Working Culture in Norway
Wednesday, 8 May 2013
I think when people move overseas they expect there to be cultural differences - different foods, languages, holidays & customs - but they don't always anticipate those cultural differences spilling over into the working environment. Work seems like it would just be 'work' everywhere when in fact, it can be vastly different from what you are used to.
It's fairly evident in Norwegian society that family is of the utmost priority in practically all aspects of life. We see this in the year long, fully paid maternity/paternity leave. We see it in the cafes with nursing rooms and/or stroller parking. It's obvious in the free education scheme and on the streets in daily life. It's also pretty blatant in the working environment.
In short, Norwegians often work short days - 7:30-3:30 is common. In fact, rush hour here is usually between 3 and 4 pm. They take a half hour lunch break where food is often provided at an in house cafeteria subsidized for employees. They are privy to 5 weeks of vacation every year and are encouraged to take several weeks together over summer for a break. The working week for office jobs is Monday through Friday and it's generally frowned upon to work on evenings and weekends. This includes answering emails or telephone calls unless of course, you are on call. They leave work at work. If you are sick, you stay home and you are not expected to work while recovering. If your child has a special event, you're expected to leave work to attend.
Much of Norway is highly unionized meaning workers have a union advocating for their rights. It's quite difficult to lose your job once you have it (or to fire someone if they aren't performing like you'd expect.) The working responsibilities are generally quite specific and there are usually several people working in one area where there might only be one employee covering it all in North America. It's not uncommon for an employee to say "No" if they're asked to do something they feel is outside of their duties and that is accepted. People often dress down for work wearing jeans and a collared shirt or blouse throughout the week. You'll also notice employees shifting their working hours on Fridays (particularly in the summer) to enable them to duck out early for the weekend. CEO's in Norway tend to be the lowest paid in the world whereas the average employee tends to have higher salaries than their counterparts in other countries.
Foreigners often hear of these conditions and immediately express that they'd love to work in Norway however, they'll notice some drawbacks. It can often feel like it will take ages to get something done simply because the working hours are short. At 3:30 everyone stops what they are doing and heads home even if right in the middle of something. There's a lack of urgency. Those in managerial positions find the adjustment more difficult having to work their way through the heavy union protocol. There can often be 'too many cooks in the kitchen' so to speak making decisions drawn out and if you happen to need something outside of normal business hours, you're generally out of luck. The summer can feel particularly difficult too as more than half of all employees will be on vacation and they will definitely not be checking emails so your file may well sit on their desk for a month with nothing happening.
Now, Norway sits in a pretty special position allowing them such generous working benefits. Before they uncovered the massive amounts of oil in the North Sea in the 60's, the country itself was actually quite poor relying on farming and fishing as their main sources of survival. Of course all of that has since changed with the mounds of money that came with their oil discovery. Currently, Norway comes second only to Luxembourg as the highest GDP per capita and their government pension fund is sitting at a cool $654 billion dollars. This obviously puts them in a pretty comfortable position financially and allows it's citizens many benefits and security.
The working culture can be a massive adjustment for those who come from North America where work and career are often at the forefront of our lives. We feel so much pressure to work well past normal office hours and can be expected to do the work of several people because we know that if we don't do it, someone else will and we'll be out of a job. Many people will look at Norway's working culture and wish they had a similar environment yet when they arrive feel the pendulum swings a bit too far the other way for them.
It's easy for me to say, as I'm not working in Norway, but I find it refreshing. Norwegians clearly have their priorities set and it's obvious that work is not at the forefront. Family and life come first and they are not willing to jeopardize that in any way. I admire that they are uncompromising in their beliefs and find much more to life than work and career. As foreigners arrive and step into the working culture of Norway, it'll be easy to feel frustrated while learning the ropes but they must remember the working culture of Norway has been made by and for Norwegians, not the expatriates.
Will their economy be able to keep up with the arrangement they've set for themselves? No one can say for sure but they have made it work for them under the current conditions and they appear to be content with the choices they've made.
[And before you comment as to how lucky Joe is to be reaping the benefits of the Norwegian working climate... he's here on an expat contract out of Dubai as opposed to a local contract which puts him in a grey area. Technically, he's supposed to follow the rules in the country he's living in however, he works for an American company and the expectations for an American company abroad are the same as an American company in the USA. That coupled with the fact that all of his superiors are expats generally means that he picks up the slack when everyone else leaves at half three. It sucks for him and it sucks for me but that's the way things tend to happen on these expat contracts.]
*Obviously, I'm making some generalizations here and different industries and positions will show different characteristics.