How IKEA maintains corporate culture for 170,000 distributed employees — Quartz at Work

Ulrika Biesèrt oversees many employees, over 170,000 worldwide.

She is responsible for people and culture at IKEA Retail (also known as Ingka Group), which operates 390 of IKEA’s 464 retail stores worldwide and generates 90% of IKEA’s revenue.

As the pandemic has thrown countless businesses into disarray and confined millions around the world to their homes, IKEA’s furniture and home decor business has exploded and a third of sales have quickly shifted online.

The changes meant hiring more staff, training them, and retraining many of the current employees to do new things, like helping clients with design ideas over the phone or the Internet.

IKEA prides itself on having a strong corporate culture. But with so many people to manage in the world, including many new recruits, and an ever-changing strategy, that’s easier said than done.

Just last week, for example, IKEA announced it would no longer pay full sick pay for unvaccinated UK workers who have to self-isolate due to Covid. In response to an inquiry from Quartz, Ingka Group said it “believes the vaccine is an important step in the global effort to combat COVID-19.” He clarified that unvaccinated UK workers with mitigating circumstances such as pregnancy or underlying health conditions would continue to receive full sick pay if they had to self-isolate, but those who did not would only receive the standard sick pay required by UK law.

Biesèrt told Quartz how she and her distributed team are doubling down on company culture to help weather the storm of the pandemic.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Quartz: What has been your approach to maintaining the corporate culture of thousands of employees during a pandemic, dealing with issues ranging from illness and caregiving to onboarding new hires?

Ulrika Biesert: Culture and values ​​are at the heart of who we are, and also who we want to be. It started with the founder [Ingvar Kamprad] A very long time ago. We are also quite pragmatic. We focus on what we call “recruitment by values”. So even in the hiring process, we spend time understanding a colleague’s personality, values ​​and attitudes, and we try to find people who fit our culture. Who you are is as important as your abilities. More and more companies are saying this now, but I think it was pretty groundbreaking when we started.

I always say we are simple, down to earth, direct people who like to get the job done. It is therefore less about hierarchy or official position. When we watch people, we not only measure what you do, but how you do it, and that’s just as important.

If I’m a leader who excels at achieving business goals, but I don’t treat my colleagues well, then I’m not performing well as a leader. In keeping a culture aligned across 32 markets, we need to be very firm and have a clear view on our behaviors and ways of working.

I notice you used the term “colleagues” instead of workers or employees…

I’ve been in the business for 22 years and we’ve always talked about colleagues. It is very deeply rooted. [The term has been used at IKEA since at least 1985.]

How can you be sure that the cultural policies you are trying to create in Sweden are useful and valuable, for example, for a warehouse worker in Jakarta?

We regularly conduct anonymous surveys of our colleagues. Currently, 83% of our colleagues consider us a great place to work. But it’s not a perfect world, so sometimes we see, especially in leadership, bad behavior [like not treating others well]. And there, we act quite boldly. First, by supporting the leader to solve the problem. But if that doesn’t work, that’s not the right solution. And then we have to have another discussion.

We’re trying to create a culture where people aren’t so afraid of making mistakes, but also not afraid to speak up. If you feel we are not living the culture, the first level is to talk to your line manager or the HR person for that local unit. We also have a crisis line, so you can file a complaint anonymously. And then, of course, there’s a hierarchy, and you can go all the way back. But most of it is managed at the national level.

How has your business been affected by the pandemic?

A crisis shows who you are as a company, and we directly decided — and this is something I’m proud of — to side with our colleagues. So we supported them, I would say, quite strongly. We decided to protect all salaries of colleagues who had to stay at home with the children. [This was a short-term measure in the early pandemic and IKEA now deals with the issue of supporting parents differently in different places.]

When you take care of your colleagues, they take care of the customers. In total, 93% of our colleagues said they felt very supported by us during the pandemic, which I think is a nice result.

Many companies are trying to hone their operations to mitigate major issues like climate, while being fairer and more focused workplaces. What is IKEA’s position on this as a growing consumer goods company?

Our vision is to create a better life for many. And this vision gives us a share of responsibility. But it also presents opportunities. We have decided to become more affordable, more accessible, but also more “people and planet positive”. Irresponsible consumption is an old model that will no longer work in the future. We believe that the new business model should be integrated into a sustainability program. So, for example, our mattresses and kitchen products now have a 25-year warranty.

And no company can avoid the equality agenda for the future. Twenty years ago we saw that we didn’t have women in leadership positions and decided to change that. Today, we have more than 50% women in our organization in leadership positions. We have worked a lot on inclusion. In India, we don’t just provide maternity leave, we also provide paternity leave. In Japan, we now offer the same benefits to same-sex partners. We know we are not there yet. But we want to reflect the customer base and the base of society, so that’s our next commitment. I think you need to combine profit and purpose now. And we are totally attached to it.

What are your employees or colleagues doing to push you further in these areas?

The sustainability program is one of the top five reasons people choose to work for us. In the interviews, the question of sustainability always comes up. And equality returns.

We also try to be more action-oriented and pragmatic. Today, 92% of our people have completed our sustainability training, where we think about how you can live a more sustainable life as a human being, and what we do as a company to contribute to a better world.

We do a lot of work on refugees. To date, we have helped 775 refugees in 21 countries gain skills and language training [most of whom then got jobs at Ingka Group]. In 2022, we commit to working with another 2,500 refugees and asylum seekers.

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