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Business Lessons From Abroad: What Can We Learn?

A recent study by HR Magazine has found that UK employees have some of the lowest levels of engagement with their work in the world. But, with business cultures differing from country to country, are there any lessons from abroad that we can learn to make our companies more efficient and profitable?
With that that thought in mind, and using Sweden, Denmark, Japan and Germany as examples, we’ve decided to take a look.


In many ways, Sweden is well ahead of the curve in relation to many socio-economic issues. Unemployment is low, as is the national debt and inflation, and labour productivity levels are well above the global average. In addition to this, the Swedish public enjoy excellent standards of living.
So what is the Swedish business culture like that has helped guide our Scandinavian cousins to such success?

Flexible working hours

Sweden is a country obsessed with creating a good work-life balance. In fact, The Independent recently reported, in a bid to improve happiness and productivity, Sweden is currently moving towards a six-hour working day.

Indeed, many of the country’s most successful businesses have already successfully implemented this change – including the Toyota centre in Gothenburg, which made the switch 13 years ago. Since then, the company have improved staff morale, reduced their employee turnover rate and increased profits.

Free perks and healthcare

In recent years, Swedish businesses have made giant strides in promoting health and wellbeing within their workforces. And, among the plentiful perks provided by many Swedish companies, free or subsidised healthcare schemes are high on the list.

For example, employees over 50-years-old are often provided with free medical examinations every couple of years. Plus, many companies provide their workforce with free fruit and subsidised daily meals to help encourage healthy eating.

What can we learn?

Want proof? Inspired by the Scandinavian model, a Liverpool-based marketing agency recently started trialling a six-hour work day and is already enjoying the benefits.
Companies that support health in the workplace typically have a greater percentage of their employees at work every day. For this reason, productivity levels are typically high within Swedish companies. Furthermore, after retirement, Swedish citizens enjoy one of the highest life expectancies in the world, so they must be doing something right.


As with their Scandinavian neighbours in Sweden, corporate culture in Denmark focuses on cultivating a happy and motivated workforce. Arguably, though, the Danes place an even greater emphasis on the Law of Jante. For the uninitiated, the Law of Jante dictates that team success is more important than individual achievements. Consequently, the typical Danish corporate hierarchy reflects this principle.

Flat management structures

Many Danish businesses work in small teams without managers, thus creating a flat hierarchy. Without a manager to steer proceedings, teams have to find a way to work together effectively, with all members contributing equally to the cause.

Similarly, many Danish companies make a special point of celebrating their successes together. As everything is a team effort, no individual is worthy of more praise than another when it comes to celebrating company wins. As such, everyone gets recognised for their efforts – no matter how big or small.

What can we learn?

In British business culture, power relations and hierarchical organisations are common. For this reason, Brits tend to defer to seniority and lines of communication get passed down by rank.
However, as a rule, employees in Danish companies are encouraged to work independently. The benefit of such a structure is that all employees feel empowered by a sense of responsibility towards achieving the same goals. This, in turn, makes them feel more motivated, while celebrating successes as a team means everyone gets to feel valued.

All in all, then, a flat management structure can help to cultivate a workforce of empowered employees that feel valued and responsible for a company’s success.


Japan is an ancient culture with many unique traditions, customs and rituals that extend into the country’s business culture. Although such formalities might seem mysterious from a Westerner’s perspective, you’d be hard pressed to argue that they don’t work given the fact that Japan have developed into an economic powerhouse.

Daily motivational rituals

Many Japanese companies start the day with a morning assembly where workers meet to sing a company song or recite motivational slogans in unison. To the casual observer, this might seem strange. However, to the Japanese, these rituals act in the same manner as a daily pep talk, or other such motivational techniques.

Status equals power

In Japan, face-to-face meetings are a crucial part of building working relationships with clients and colleagues. When meeting in person, it is customary that the highest ranking attendee sits at the head of the table and is addressed first when discussions commence. This behaviour is representative of Japanese culture, which values the wisdom of its elders. From a business perspective, it’s an illustration that respect is earned as a virtue of experience.

What can we learn?

Daily motivational rituals are a great technique for ensuring the long-term goals of a company remain fresh in employees’ minds. Although you might not want to go to the lengths of the Japanese, motivational talks and slogans can help boost staff morale, when used appropriately.

Older generations seem to never tire of telling younger people that they lack respect for older generations. Although this is a sweeping generalisation, in relation to how you conduct yourself in the workplace, there is a lesson to be gleaned.

In most cases, people are promoted within companies because they have displayed high levels of skill and aptitude. Therefore, if you disagree with a manager, it’s probably best to remember they are where they are on merit, and to air any grievances in private.


It’s perhaps too easy and not always accurate to summarise German business culture into a list of stereotypes. Nonetheless, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Germany is Europe’s industrial powerhouse, the world’s second largest importer and the only country rich enough to save the eurozone from recession. So, those traditional stereotypes must carry some weight, right?

Structure is function

Many German companies choose to enforce strict rules, regulations and processes to ensure all tasks get completed correctly and on time. In some companies, non-compliance to enforced regulations carry penalties, which vary based on the severity of the offence. Although this method for conducting business offers little flexibility, the Germans believe that the benefits of a high degree of consistency far outweigh the negatives.

Plugging the skills gap at source

The Germans treat education very differently to most other major European countries. In upper secondary schools, for example, many students take vocational courses and enter into apprenticeships. For this reason, a far greater proportion of Germans leave the education system 100% job-ready.

For jobs that require a higher form of qualification, in the majority of cases, state-run universities complete the education of potential employees on behalf of German companies. Nonetheless, in Germany, there is no stigma attached to vocational qualifications. Therefore, if you are talented enough, there is no reason that you can’t rise to the top of a German company, even if you don’t have a degree.

What can we learn?

Although the typical British workplace is also governed by rules and regulations, as a rule, they tend to be far less implicit than in Germany. For instance, verbal agreements, unwritten rules and ‘gentleman’s agreements’ still play a vital role in the organisational structure of many UK-based businesses. In theory, therefore, lifting more liberally from the German template should allow more British businesses to attain a higher level of consistency and reliability.

In regards to qualifications, in the UK, intense competition for jobs means that three-quarters of employers require a 2:1 degree. Historically, this has meant anyone without a good degree grade – or a degree at all – has struggled to climb up the corporate ladder in Britain.

Hypothetically, this has curtailed the progress of many talented individuals and stopped them from reaching their full potential. However, this year, several British companies such as Penguin and the graduate recruiters Ernst & Young, have removed degree classification from their job requirements. As a result, more talented but underqualified people will have a better chance of winning top jobs in British companies, just like in Germany.

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