How IKEA maintains culture for 170,000 global employees

Ulrika Biesert
Ulrika Biesert
Image: Ingka Group
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Ulrika Biesèrt oversees a lot of employees—over 170,000 globally.

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

As the pandemic threw countless businesses into disarray, and confined millions of people worldwide to their homes, IKEA’s furniture and decor businesses boomed, and a third of sales moved swiftly online.

The changes meant hiring more staff, training them, and retraining vast numbers of current employees to do new things—like help customers with design ideas over the phone or internet.

IKEA prides itself on having a strong company culture. But with so many people to manage globally, many of them new hires, and a constantly evolving strategy, it’s easier said than done.

Just last week, for example, IKEA announced it will no longer pay full sick pay for unvaccinated UK workers who need to self-isolate due to Covid. In response to an inquiry from Quartz, Ingka Group said it “believes that the vaccine is an important step in the global effort to tackle COVID-19.” It clarified that unvaccinated UK workers with mitigating circumstances such as pregnancy or underlying health conditions would continue to get full sick pay if they had to isolate, but those with none would only receive the standard sick pay mandated under UK law.

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

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.  

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

Ulrika Biesért: Culture and values are at the core of who we are, and also who we want to be. That started with the founder [Ingvar Kamprad] a long, long time ago. We are also quite pragmatic. We’re focused on something we call “recruitment through values.” So even in the hiring process we put time into understanding a co-worker’s personality, values, attitudes, and we try to find people who fit our culture. Who you are is as important as your capabilities. More companies are saying this now, but I think this was quite groundbreaking when we began it.

I always say we are simple, down to earth, straightforward people who like to get the job done. So it’s less about hierarchy or official position. When we look at people, we measure not just what you do, but also how you do it, and that’s equally important.

If I’m a leader that is super good at delivering business objectives, but I’m not treating my co-workers well, then I’m not performing as a leader. Keeping culture aligned through 32 markets, we have to be very firm and have a clear point of view on our behaviors and ways of working.

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

I’ve been at the company for 22 years, and we have always talked about co-workers. It’s very deeply rooted. [The term has been used at IKEA since at least 1985.]

How can you be sure that the cultural policies you try to create in Sweden are helpful and valuable for, say, a warehouse worker in Jakarta?

We regularly do anonymous co-worker surveys. Currently 83% of our co-workers rate us as a great place to work. But it’s not a perfect world, so sometimes we see, specifically in leadership, bad behaviors [like not treating others well]. And there, we act quite boldly. First, by supporting the leader to address the issue. But if that doesn’t work, it’s not the right fit. And then we need to have another discussion.

We try to create a culture where people are not so afraid of making mistakes, but also not afraid to speak up. If you feel that we are not living the culture, the first level is that you go to your line manager or the HR person in that local unit. We also have a crisis line, so you can anonymously make complaints. And then of course there is a hierarchy, and you can go the whole way up. But most of it is handled on a country level.

How has your business been affected by the pandemic?

A crisis shows who you are as a company, and we decided directly—and this is something I’m proud of—to side with our co-workers. So we have supported them, I would say, quite heavily. We decided to safeguard all pay for co-workers who needed to be 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 co-workers, they take care of customers. In all, 93% of our co-workers said they felt very supported by us during the pandemic, which is a lovely result I think.

Many companies are trying to hone their business to mitigate major problems like climate, while also being more fair and purposeful places to work. What is IKEA’s position on this as an expanding consumer goods company? 

Our vision is to create a better life for many. And that vision puts quite a bit of responsibility, on us. 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 not work in the future. We believe that the new business model must be integrated with a sustainability agenda. So for instance, our mattresses and kitchen products now have 25 years of warranty.

And no company can avoid the equality agenda for the future. Twenty years ago, we saw that we didn’t have women in leading positions, and decided to change it. Today, we have more than 50% women throughout our organization in managerial positions. We have worked very heavily with inclusion. In India, we are not only offering maternity leave, we are offering paternity leave as well. In Japan, we now offer the same benefits for partners of the same sex. We know we are not yet there. But we want to reflect the customer and society base, so this is our next commitment. I think you need to combine profit and purpose now. And that we are totally committed to.

What do your employees, or co-workers, do to push you more in these areas?

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

We are trying to also be quite action-oriented and pragmatic. Now 92% of our co-workers have gone through our sustainability training, where we think about how you can live a more sustainable life as a human being, and what we’re doing as a company to contribute to a better world.

We are doing quite a lot of work on refugees. As of today, we have supported 775 refugees in 21 countries to get skills and language training [most of whom then got jobs at Ingka Group]. In 2022, we are committed to working with another 2,500 refugees and asylum seekers.

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