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Working Environment in L.A. and Scandinavia

... Legal and Cultural Diversity

By Marcela Berse


If you are from Scandinavia trying to do business in Latin America or vice versa, please read this article with my insights gained from a long acquaintance with both cultures. If you are neither of the former but you interact either with Scandinavian business partners or employees, or contacts from Northern Europe in general, or with Latin Americans you might find useful information too!

After I finished my graduate studies in Argentina as a Computer Engineer, I immigrated to Sweden to have an international working experience. Surprisingly, what started as a 1-year work exchange lasted for 8 years. The first years where tough with continuous learning of the professional activities together with the language. It also involved Scandinavian culture and their particular way of interaction.

Two years ago I returned to settle back in Argentina. I have to admit that getting used to my original life style here was also a challenge having already adapted to living in a Scandinavian country.


Work Schedules

Sweden: Corporate business normal working hours are between 8:30-17:30. Almost everybody leaves the office around 17:30. Working overtime is your own decision. It is really an exception, and very well appreciated. You almost never work on weekends. Working time is 40 hours a week.

Argentina: You start working around 9:00 but you never know when you go home. That is the rule. The customer can phone you at any time in the evening asking for an urgent report or an unexpected meeting. It is quite common to work on weekends. Working time is officially 45 hours a week.

Salary Level

S: Salary level is standardized, linked to your graduation date and the kind of position you have in the company. Statistical information on salary levels is well documented and provided by the labor unions. The Unions support their members in their negotiations to help them get a more successful career path. However, if you are not a member of the Union, you don't have access to this information and you often get a lower salary offer. If you want more you have to fight for more. There are always special deals if you are wise enough to find them.

You are not supposed to talk about your salary among your colleagues and they are really astonished at you if you ask them how much they earn.

A: The standard salary level is linked to the position you hold in the company, and it is basically based on the degree of responsibility. Therefore apparently similar positions in different companies have a wide range of salaries range. Your negotiation skills are very important for increasing your salary, especially nowadays, with the huge devaluation of the peso, coupled to the high unemployment index.

Friends and close co-workers (yes, co-workers can be close too) freely talk about how much they earn.


S: Taxes are proportional to your salary level. Therefore a salary increase might, in the end, not appear to make a big difference in actual income. However, during my last years in Sweden I learned to appreciate other benefits, like tax-free travel allowances.

A: There is a basic fixed tax charged to every salary, and only the income tax scales from a minimum cutoff level, and increases proportional up to a maximum salary, after which the tax remains constant. Nevertheless, the taxation of income in Argentina is substantially lower than in Sweden. On the other side one must reckon that public services in Sweden are much better than in Argentina, so there is a tradeoff.


S: By law the minimum amount of vacation you can take is 5 weeks per year if you get paid for overtime. If you do not get paid for the overtime you work then you take 6 weeks per year.

A: There are different collective work agreements regulating the vacation periods. The basic rule is to consider 1 day of vacation per month worked, up to 12 months. Up to five years in the same company gets you 2 weeks per year. Between 6 to 10 years with the same company usually means 3 weeks a year and after that, if you still work for the same company you get a month per year. Of course, there are some deals and exceptions depending on the particular agreement stated in your working contract.

Maternity leave

S: The maternity/paternity leave is a full-time leave for up to 18 months per birth (12 months at 90% of your salary and the following 6 months at a standard maternity allowance. One has the possibility to choose part-time working. For example, one may prefer to work 50% of the time (4 hours a day), so the benefit will extend for a full 36 months period! The maternity leave is for either parent, the mother or the father, so they have the freedom to decide what is best for themselves and their child or children. The most common situation is that the mother takes a full time leave and the father is obliged to take as a minimum one month of leave (otherwise the parents lose one month allowance!)

A: The maternity leave is for the mother and it lasts for 3 months. It may start one month before estimated delivery date. Some mothers (the few who can afford it!) may get an additional 3 or 6 extra months without income. The father only gets 3 days to be able to be with the family during the delivery days.

Commuting between home and Work

S: Normally people take public transportation to the office. The system is scheduled, clean and safe. People usually read during the trip. The trip is easy and according to plan, except in wintertime, when heavy snow can cause traffic delays in the traffic flow.

A: Traffic is heavy in Buenos Aires and in most Latin American Capital cities. Driving from downtown to work might be an exhausting experience, with long traffic-jams. Public transportation is not scheduled, but is very frequent. Busses and trains in the morning and evening hours are quite congested. The economical crisis in the region makes public transportation less safe every day.

Working environment

S: The environment is serious and silent. People work at their desks, normally in private offices. Privacy is very important. There are coffee machines in the corridors and people normally take a short coffee break in middle-morning and another one in the afternoon, with the other team members. Each floor includes a Sovrummet (a bedroom) where you can lay down and relax if you need to: perfect for pregnant women or when you are simply not feeling well!

A: The climate in the office is quite noisy. Normally the offices are shared, big rooms divided in cubicles. During working hours people talk a lot about private life. There is no specific time for coffee breaks.

Management Style

S: Supportive and delegative. The decision making process is based on consensus.

A: Directing (some times even dictatorial). During these last years this has been changing due to managers having a working experience abroad, which is bringing a more participative style of work.


S: People are sharp with their schedules. Meetings arranged at a certain time start in general 2 minutes after the time. Five minutes overtime is seen as very late. While after 10 minutes the door is closed and you cannot get in.

A: People arrive usually late at meetings. Meetings will usually start somewhere between 15 and 45 minutes late. Meetings usually do not have ending times, so this introduces delays in your schedule for the rest of the day.

When do we need to solve this?

S: If you ask for something (whatever) from a colleague, he or she will solve the issue right away, if possible.

A: When you ask something from colleague, he or she will leave it for tomorrow ¨MAÑANA¨ unless you demand an immediate response.

Dress code

S: People dress comfortably and with discretion. Usually Fridays and most of the summer is casual dressing. If you are not supposed to meet customers, you can even wear BERMUDAS and sandals if you wish, it is OK. The ¨Sueco¨ shoes (with plastic or wooden soles) are very common for technical people.

A: You dress elegant and formal, even if you do not meet customers. Suits for female and male employees are mandatory. The globalization has arrived with the Casual Friday and even, casual summer in some companies.

Being a woman

S: The superwoman culture appears to have originated in Sweden! Women are considered strong and very well respected. There is no difference in treatment; everything is based on relationships between equals.

A: Well, it is better to understand that it is not precisely an advantage to be a woman at work in Argentina or Latin America in general (see the May 2002 newsletter ¨ Women in Management in Latin America ¨). Anyway, again, thanks to globalization, things are beginning to improve for us.


S: When you meet someone you get 100% of his/her attention. If your manager calls you for a meeting, he or she will close the door of the office and will transfer incoming phone calls to the secretary.

A: We are multitasking Latin America. It is totally natural. Your manager, while talking to you, might be at the same time reading some e-mails or answering the phone.

The intention of this article is to summarize the most relevant differences between both working environments, if only from my personal experience.

Regardless of the differences, both countries are excellent places for business, with clever and senior professionals. In both cases, the results are achieved on time and are of acceptable quality. My experience of living in both cultures has been enormously enriching

I dream of the perfect working place ;-), combining the Scandinavian excellent capacity for planning and organization with the Latin talent for improvisation, problem solving and adaptation to change. Globalization is already doing part of the job when forcing us all to work together and thus learn from (and about) each other.

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