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Human Resources

'Lagom': Can the US learn a '6-hours-work-a-day' balance from Sweden?

Many Swedish workers knock-off after just six hours. And experts argue that that the Swedish system has managed to combine great productivity with a lovely life. The word they use is lagom.

We catch-up with Lars Nordwall, COO of Neo Technology, a Silicon Valley-headquartered company with roots and developer base in Sweden to learn what this really means.

“At Neo Technology’s offices in various countries we strive to offer our employees a work environment where they get time with family and friends, knowing that once in a while they may need to step up and push boundaries by working longer hours,” he says.

Can you describe what lagom means in practical terms?
There isn’t really an English translation for ‘lagom’, but it is a term understood by everyone in this country [Sweden] meaning: ‘It’s good enough’. If we apply it to Swedish culture and society, it’s all about modesty. This is not trying to stand out too much, accepting what you have and most importantly, being happy with it. To a Swede, happiness is achieved by striking an equal balance between having good health, a supportive and loving family, a good job and sufficient money.

I believe the term comes from the Law of Jante which was developed almost 100 years ago. It is used colloquially by Nordic countries to express, in negative terms, a condescending attitude towards individuality and success, placing emphasis on the collective. If a Swede drives around town in a flashy Ferrari, they will likely get some disapproving looks and be talked about for the wrong reasons.

In business, it can be quite a difficult concept for other cultures such as the US and UK to understand. They often push and apply pressure to be better than the day before and standing out is highly commended. But, the principles of lagom can bring many benefits to a business.

Do you really think this can work in the UK – and especially the US – where the culture of being seen to be working hard and achieving more things is very ingrained?
I know there’s not enough lagom in other businesses, especially in Silicon Valley but also in the UK. The culture is too often set at the top by a senior leader or a founder who doesn’t value work-life balance.

That can work well, too, in extreme situations; a charismatic, and unique leader can attract talent no matter what and they will work 80 hours, like Apple and Tesla, for instance. But consider all the negative publicity about the over-powering work culture of Amazon in the Summer.

People are starting to reject this in the US, and we’re not the only ones who think that’s not the best way to nurture the best people. If I go back 15 years or so, when I moved here from Sweden, people were bragging about not taking a holiday for the past two or three years. In Sweden, that would automatically translate as: ‘What’s the matter with you? You have to make up for your weaknesses. That’s bad.’ If you work a 70-hour week, you don’t brag about it – you’d keep quiet about it.

If we forced employees to work a 60-80, hour week, we will get more hours out of them, yes. But eventually, reality will catch up. Good decisions are made by well rested people. Over-worked people tend to prioritise poorly, end up working on projects and tasks with limited or no business value, cause friction with colleagues, and likely not recommend their friends and network to come and work with them.

Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook announced recently his plan to take two months’ paternity leave once his first child is born. This was not a stretch decision in Mark’s book but something obvious. I think Brits and Americans are starting to wake up and realise that a well-balanced work-life environment is not a burden but rather something necessary to build a large sustainable company.

How did you find the culture in Silicon Valley overall after Sweden?
Across markets, working hard and delivering good results in business is critical. However, in Sweden, it’s less about pushing people to the limits and letting everyone know about it. Why would you need to work a 60-80 hour week, when you will earn the same for a 35-40 hour week? In some cultures like Silicon Valley, it has become quite common to show off about working long hours and having little time to relax, but this simply isn’t lagom.

Another characteristic is that Swedish associates aren’t afraid to approach chief execs and question how and why they do certain things. In more hierarchical cultures, this simply wouldn’t happen. The confidence that the Swedish gain early on in life certainly pays off. As a result, employees get a strong sense of job satisfaction, feeling valued and respected by their employer.

On the other hand, Silicon Valley is a hub for incredibly bright and driven people that makes it a unique location that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Life in the Valley is different than elsewhere. Lagom in Sweden is different to lagom in the Valley, but the work-life balance is something that is reaching the Valley with a storm.

Why do you think this all works so well in Sweden?
Lagom encourages everyone to work together collaboratively and cohesively. Driving a sense of equality and teamwork has certainly contributed to Sweden’s burgeoning economy over the last five years.

And what about emerging regions, where the culture is different still, and a ‘fighting to survive’ mentality?
Actually I think the workforce is quite similar in many countries in today’s market place. The search for top talent is highly competitive across borders and regions; people travel and relocate, and people communicate to one another over the internet. Great talent will look for great companies.

Is there anything else you’d like to share on the subject that doesn’t get covered enough or may surprise an international audience?
Too many businesses push their employees too much, because the manager is super-stressed to meet that one Key Performance Indicator. But a mature leader will understand that it’s not only about this month, this quarter – it’s about this year, the next three years, and the next five years.

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