An Introduction to Norwegian Business Culture

This week, I have continued to search for jobs, attend Norwegian language classes, work with recruiters, and attend networking events and conferences here in Trondheim in an effort to make myself a better candidate for job opportunities. I have learned very quickly that Norway has one of the most competitive and technical job markets in the world. My last blog post focused on some of the interesting aspects of US business culture and this post will focus on some of my reflections of Norwegian business culture thus far.
Technoport conference

More than just oil

Norway is known for being an oil-wealthy nation and rightly so but that does not mean that Norway relies only on its oil exports as the main source of revenue. On the contrary, Norway (and Trondheim in particular) is one of the most technologically advanced and innovative societies in the world. Far from the days of fish, potatoes, and a strong reliance on agriculture, Norway is now a world leader in many technological sectors. In fact, Norway was ranked the #1 most prosperous country in the world for the sixth year in a row in 2014, according to the Legatum Institute’s Prosperity Index.

Priority of education

In the US, education is highly valued and the name of your university carries almost as much weight as your actual degree field. In Norway, all schools are viewed as being relatively equal and grades are commonly the most important factor. One of the biggest differences in Norwegian education is that students choose their intended career field very early on in life. Grades are extremely important and you can only receive a Masters or PhD in something that directly relates to your previous education. This in particular has been very difficult for me because I have a Bachelor’s in politics and international relations but wish to pursue a Masters in business. In the US, most people tend to get a mixed background of education as they progress through life, often moving from social sciences to business or from engineering to law, for instance. It also leaves me in a difficult place in terms of job search.

I think there are upsides and downsides to both approaches. Few people truly understand what they want to do at a young age so flexibility in degree choice makes sense; however, it is very understandable that in order to pursue a higher degree you should have previous training in that field. Regardless, Norway’s education system is world-renowned and the universities are especially good at teaching the math, science, engineering, technology, and business fields.

Never be late!

In my previous blog, I wrote about the importance of time management in US business culture; what I did not realize is that Norway pride’s itself on being one of the most punctual countries in the world. I found this out the hard way yesterday when I was two minutes late for an informal resume help meeting. In a follow-up email after our conversation, the person wrote “Next time, we can also talk about the topic of how Norwegians view the topic of being punctual”. When I asked my girlfriend, who is a HR coordinator, about this I was told very politely but very seriously “Norwegians pride ourselves on being on time. We are the second most punctual country in the world behind the Germans. We believe that if you are not on time, then you do not care”. It was a lesson that I will never forget. In the US, we are very timely but being delayed a few minutes is never a very big deal. Needless to say, I will be at least 15 minutes early for any meeting or business function from now on.

Job security

In Norway, it is quite difficult for an employer to fire an employee after the initial 3 month trial period. It is also uncommon for employees to be fired for under performing. Compared with the US, this is quite a novel concept. In the States, employees can be fired with almost zero notice, although 2 weeks is common notice. Although there must be proper grounds for firing an employee, job security is a key topic that is always at the back of Americans’ minds. It does make many of us work much harder, but it is also extremely stressful, especially if you have a family to support.

The Technoport Crowd

Bridging the income inequality gap

Norway ranks #1 in the world for overall equality, according to the Human Development Index, Norway also has some of the lowest paid CEOs in the world, in comparison with fellow employees. There is a much smaller gap between income classes in Norway and this translates into a much more overall feeling of equality. Compared to the United States, which has some of the most striking income gaps in the world, this is a new concept for me. I believe it enhances feelings of fairness, equality, and respect.

A casual workplace

In Norway, attire is generally more casual and working relationships are a bit more informal than in the United States. For instance, at my girlfriend’s company, she shares cake and soda with her coworkers and even the CEO on Fridays. In fact, the CEO sits at an open desk right next to her. This is quite a big difference from my working experiences in the US where CEOs work in plush corner offices down long, beautiful hallways guarded by security officers while most employees work in tightly crammed cubicles several floors below. Aside from banking and finance industries, casual attire is also common in most working environments.

Work-life balance

This is a key difference that sets Norway apart from the rest of the world. In the United States, we often feel like we live to work; in Norway, the approach is much more that people work in order to live. At first glance, Norwegian working hours appear somewhat lax, as normal business hours start and finish promptly from 0800-1600. In fact, you would be lucky to reach even a CEO after 1600. The truth of the matter, however, is that Norwegians are extremely efficient and task-oriented at work and when the working day ends, they are on to more important things such as family.

In Norway, family takes a huge priority even at work. It is not at all uncommon for someone to leave work 30 minutes early regularly in order to pick their kids up from school or take them to sports practice. They also can use sick days to take care of children if needed. This is in stark contrast to business in the USA where you are expected to work your full day and find a sitter or nanny to take care of your children. Sporting events, gym memberships, health classes, event discounts, leadership classes, and team building exercises are also commonplace and widely offered to employees.

Parental leave, Norway v USA

In the USA, there is no paid parental leave required by law. Mothers and fathers may each take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. This often results in women who stay at work up until the baby is ready to be born and returning sometimes as soon as 1-2 weeks after giving birth. The physical and emotional stress that this can put on families is absolutely enormous. In Norway, on the other hand, parents get up to 12 months paid leave for 49 weeks at 100% salary or 59 weeks at 80% salary (split between them but there are some requirements).

By law, the mother MUST take 9 weeks paid leave after the child is born and the father MUST take a total of 14 weeks paid leave before the child turns 3 years old. Employers are generally very respectful of the parents’ choice in how to use the rest of the paid leave days. To me, as an American, this is absolutely incredible that a country cares so much about the health and welfare of it citizens and children that such parental leave policies are in place. A standing round of applause for you, Norway.

Equality is essential

This is hands-down one of my favorite aspects of Norwegian culture. Norway is staunchly pro-equality and works very hard to promote fairness and general welfare in all aspects of life. This week I attended a conference entitled “hvor bled et av alle jente”, which means “where have all the women gone” in business roles. The topic focused on women in leadership positions and equality in the workplace. Representatives and panelists included members from a variety of different business industries. It focused on the leadership, innovation, quality of work, and spirit that women bring into the workplace. It is good to see so much open and healthy discussion on the importance that people of all genders, races, beliefs, and backgrounds bring into the workplace.

Although Norway is a primarily heterogeneous culture and very proud of their background and traditions, the lifestyle and business culture here is very open and welcoming to all people which allows the country to be a melting pot for diversity, thought leadership, understanding, and values.

gibortdagen (1)

Volunteering for all

In Norway, volunteering is a key aspect of work life. Many organizations encourage employees to volunteer in their local communities and will often allow some paid time off for those who wish to participate. Recently, I was introduced to one such idea that is put on here in Trondheim by Engasjert Byrå.

The idea is called Gi Bort Dagen, which roughly translates to “Give Away Day”. This idea came about when Marianne Danielsen realized there was an extra day in her calendar. Now a yearly event, on this day (February 26 this year), companies and employees are encouraged to clean up their offices, work space, or other areas and donate any unneeded items to charity. Volunteering in other services such as health, development, and children’s programs is also encouraged. As an American, small things like this that show the massive support, respect, and caring nature that Norwegians share, has truly helped me to understand why Norway is one of the happiest countries in the world, as ranked by the Human Development Index.

Summer time off

In Norway, employers are required by law to offer 25 paid vacation days per year, plus public holidays. Compare this to the incredible 0 (yes, that’s correct, ZERO) paid vacation days required by law in the USA. In the US, 15 paid vacation days is the average given to employees. So, no wonder that when the ice begins to melt and the sun comes out again to play, the Norwegians commonly take off about 4 weeks in the summer. During this time, business slows to a crawl and people will rarely even check their work emails. It is expected that in the summer, you enjoy time with friends, family, and nature.

Conclusion

There are some very stark contrasts between US and Norwegian business culture, primarily in income equality, holiday leave, job security, and work-life balance. While many of the advantages which Norway provides to employees are becoming more common in the USA, especially in leading companies like Google, there is still much catching-up to do. It is no wonder that Norway is ranked as the world’s happiest country.

Dave Smith is a former US Marine and a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. He is an avid adventurer, backpacker, and volunteer with travel in over 40 countries. Dave moved from the USA to Norway in December 2014 to pursue a serious relationship with his beautiful Norwegian girlfriend.

Photos: Technoport 2014 & Maria Peltokangas


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