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Sweden is known internationally for its history of entrepreneurialism and its affinity for egalitarianism. Nonetheless, expats may find that doing business in Sweden is anything but lagom – a concept at the heart of Swedish business dealings, which means 'just right' or 'in balance'.
The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2020 ranks Sweden at 10th out of 190 countries – a testament to the country’s advanced economy and transparent business practices. Sweden ranks particularly highly when it comes to registering property (9th), getting electricity (10th), and resolving insolvency (17th).
Despite its small size, Sweden has produced a large number of multinational companies and is the European headquarters for many others.
Swedish is the official business language but English is spoken throughout with a high degree of fluency.
Hours of business
8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.
Dress code is smart-casual and conservative, although suits are not expected.
Shaking hands is the most common form of greeting in the Swedish business environment, both in and out of the office, for hello and goodbye. This is the case for both genders.
Err on the side of caution when giving gifts to business associates in Sweden. They are certainly not expected and could possibly be regarded as inappropriate.
Women have full equality in Sweden. Women doing business in Sweden will usually receive the same treatment as men.
Business culture in Sweden
Business culture in Sweden is quite different from that of the US or the UK and may take some getting used to. However, if expats can become familiar with a few key elements beforehand, they are likely to find it easier to settle in.
Key to doing business in Sweden is the concept of egalitarianism – a belief in the inherent equality of people. Both organisational structures and management styles reflect this. Businesses utilise generally flat reporting lines and decision-making models that rely on consensus and compromise. For this reason, decisions can take a long time to be made, as many opinions need to be taken into account.
It also affects the way that business is conducted on a daily basis. Whereas senior associates in many other Western businesses are likely to have their own offices, it is fairly common to see a company CEO working alongside his or her employees in an open-plan office.
Swedish egalitarianism also makes wealth or status redundant. Overt displays of wealth are likely to be viewed unfavourably. This is largely as a result of Jantelagen, or the Law of Jante, a Scandinavian tendency to emphasise collective wellbeing over individual success. For this reason, expat businesspeople would do well to try and blend in rather than stand out, and should not expect their new associates to automatically be impressed by their wealth and achievements.
Business conduct in Sweden leans towards rationality, calmness and discipline, earning Swedes a reputation for being reserved and somewhat unfriendly. It is true that firm lines are drawn between business and social dealings, meaning that invitations to post-work socialising or being invited to dinner at a colleague’s house are rare. One opportunity to circumvent the famous Swedish reserve is the twice-daily coffee break or fika, when the normal rules of engagement may be partially suspended.
Business meetings in Sweden are typically informal, although governed by certain unwritten rules. The first of these is to be on time – punctuality is a point of pride and signifies professionalism and mutual respect. Another principle to follow is to keep one’s emotions under control, at all times.
Finally, transparency and honesty are vital attributes of any business dealing, as evidenced by Sweden being one of the least corrupt countries in which to do business.
Dos and don’ts of business in Sweden
Do respect silences in meetings or conversation as this signifies an idea is being considered
Don’t stand too close; personal space should be respected
Do get down to business right away
Do be honest and forthright
Don’t be late; advise of delays with as much notice as possible
Do dress smartly when going out in the evening