There are approximately 2,000,000 saunas in Finland, a country with a total population around 5,500,000. That’s a sauna for every two to three individuals. It’s no wonder saunas are such a hot place for making connections and forming relationships. For a population that is fairly reserved in discussing personal topics in their normal business relationships, it is nice to have a place for blowing off steam and connect with those who typically hold a very professional demeanor.
After asking a woman how she met her husband and getting a blank, awkward stare back, Jeff Jenkins noticed that the Finnish like to keep things very professional in the workplace. It can be difficult for Americans to feel connected with their Finnish colleagues who are hesitant to share personal experiences and life circumstances. Even when Americans try to make those connections with the typical happy hour mixing and mingling, success is rarely achieved.
Connecting with coworkers is a key element to maintaining happy and effective work environments, no matter the business or country. But forming those relationships can be difficult, especially in complex and diverse environments. Jeff Jenkins, a Deloitte professional now working in Finland, learned firsthand just how challenging this can be.
Saunas have been a part of Finnish culture for thousands of years. They are home to many sacred rituals and special ceremonies. Women often give birth in saunas, as it’s typically the cleanest room in the house and provides a good source of hot water. Cleansing or purifying rituals occur in saunas before marriage, and the dead are even washed and prepared for burial in them. Some natives, including Pekka Niemi, even call them “the poor-man’s pharmacy,” associating them with health and wellbeing. As a fundamental aspect of Finnish culture, it’s no wonder saunas are such a large part of the business community as well.
Many businesses, and even parliament, have installed group saunas on site to help improve company culture. Those who don’t, often reserve them for large meetings and company retreats. Because it’s typical to remove clothes before entering a sauna, the environment represents a place of vulnerability, separate from the outside world. This location becomes ideal for making those business connections and forming strong relationships. It’s also said to help with idea generation and positive group communication.
There are a few drawbacks, however. Sometimes foreigners who haven’t grown up with the same custom feel too embarrassed to participate. Most group saunas are gender separated, so using this technique may not work when forming connections with coworkers of the opposite gender. And some individuals may simply wish to keep their work and relaxation lives separate, reserving those sauna moments for the home, family, and recreation.
In a society where business is kept professional and communication of personal facts are not frequently shared, learning the culture and customs of forming relationships is key to business success. With the rich history and cultural reliance on saunas in Finland, enjoying a steam session with a colleague can be a prime method for blowing off steam and simplifying the creation of diverse connections. Be aware there are limitations to the practice, as foreigners don’t always feel comfortable with the tradition. Whether new to working in Finland or with a Finn, understanding the importance saunas have in their culture will be vital to making those lasting connections.