The Swedish work culture doesn't exist (mental health at work)
When I left France for Sweden to move in with my then-boyfriend, the first job I got was within the French team of a Swedish company called EMG (Educations Media Group), as a sales person. Sales jobs are demanding: a ticking stress bomb of high pressure atmosphere, targets and objectives everywhere, customer relations and cold calling. Something that I was quite afraid of to be honest, especially since I had zero experience with it. I decided to write about it because it was the best work experience I have ever had so far (OK, it was only my second one, but still). In this article, I reflect on the “why” but also the “how” through an interview with EMG’s CEO and founder.
“My name is Fredrik Söderlindh, 40 years old, father of two children, 4 and 6 years old. I’ve been living in Stockholm all my life, and I founded this company almost 20 years ago.” This is how Fredrik presented himself during our interview, and this is also what he said the first time I met him, at the Introduction Days of the company. This sentence really struck me because I think no one in France would describe their family before even saying their title. Actually I think they wouldn’t describe their family at all. This is when I realized EMG was special. I was right: it was a gazillion light years away from my previous job experience in Paris. Back there, I used to have a knot in my stomach in the morning, call my mum during lunch break to give me the courage to get through the day, and feel like every day I had to wear the mandatory costume to get the “corporate points” I needed. To feel better, I used to tell myself that it was what real life was about outside of the university walls, so just suck it and keep going. I felt miserable - every single day - but I only understood the extent of it when I discovered that there was another way, and that being miserable at work was not normal.
This sentence really struck me because I think no one in France would describe their family before even saying their title. Actually I think they wouldn’t describe their family at all.
This article is not about “the perfect workplace” or even the Swedish work culture because - spoiler alert - Fredrik told me during our interview that EMG wasn’t a typical Swedish workplace but that they had taken inspiration from the culture of fast-growing US companies. To write this article, I did not want to make another “list of the things that your company needs in order to create a nice working environment” because I realized that EMG had them all, but they were all very cliché: the ping pong table, the afterworks, a management team in jeans etc. I remember that at my previous job they had a PS4, but it never improved how I felt there. So I reflected on how EMG had turned these clichés straight out of the “just do that and you will be happy at work” manuals into something that actually made a difference - for me at least - so I asked Fredrik how they had done it.
Ping pong, beer and parties
I don’t come from a business school, I don’t have the business mindset that comes with it, I had never been a sales person before and becoming rich has never been my main motivation in life so far. So when I saw the sales rankings at my first Monday Morning Meeting and the “employee of the month”, I became scared, sceptical of its impact and a bit angry because I thought it was the perfect way to create unhealthy distinctions between employees: the “winners” and the “losers”. In short, the typical mindset that prevents people from helping each other and creates stress and anxiety. But as it turned out, the atmosphere at EMG was everything but competitive. Why? The ping-pong table.
Ping pong is one of the many activities that we could do during lunch time: there was a running club, a yoga class, a knitting club, tennis courts for rent, floorball matches, and of course a bunch of ping pong addicts. All these activities came from a need expressed by the employees or spontaneous ideas. At the office, everything is made to support these: meeting rooms were turned into yoga rooms during lunch breaks, there were yoga mats available at the reception, and there were showers in the office. The management listened to these needs because it is a way to include co-workers in the life of the company and, to Fredrik, highly engaged co-workers is the key.
As you can see, a particular attention is given to sports (and knitting). This is an important factor for employee satisfaction for Fredrik, who is himself a talented tennis player. I started running on Tuesdays during lunch breaks and I never felt so well. For the record: I thought I hated running but ended my time at EMG running almost twice a week. If you really don’t like running, swimming is also a good option to keep your head clear. The same tolerance goes for family time. Regularly, you would see people leaving at 4 to pick up their kids at school, or mums/dads on parental leave attending a meeting with their newborn, to keep up to date with what’s happening, and no one batting an eye. Sports and family is how Fredrik keeps his balance as a CEO, so for him it is important to give everyone in the company the chance to keep theirs: “You have to be respectful towards yourself, because it’s about the balance. If I don’t exercise and have a bad condition, I cannot work as much as I want and then I won’t be active with my family and so on. So you need all three elements I would say.”
“You have to be respectful towards yourself, because it’s about the balance. If I don’t exercise and have a bad condition, I cannot work as much as I want and then I won’t be active with my family and so on. So you need all three elements I would say.”
Sports is also a way to have fun with your coworkers. When EMG was founded 20 years ago, it was mainly a couple of friends working very hard on their company and at the same time attending university. If you work more than 10 hours in the same living room with the same 3 people, 5 days a week or more, you’d better have fun doing it (this is also valid if you are in quarantine by the way). Playing floorball was a way for Fredrik and his friends to release the pressure and to bond. They had fun, they were active and passionate, and he knows the importance of it. The story doesn’t say if beer was involved for them or not, but that’s the same spirit for parties, plus you don't need to be good at anything to attend. There were many occasions to hang out with coworkers at EMG: the weekly “beer o’clock” on Fridays at 4; every month a team was in charge of organizing a bigger thematic afterwork (the French one was the most popular of course); and every 6 months there would be the “biggies”: the Summer Party and the Christmas Party. This list is without counting the team celebrations that we would have if we reached a goal and the spontaneous afterworks within the teams. Also, each team reaching their half-year target would attend a company trip. It was important to celebrate our successes.
I particularly enjoyed these gatherings because I particularly enjoyed my coworkers. Remember what I was saying about the competitive spirit of a sales company? At EMG it was the reverse effect for me: seeing people at the top of the scoreboard would give you an idea of who you could ask if you needed tips, and you could be sure that this person would be glad to help. I started to put extra effort into my sales job because I wanted my colleagues to be proud to work with me, as much as I was proud to work with them. And as everyone knew how everyone else was doing, people would encourage each other. I felt like we were one big team. To create that, the company was really aware of the importance of the positive mindset of the coworkers and cultivated an atmosphere where they could keep it, especially since the workforce at EMG is coming from more than 20 nationalities, with remote offices in 4 other countries. When a company has such a diverse workforce, not even centralized in one place, the feeling of belonging and team spirit is crucial, and this is why they invest so much in events, activities and videoconference tools.
Jeans, acronyms and way too much coffee
Fredrik describes EMG’s type of organization as what we call “flat”, that is with few or no levels of hierarchy between management and staff level employees. Example: there were literally two people between me and Fredrik in the hierarchy. What it means in practice on the employee’s side is that the top management felt close and involved in the day-to-day life of the company. And that they wore jeans.
When talking about it with Fredrik, I was surprised to discover how much he was involved in the employee’s well-being monitoring. I knew it was an important variable for the company because every quarter I had filled the e-NPS, the Employee Net Promoter Score. The NPS is usually a tool to measure to which extent your customers are ready to promote your product and recommend it to others. The e-version is used to measure employees satisfaction and engagement. As a consequence, every three months, they would have a picture of every team’s internal weather. I thought it was something that only the HR would see and analyze, but apparently employee well-being was also a topic at the management level and even board level. When Fredrik told me it was part of the company’s main KPI (Key Performance Indicators), it actually made sense. Another reason is that they partly take the overall performance of a team as the reflection of people’s well-being. In other words, they consider that having happy employees is essential for business, and well-being at work becomes an investment, not a cost: “if you can create that feeling, you get it 10 times back”.
However, it is continuous hard work to keep the spirits up, improve the culture, deepen the engagement and boost motivation. This is why everyone needs to be involved, on an everyday basis. There are improvement areas, as always, and Fredrik is aware of this, but the most important is that everyone keeps an eye open so as to be able to act fast when a difficulty arises. Hence the quarterly surveys.
"If you can create that feeling, you get it 10 times back".
“But a sales job is quite stressful: have you ever had cases of burnouts or depressions?” I asked. Not really apparently, but they have had co-workers that were in a bad place: “it becomes too much and they lose motivation”. That happens, and when it does, they try to listen, acknowledge the problem instead of blaming the person, take action quickly, and do their best to help the individual cope with it. Actions can include making arrangements for them to work from home for example, but from what I have understood most of their actions is to prevent this from happening through basically everything I said in the previous section, and especially team spirit: feeling support from your team members and being comfortable to tell them that something is not quite right is the foundation of it.
What about the jeans then? I just think it perfectly embodies the openness and accessibility of people at EMG, at every level. It was not rare for me to bump into Mattias, the Head of Sales, or Fredrik in the common kitchen (holy sanctuary of the coffee makers), and they would often have a quick chit chat with me. Fredrik considers that, once you belong to the management team, you become an ambassador for the company, and that they should all make efforts in that direction: “If you are a CEO and part of the management team, you think about it, because it’s important”. Even when the workload is heavy, he tries to dedicate around 5 hours per week to speak with co-workers, and schedules it in his agenda, as any other important meeting. The very fact that Fredrik would grant me 45 minutes of his time so that I could make this article is a statement too. When I worked there, it was purely gut feeling, but I thought they deserved that I gave the best of what I could offer, and I was proud to work for them because I felt they were part of my team as well.
Monday breakfasts and pink neon lights
Every Monday, we had to be at the office at 8 for the “Monday Morning Meeting” ritual and listen to an update of how the sales teams were performing, the latest improvements on the websites, the results of a promotional event conducted by one of the teams, or just to share with the rest something that had been successful. That, and have breakfast together.
I was often surprised by everything that was happening within the company, in Stockholm but also in the other offices in Germany, Norway, Finland and Denmark. Despite its position as leader in the nordic countries, the company constantly evolves and relies on smaller teams as a source for new ideas. Everything moved pretty quickly, but especially within the teams, as one small idea from someone thinking out loud could snowball into becoming the next project. As part of the French team, we were moving on a difficult market already occupied by strong market leaders. Our position of underdog made us the guinea pigs of the company, and sometimes it was not long before other teams would follow and launch the same kind of projects. That was galvanizing. The top management listened to new ideas from the country managers, but everyone had a legitimate voice within their own team because, with a good brainstorming, good ideas could pop up from anywhere.
Everything moved pretty quickly, but especially within the teams, as one small idea from someone thinking out loud could snowball into becoming the next project.
This culture of openness really changed everything for me compared with my previous job in Paris. First, I felt way more engaged and motivated because I felt my opinion and work were valued. Second, it meant that I could be myself in the workplace, and that it was OK, because everyone else was just being themselves too. I started realizing that after a few afterworks, when people would behave more or less the same at the workplace and in a social context. They were the same great people, and I didn’t need to pretend to be somebody else to feel accepted. That’s when I started to create bonds with people, not titles or functions.
My last questions to Fredrik were about how to build such a great working environment and make it last through the years, the growth of a diverse workforce and across several countries. Today, EMG has around 150 employees. At the beginning, he told me that there were no written rules. They were passionate about what they were doing and just went with the flow. It’s only relatively recently that they formalized the company’s culture, starting with the core values of the company: Passion, Performance and Professionalism (“PPP”). As you can see, Passion is still first, and Performance has a slightly different ring to it than “Results”. Other than the fact that “results” don’t start with a P, I like to see that Performance is also taken from the semantic field of sports. It means giving your best and achieving something out of the ordinary, alone or as a team. The core values at EMG are not for a commercial objective, because the company doesn’t advertise its name but its websites. It’s not a slogan for customers, they wouldn’t even need them from a pure business point of view. No one sees them except the employees and those who visit the office (they are written in big pink neon lights in the common area). So the purpose of the core values is really to federate coworkers and give a guideline for what the company should be today and in the future. For Fredrik they are really important: they are included in the interview process, they are presented during the onboarding period for new employees, they serve for the performance reviews, but they also represent a benchmark to keep the goal in sight, to embody and preserve EMG’s working culture.
The EMG family
I still pass by EMG from time to time when I am in Sweden. I have lunch or drinks with my former co-workers, they regularly have “alumni” afterworks where all former employees are welcome and, apparently, I interview Fredrik.
Not that everything was perfect there, because it can’t, but I never felt sad to go to work, not a single day. Stressed? Yes of course, but never afraid or helpless. Maybe EMG has succeeded in building and keeping this great culture because it is still a relatively small company, but I don’t really see what’s hard in valuing your colleagues' opinion, accepting them for who they are and behaving like a proper team.
One day, at my job in Paris, my manager told me, with a condescending voice and a pat on my back: “You know Camille, I am glad that I am your manager. It will make you grow up”. After my experience at EMG, I realized that, for him, to grow up was “fit in the box that we put people in”. That was his definition of “growing up”, and I never felt so small. Now at least I know that there is another way, and I have a new benchmark when it comes to the workplace. At EMG, I grew up by trying my best, being allowed to be myself and realizing what I was capable of when people gave me room to express my ideas and my personality. And I wasn’t even that good at ping pong.