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Taking care of business in Sweden

Swedish business culture can be quite different from the business customs of other countries. Here are some good things to know before you seal your first Swedish business deal.

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Photo: Henrik Trygg/imagebank.sweden.se

Relaxed atmosphere

In Sweden, colleagues address each other in a casual way. From the classroom all the way to the boardroom, titles like ‘Mrs’ or ‘Dr’ are things of the past. Students and teachers, patients and doctors, employees and employers – everyone is on a first-name basis.

Work clothing is often conservative, but casual. Employees may wear sandals or tennis shoes at the office, switching back to sturdier outdoor shoes when they head home.

Althea Boman, a teacher and businesswoman in Örebro, 200 km west of Stockholm, who moved from the US 15 years ago, remembers being quite surprised to see sandals at the workplace. She says: ‘In the States, people are not interested in seeing your toes, no matter how nicely pedicured they are. That certainly took a little getting used to.’

Lagom as usual

The Swedish word ‘lagom’ is not just a word. It’s a concept that doesn’t easily translate into English. Essentially, ‘lagom’ means ‘just right’ or ‘adequate’ and can be used for just about anything.

The ‘lagom’ concept or mentality exists in Swedish business as well. Employees, and many employers, often focus on doing exactly what’s needed and doing it well, rather than doing unnecessary things. This concept can be frustrating for foreigners to understand sometimes.

‘The concept of “lagom” has been hard for me to get a handle on”,’ says Ben Campbell, who moved from Australia four years ago. ‘I remember asking a co-worker a question once about how much time should be spent on a particular task, and he answered: ‘A lagom amount,’ and walked away. I still have no idea what a ‘lagom’ amount is.’

Shorter chain of command

Swedish companies tend to be less hierarchical than companies in many other countries when it comes to internal organisation. This means that a managing director of a firm is more openly available to his or her employees, erasing some of the chain-of-command arrangements that exist in other countries. In general, it’s possible for employees to take their comments, questions or concerns directly to the boss.

The majority of Swedish workers belong to one of several labour unions. Due to the strong union presence in Sweden, employees experience excellent working conditions compared with many other countries. Equality in the workplace and job security are of utmost importance, so unions work hard to assure that employees feel secure and unthreatened at work.

Swedish workers tend to rely heavily on compromise and consensus when it comes to making decisions and reaching solutions. It’s generally felt to be much better if policies and ideas are discussed openly and across all levels before any conclusion is reached.
Stereotypically, Swedes do not feel that it’s necessary to stand out in a crowd, or be the individual who makes a choice for the entire company. While this assures a sense of employee comfort throughout an organisation, it can mean that decisions take some time to be made.

The sacred break

One word that every person needs to know before working for or doing business with a Swedish company is ‘fika.’ ‘Fika’ is a break taken from work, the purpose being to drink coffee and chat. ‘Fika’ breaks in Sweden are sacred, and there are usually two or three every day, so don’t be surprised if colleagues or business associates are suddenly unavailable as they take a little caffeine break.

Punctuality is very important for Swedes, especially when it comes to business. It’s quite common that Swedish employees arrive on time and leave on time – and have ‘fika’ on set times. Many Swedes place very high value on their private lives and therefore work overtime only when it’s absolutely unavoidable.

Whether enjoying a ‘lagom’ cup of coffee during a ‘fika’ break or putting on sandals when you get to the office, being attentive to the Swedish way of working and doing business will help to make your professional experiences with Swedes quite enjoyable.

Dos and don’ts

Dos:

  • Know the language. While English is commonly spoken in Swedish businesses, it’s a good idea to learn as much Swedish as you can before getting started. Even if you’re doing business with a Swedish company for a short period of time, picking up a few terms and phrases will go down very well with your Swedish colleagues.
  • Know the Swedish tax laws. Especially if you are starting a business in Sweden, having done the tax research and having the paperwork completed is key to getting off the ground.
  • Be on time. Show up on time, stick to your agenda and finish on time.
  • Plan ahead. Make sure that you give people time to prepare for a meeting or assignment.
  • Work hard. Be prepared and make sure that you know and understand the red tape that you will have to cut through to succeed as a business or as a worker.
  • Give yourself time. If you’re starting a business in Sweden, it can be very hard to break in and find a client base – as in any other country. Be patient and have a back-up plan and/or another source of income.

Don’ts:

  • Use force. Easing your way into a company or into relations with a company takes time. Swedes are not so receptive to new thoughts/plans if they feel that they are being forced upon them.
  • Boast or brag. Generally, Swedes are modest and avoid embellishing their accomplishments.
  • Show disrespect. This may seem obvious, but it’s important: understanding the Swedish culture and work ethic will mean that you respect your colleagues or business associates. Watch and listen to get the feel of the situation before you act.

Last updated: 25 March 2014

Anders Porter

Anders Porter

Anders Porter is an American freelance writer who used to live in Grythyttan, about 200 km west of Stockholm, but has now moved back to California.