Swedish working culture - all you need to know | Undutchables

Swedish working culture - all you need to know

Categorie: Guest article


As a recruitment agency for assisting internationals entering the Swedish job market, we find it important and interesting to look at the Swedish working culture, seen from the perspective of an international. We have spoken to Alison Allfrey who is a British writer, linguist, and communications consultant who lived in Stockholm for many years. She has here shared her thoughts on what you would need to know and how to prepare to be working in Sweden.

Working in Sweden is a very particular experience and likely to be very different from what you are used to. It helps to know what to expect so you can see things in context! This is perhaps, even more, the case in the time of Covid, where working via Zoom and endless conference calls makes it more difficult to judge what your colleagues are thinking.

If asked to sum up what makes Swedish working practices distinct, the concept of consensus might well be top of the list and this has pluses and minuses. The importance of consensus cannot be under-estimated and meetings are managed with this in mind. So you can expect your point of view to be heard, assessed, considered, as well as those of all your other colleagues.

Plaatje blog alison

This is very egalitarian and democratic, probably fostering greater confidence amongst more junior colleagues. It can be more challenging if you are further up the management chain, as you cannot expect your colleagues simply to accept authority or fall in line with a decision from on high. You will need a lot of patience, as the impact on meeting length and general time spent in meetings is considerable! The upside is that, once a decision is reached, there tends to be a good level of employee buy-in as everyone feels they have really had a say.

Another enormous plus about working in Sweden - and this is something where Covid has helped hugely in nurturing greater realism and tolerance across Europe – is that Swedes are extremely pragmatic and accepting about the fact that people have families! This is not something you need to hide or feel compromised about and you will be pleasantly surprised at the level of flexibility in terms of working hours which is considered to be normal. When people are back in a more typical vein of working, post-Covid, you will see that it is fine to leave late in the afternoon to pick children up from school, with many then finishing work off later in the evening. Ex-pats can feel that they are conditioned to work longer hours than many Swedes and it can take time to adjust to what is actually acceptable. You will find that it is normal to talk about your children when meeting colleagues – they don’t have to be something to hide in the cupboard as work and family co-exist here. The social norm is for the huge majority of women to work full time, so you will discover a very even gender split in the workplace, even in areas such as technology and engineering which can be skewed in one direction in other countries.

What’s more challenging is the fact that consensus-driven working practices can make it difficult to find time to get the job in hand done, beyond a seemingly endless stream of meetings. And as Swedes shy away from direct conflict or very frank expressions of opinion, it is easy to fall prey to passive-aggressive behavior, where what is said in a meeting may differ greatly from the tone of private phone calls or emails you may receive. It takes time to understand the lie of the land and get used to different colleagues. Whatever happens, it helps to try to have a tough skin and an ability to laugh off any cultural differences, whilst also having the confidence to establish your own rules of engagement and being sensitive to Swedes being naturally undemonstrative.

If you’re used to lots of jolly social events around work, you may be a bit disappointed in Sweden, as companies can be neglectful of ex-pat colleagues in this respect. This isn’t a snub, but just the result of what Swedes are used to themselves, and they often tend to have close-knit groups of old friends. All the more reason to find activities and clubs in keeping with your interests, which will give you the opportunity to meet people in other ways. The exception to this rule can be company Christmas parties which sometimes involve saunas – the etiquette for this can be a surprise to newcomers, so be prepared!

Some other dynamics of working in Sweden are very particularly Swedish. There are considerable prestige and pride attached to working for one of Sweden’s ‘national champions’ – its largest, most longstanding companies. Hence people who have dedicated more than 25 years of service to their company will attend a special presentation and ceremony to celebrate this.

And whilst English is spoken to a very high level in very many companies, it pays to remember that you are working in Sweden and that if you learn some Swedish, it will act as a mark of respect and help bring you closer to colleagues, as well as getting on the ‘inside track’. Sometimes the really crucial conversations are held only in Swedish, which is understandable. And the institution of Fika – almost ritual devouring of cake and coffee mid-morning – is definitely the best time to bond with your new colleagues. Good luck!

Alison Allfrey is a British writer, linguist and communications consultant who lived in Stockholm from 2012 to 2015. She published So Sweden – Living Differently, a memoir of her time in Sweden and inspiration for ex-pats living there in October 2019, available on Amazon as below. She has also had articles published about Sweden in The Local (thelocal.se), Nordic Style Magazine, Sverige Magasinet and fika-online.com. Alison lives with her family near Winchester in the UK. She is an avid traveler and loves exploring other cultures.

If you would like to read more about Alison’s book about Sweden, follow this link!


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