You will be expected to give your opinion honestly and frequently.
Things take time.
If you’re from a big city, it will strike you as insane how slowly things happen in Sweden. Even in the capital. There will be meetings upon meetings, and another meeting on top of that. Deals take a long time to be finalized and decisions even more so.
(But) time is of the essence.
For people who spend a lot of time deliberating whether or not to go ahead with something, Swedes are incredibly time-sensitive. Sweden is a nation of clock-watchers and calendar users. Deadlines are a must, but they might be longer than you’re used to. Just don’t ever, ever be late.
Respect is everything.
You won’t like everyone you work with, and they might not like you. Regardless, you’ve got to show respect. Humor isn’t expected of you in a Swedish workplace but respect certainly is. You can discuss topics such as religion or politics with your colleagues, but don’t be disparaging of other people’s views.
Working relationships in Swedish work culture
A major difference about Swedish business culture is how people relate to each other. How do you communicate effectively with your Swedish boss and/or coworkers? Here are some tips about navigating working relationships in Sweden:
First names, not surnames
It might make you cringe the first time you address your boss by their first name, but in Sweden, that’s just what they do. Even elementary school students use first names when speaking to their teacher. It’s a way of de-formalizing proceedings and making it easier to relate to one another in the workplace.
Are your coworkers your friends?
It will take some time before you can class your Swedish colleagues as “friends”. Swedish friendship circles are notoriously difficult to penetrate and it may be that you never meet your coworkers’ friends. The best way to make friends with your colleagues is to spend time chatting with them over a Fika (coffee breaks).
Say your piece
Swedish bosses will rarely, if ever, make a decision without consulting everyone else first. You have a right to chime in when you disagree, or propose a different strategy. Just remember to allow other people the same courtesy. Innovation is welcome in Sweden, even when it comes from “below”.
Speaking of “below”, you are going to need to adjust the way you see workplace hierarchies. In Sweden, everyone has a role to play, whether they’re high ranking or not. As such, job titles such as “junior” or “senior” are mostly indicative of a worker’s experience rather than position.
Swedish workplaces have what’s known as “flat hierarchies”, meaning that importance and power is fairly evenly distributed among workers. Thus, your role in a Swedish business is multi-faceted. Even if you secure a “senior” position, you won’t be above doing your own photo-copying, for instance!
Master tips of Swedish business etiquette
Business culture in Sweden is made way easier if you know what to do and when to do it! Here’s what you need to know about Swedish business etiquette:
Swedes aren’t interested in the name of your high school or alma mater. A degree from one Swedish university compared to another is unlikely to secure you a job over someone else exclusively. It goes back to what we were saying about hierarchies.
Meetings, meetings & more meetings
I’ll say it again because it cannot be overstated enough. You’ve got to get used to meetings if you’re going to work in Sweden. There’ll be a meeting about the next meeting, and a meeting to decide when the meeting after that will be. They’re short and sharp but everyone has to be unanimous going forward. Or there’ll be yet another meeting.
Don’t be tardy
Again, Swedes give exact times for a reason. So if the meeting starts at 14.37, be there at 14.36 at the latest. Swedes use the 24-hour clock and use week numbers to determine events for meetings. This means you’ll have to accept that “odd” meeting times are now a part of your life.
In some countries, ordering a beer or swigging a whiskey during lunch meetings is not only acceptable but encouraged. Not so in Sweden. Don’t order alcohol until the working day is over, that’s to say, at least 5 o’clock in the evening.
Gifts are uncommon in the business realm in Sweden but flowers are a go-to gift. To everyone, regardless of gender. Flowers are given for birthdays, as thanks to a host, or as a congratulations for securing deals.
Vacations & public holidays
This is what we all go to work for, right? Well, Swedes love and take their vacations very seriously. The Swedish word for vacation is “semester” but don’t get it confused with anything school-related. School’s out! Here’s what you need to know:
Swedish calendars should omit July. Why? Because nothing happens in July. Swedes pack their bags after midsummer (usually mid to late June), head to their summer houses and don’t return until mid-August. Enjoy summer while it lasts! Don’t come into the office and take some well-earned time off.
On average, Swedes get more time off in May and June than Americans get in a whole year. Fact. “Red days” are what the Swedes call public holidays (because they’re marked red on the calendar). With midsummer and royal birthdays and Swedish national day, these all tend to blend into one long summer vacation with occasional dips into the office here and there.
Bonus tip: If a public holiday falls awkwardly between a weekday and a weekend, you may be offered an extra day off known as a “klämdag”. Because what’s the point in coming in for one out of three days?
Overtime is rare and will not be part of your day-to-day routine in Sweden. Your coworkers will walk out of the door as soon as the clock tells them to without looking over their shoulder. On Fridays, that can be as early as 2pm. Just be sure to get to work on Monday promptly.
What to wear in a Swedish office
Business culture in Sweden is mostly about what you do and how you should behave. But what about what you should wear? Here’s what you need to remember about fashion in Swedish business culture!
The Swedish workplace aesthetic is simplistic but stylish. As long as you are clean, appropriately dressed for the weather, and not too casual, you’re unlikely to raise eyebrows. It’s not unusual for business people in Sweden to mix blazer jackets with jeans or a fashionable sweater with suit pants.
It cannot be stated enough that unsuitable footwear will give you away as a newbie at a Swedish office. In the winter months, have an “outdoor” and an “indoor” pair of shoes. Change when you get inside so you don’t bring snow into your office. It’s perfectly acceptable in most workplaces to skip heels or business shoes unless you’re attending important meetings. Crazy socks are definitely allowed. Just be comfortable and warm!
Unusual Swedish-isms in the workplace
Why does no one stop by the cooler for a chat? Where do your coworkers keep their desk clutter? How do I introduce myself? Chill, the answers to all these questions and more can be found below!
Before COVID-19, handshakes were the norm. Presumably, handshakes will make a grand return once it’s safe practice again. A short grasp of the other person’s hand is all you need to introduce yourself. Usually, you say your own name while you do this. The other person will do the same.
Swedes aren’t small talkers. People might exchange a few words about the weather here and there, but never with a stranger. At the beginning of meetings, don’t expect anyone to ask how your weekend was. Chit-chat is solely reserved for the Fika break.
Swedish offices tend to look like the IKEA example showrooms and that’s how people like it. No clutter is an unwritten rule that you’ll do well to remember. It may feel impersonal to have few of your personal possessions around you, but it means your desk can be used by someone else if they need it.
Sweden is one of the few countries where cash is no longer king. The host or company pays for official business lunches or dinners using a company card. For casual Fika stops or similar, your colleagues will pay for themselves or offer to pay for you with the proviso you “Swish” them your share back. (Swish is an app that sends money electronically using cell phone numbers)
In Sweden, equality is at the top of most business’ agendas. Work places are multicultural, particularly in cities. It goes without saying that you should never assume anyone is above or beneath you based on appearance.
It might seem like there are a ton of rules to learn, but really, Swedish business culture is quite simple. It’s all about respect, consensus and time-keeping.
Also, remember that Swedes aren’t totally cut off from the rest of the world. They’ve been abroad and met people from all corners of the world too – and possibly made mistakes in your home country! When in doubt, ask a friendly face what to do, they’ll be happy to help you out.
We hope you enjoyed learning about Swedish business culture with us, and if you have any tips or stories about moving to Sweden we’d love to hear from you – drop us a comment in the box below. Lycka till på jobbet!