Scandinavia – a workers’ paradise or an illusion?

Dirk Buyens

By Dirk Buyens

Professor of Human Resources Management

06 March 2019

We seem to fall in love with everything from Scandinavia, but what about the cultural differences in the workplace between our northern neighbours and the Netherlands? O-Magazine put this question to Dirk Buyens, Professor of Human Resource Management at Vlerick Business School. He’s the perfect person to ask whether the Scandinavian countries really are the best place on earth.


Source: O-Magazine, published by Optimo (February 2019); Author: Sharmaine Zandbergen

Perfect image unravelled

Buyens kicks off with the dominant assumption among the Dutch that there are major differences between the work cultures in Scandinavia and the Netherlands. This turns out to be a big illusion. ‘I would say it is a typical example of narcissism when it comes to the small differences. We feel that the way we do things here is completely different to how people do things in Scandinavia. Nothing could be further from the truth. Precisely because we are actually quite similar, the image of a workers’ paradise has captured the Dutch imagination. It’s a lot like the idea of Belgium versus the Netherlands. Basically, we have a lot in common with our neighbours, which makes us all the more aware of the contrasts. If you are very similar, you tend to spot differences more quickly. And in all honesty, this is what is going on between the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries.’

An eye-opener. Does that mean the Scandinavian working model only exists in our heads? ‘Certainly not’, Buyens emphasises, ‘but the thing is, a single Scandinavian model pur sang doesn’t actually exist. Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland are quite different from each other. However, this does not detract from the fact that there are also many similarities. If you ask 100,000 Europeans which country is closest to the Scandinavian model after Scandinavia, 99,000 people are guaranteed to say ‘the Netherlands’. Not that we're Scandinavian. However, there are a number of Dutch business models which come very close to standard practice in Scandinavian working culture.’

Scandinavia versus the Netherlands

Although we are more similar to the Scandinavians than we think, there are also plenty of contrasts. The Belgian professor starts his list of differences with the work-life balance. ‘On average, the separation between work and private life is stronger than in other European countries. After 4 pm, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone still typing away in their office or to get hold of them on the phone. In general, they have shorter working days than we are used to. About six hours a day is the norm. As to whether the reduction in the number of working hours actually leads to lower productivity, opinions are still divided on that issue after many studies. The second difference is that the Scandinavians have a more feminine work culture. Female values such as engaging in dialogue, making compromises, protecting the weak, building good relationships with colleagues and attaching less importance to competitiveness are highly regarded. The gender diversity also ties in with this feminine approach. In the Scandinavian countries, for example, you see many more women leading the company. Female CEOs, prime ministers and politicians are not so much exceptions as the rule. It’s a paradise for emancipation.’

So have we already covered all the differences in working culture? ‘Almost. There is a third difference that has a great deal to do with the feminine culture. I’m referring to greater equality, by which I mean less hierarchy in the workplace. Not only on paper, but also in people’s actual experience.’ With a smile, the HRM researcher tells me about the parking spots found in the Netherlands, marked by posts bearing the names of board members. A prime example of hierarchy. In Scandinavia, posts like those would be pulled straight out of the ground. Buyens continues: ‘The sense of equality among the Scandinavians is many times greater than ours. We also see that when we focus on the income gap. Relatively speaking, the wage differences between men and women and between juniors and seniors are quite a bit smaller than in our own country. These smaller differences make them less motivated to work around the clock every day in the far north. In addition, employees working in a bubble with greater equality have a greater sense of ownership and autonomy. Paternalistic behaviour is not tolerated well at all. This is one of the main reasons why Scandinavians have such high levels of happiness. Happiness and unhappiness rarely have anything to do with the quantity of one’s work, but with a sense of control. If employees have more control over their work, they can take on more work and will automatically feel better. With less control, the exact opposite applies.’

HR: let's have a ‘fika’

Less hierarchy, a more feminine culture and a better work-life balance, it doesn't sound too bad! To get closer to the Scandinavian working culture, I asked Buyens for tips for Dutch HR departments. ‘Working on relationships of trust and a harmony model would make more things possible. As an HR specialist, talk to colleagues and find out what is going on. In addition, the Swedes do what is known as ‘fika.’ We used to have that in the Netherlands, but without the same atmosphere. It involves quite deliberately taking a break, having a coffee and catching up on non-work-related topics. Because of these 15-minute breaks, you notice that the tension curve of the employees goes up and down much more. This is a better match for our natural biorhythm of effort and relaxation. Finally, it will be exciting in the years ahead to see whether the freelance mentality will become the norm for us. This would encourage harmonious relationships between the employee and employer as a result of the greater sense of autonomy. A trend which HR departments should keep an eye on and respond to where possible.’

Learning from the neighbours

And is there anything which the Scandinavians could learn from us in the HR arena? ‘Yes, of course. They are increasingly facing the challenge of how to deal with a multicultural labour market. We have been tackling that for much longer in the Netherlands, with many success stories. That is an area in which other countries could certainly learn from us.’

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Dirk Buyens

Dirk Buyens

Professor of Human Resources Management / Director Open Exec Education