“You’re not going to get fired, are you?”
That was the dumbest question I’d ever heard my dad ask me. Not that there weren’t plenty to choose from during my teenage years - at least from my point of view. Fast-forward about a decade to present day when I call him one early afternoon around 2:30pm, on my way home from work, about six months into my new job. Looking back, maybe it was a fair(ish) question. I’d recently switched from a traditional company where my full-time role was hourly - me calling him during the work day meant I was home sick or there was probably an emergency. But, no, I wasn’t going to get fired.
For my next phase in life, more like the rest of my life, starting my career in New York City after college in upstate New York - I was prepared for the the ups and downs of working life. Applying for an entry level job? Need 2-3 years non-internship experience. Love what you do everyday? There definitely won’t be enough money to pay rent living in New York City. Amazing coworkers? Going to have shit day to day tasks to balance that out. Called and selected for jury duty? Unpaid. Want to have kids anytime soon? FMLA has got you covered - 12 weeks and zero dollars. Grandparent dies? 3 days off - if you must. Health insurance costs were covered by sheer virtue of my age and being able to remain on my parents’ plan.
Of course, that is a snapshot of the trials of corporate world America and is coming from someone that was lucky enough to have options for what job I wanted to do. If I want to plan a family, I have always had the privilege of being able to choose when. Had I ever actually been fired as my dad surmised - I know that both of my parents would have been as generous with their support then as they had been when they paid for my education.
To many other Americans, however, life events like family planning or the cost of medical benefits are prohibitive to the point where, if you are lucky enough to find a job that covers your insurance, then you are duly instructed to never leave. Tenure at a company is often defined more from practical stability, rather than from true happiness or value garnered from an experience most us participate in for nearly a third of our lives.
4:43pm, October 25, 2017
Sitting in the Vimond office at any point past 4:30pm usually feels like a barren wasteland. That’s probably because I’m in Norway. Most of the 90 or so people that work in our HQ office will have left at some point in the past hour to pick up their kids from school, or catch a few hours of daylight for a quick hike somewhere in the mountains surrounding Bergen. Are they done working for the day? Possibly. Or, they might get a couple hours of work done in their living room after dinner.
Same, but also not the same
In college, I studied Social Anthropology, so the distinctions in social customs, norms, and the differences of daily life of anywhere have always fascinated me. Travel to a different country and you’ll invariably find different names from what you may be used to. Spend a day with them or look inside their homes and you’ll see some practical differences that people have adapted to suit their everyday lives that may seem peculiar to what you’re used to.
From the moment I started at Vimond, I noticed more than my fair share of subtle and not so subtle differences from my Norwegian colleagues. Many English names like mine may seem as uncommon as theirs do to me - so far I’ve never heard anyone butcher my name quite like I’m capable of doing to to them. Luckily, a “Norwegian Names for Dummies” phonetic pronunciation guide has been able to circulate and find its way to my inbox. Although, not before I’d pronounced our CEO’s name, Helge, wrong for over a year. Now, I get it right 3 out of 10 times.
While I knew the main headquarters for Vimond are in Norway - in my mind, the odds of me ever actually going there as the new Office Manager in New York City were slim to none, at best.
I met them all at a holiday party in Norway less than 36 hours after I’d accepted the offer. The tiredness of a transatlantic flight and jetlag, nervousness of being introduced to about 50 people, paired immediately with my dwindling sobriety (Very Norwegian thing to do at a work party) - I think of my first real day with them the following Monday when I went to the office in Bergen.
I was ushered from person to person like a VIP, and was (re)introduced to everyone I’d met the Friday before. As someone who is not very tactile when it comes to strangers - I was hugged out. That seems to be the greeting of choice in Vimond. Following that I had an individual tour of our office from Helge (CEO) and the adjoining one of TV2, our parent company. Lunch was with Helge and Christina, our former CFO and my boss when I started. The afternoon was some onboarding and a very jetlagged surprise photoshoot for my headshot for our website - which I’m still bitter about.
It wouldn’t be unusual for a company to do its best to make any new employee feel welcome - maybe even invite them out to dinner with a few colleagues once to get to know them a bit. If I’d wanted alone time in my first travels there, it didn’t seem like an option. Every night was a new outing of getting to know my new colleagues at bars, restaurants, or their homes.
Rule #1: Always keep your professional life and personal life separate
If you want to be regarded as a professional and taken seriously then you keep your demeanor calm and cool at work. Don’t show too much emotion, especially as a woman, or your ideas will be in one ear and out the other. No lateness, no profanity, no personal problems. You can like who you work with - but those people aren’t the same after 5:00pm so don’t get any ideas that you really know them well. These types of ideas had been drilled into me since I can remember. Of course there are always exclusions to any rule - I’m good friends with some select past coworkers. But, the vast majority of anyone I’d interacted with in a professional arena before now were friendly but we weren’t friends. Respectful, even funny and personable - but work is work. That’s what you’re there to do and that’s it.
Within literally minutes of meeting the horde of Norwegians that were now my work family, I had thrown every single paradigm I’d learned of the young professional out the window. As I worked with them - yes here work is the main goal too - I enjoyed every minute of it. I was told by our CEO in one of my very first interviews that if I had a problem with him he’d be more upset if I didn’t tell him to ‘F*ck off’ (in those words or with my own creative skew) when I felt it needed to be said, instead of bottling it up to complain about later. After working in the company for a few weeks I actually believed that he’d meant it and, since then, have dropped some not so subtle messages in that vein.
“An uncertain warrior is no warrior at all.”- Heather Day Gilbert
I’m openly biased as I work here and love it - I know Vimond is definitely a unique work place in more ways than one. But, from what I’ve observed as an American working for a foreign company, is that workplace culture often mimics the social culture and values of its surroundings.
In Vimond’s case it may be all the way back to the time of the Vikings when warriors spent weeks on a ship together. There, the men would “row, pee, eat, drink, and fight together...There’s a very close connection with people from the ship, and morale is very, very high...As a result, Vikings joined the fray confident that their comrades would watch their backs” It seems that when you realize the people you work with are taking up a vast amount of your life then it makes sense to have each others’ backs in your daily ‘fight’ at work to keep morale high.
If we move forward a couple thousand years to present day, we can see more than a few ways Scandinavian values seep into corporate culture. While government provided social welfare systems seem like a socialist’s wet dream in the United States - that’s the way of life here. It stems from the personal choice of contributing, via taxes, to what is in the best interest for you and your family. “Nordic nations offer their citizens—all of their citizens, but especially the middle class—high-quality services that save people a lot of money, time, and trouble.” When you’ve got your back covered by your colleagues and the practical things like child care and benefits from your government - it makes it easier to focus and find happiness at home and at work. This is undoubtedly why Norway consistently ranks as one of the happiest (the #1 happiest in 2017) countries in the world year after year.
OK, cool, good for Norway. What about us?
Yes, all of that is great for my Norwegian coworkers. But, I’m happy too and I work in New York City most of the time. That’s where I live and that’s where most of my friends and family are. When I was initially interviewed I was asked what my salary expectations were. I remember saying it was X dollars but, I also had to consider what my healthcare costs would be. Lo and behold, that wasn’t going to be a factor. Almost all of my healthcare costs are covered and I barely notice the nominal amount I pay each month for insurance that I elect to add on. I hopped off my parents cell phone plan (and felt very adult doing so) because work will cover it. Sometimes I work from home so my home internet is paid by Vimond. If, or when, I want to have a child I will be expected to take almost a year off at full pay - and come back to my job when I’m good and ready. If I don’t take vacation in the summer or during the year I get weird looks from coworkers and some pressure to do something about that. I’m able to have my back covered in more way than one so all I need to focus on while I’m at work, strangely it would seem, is my work.
Change is the only constant
It’s easy for me to write this coming from the position I’m in - I get that. But, for a company to come to the US and want to make a difference in as large a market as NYC and make its people the foremost focus - to me, that speaks volumes about both the company and the culture it stems from. It is by no means cheap on the P&L and yet it’s reflective in Vimond’s employee turnover - something that is almost nonexistent across the board. When people do leave it’s gasping for breath after a crushing hug from our CEO and well wishes from everyone else - and then more hugs.
Some companies are getting the idea that happiness of your employees is one of the most important parts of a business plan. However, we’re nowhere near a majority in the US yet. I’m inspired, though, by a quote from Jane Goodall on her findings studying chimpanzees for over 65 years. She said, “Every individual matters. Every individual has a role to play. Every individual makes a difference.” While my Norwegian colleagues sometimes do remind me of primates (kidding, sort of) it seems like they know the value of people as humans and individuals a bit better than most - and it shows.