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The Finnish sauna is an ancient tradition which is still used today for relaxation, and almost all visitors to the country are invited to brave the sauna at least once. What they may not realise is that in addition to the relaxing effects and health benefits, the group sauna is also an important part of business relations in Finland. It sounds strange but it seems to work, as the Finnish industry is making strides in almost every field.
Most Finnish people like to take a sauna at least once a week, typically during the weekend, which is why so many businesses, including the Parliament House, have a sauna. Even a branch of Burger King in Helsinki has installed a sauna for business meetings. A public sauna such as this is often hired out for the annual company party and the sauna session becomes a part of the festivities.
A workplace sauna session runs the same way it does in private homes – the sauna is heated up to the appropriate temperature, everyone strips off, they enter the sauna for as long as they feel comfortable (rarely more than ten minutes at a time), have a cold shower, then relax with a beer or a light meal.
To clarify, it is not the actual meetings that take place in the sauna. You won’t spend the session going through slideshow presentations, sitting through motivational workshops, or having long political debates. Instead, the sauna is usually heated up at the end of the week for employees to unwind. It is a time for networking and bonding in an informal environment, which is arguably more vital for business negotiations and employee relations.
There is a strong social aspect that comes with the Finnish sauna, which is why people prefer to take their sauna breaks with friends or family rather than on their own. Serious topics are avoided, yet the relaxed atmosphere allows for new idea generation or conversations about personal matters. Finns don’t like making small talk during business hours and usually save it for the subsequent sauna time.
Most people would squirm at the thought of seeing their boss naked in a steam room, especially while sitting next to them in a similar manner. In a Finnish sauna, however, when everyone takes off their business clothes and is naked in front of everyone else, hierarchies are essentially dissolved, so all are free to speak as equals. There is less need for lower ranking employees to feel nervous about making their contribution, or for higher-ups to dominate discussions. The only leadership position is deciding who gets to pour water over the coals.
Even the Finnish Army and the Parliament of Finland use this system for informal meetings. This practice has certainly contributed to making Finland one of the world’s most secular and corruption-free countries.
However, there are some negatives to this practice. International relations are more important than ever, in both politics and trade, yet foreigners often feel uncomfortable using the sauna, especially with strangers or people they have only just met. It can end up having the opposite effect of the intended relaxation and bonding. Others maintain an attitude of keeping their work lives and relaxation time separate. This is a shame, as being invited to join the sauna by a Finnish colleague is a strong sign of acceptance.
Sauna etiquette also states that men and women enter separately, which means that one gender will always be left out of the talks. This is a particular problem in industries or sectors where one gender is dominant over another.
At a time when businesses are seeking more foreign markets and international political tensions are soaring, it seems that the Finnish practice of sauna meetings could be helpful. It could also aid with the worrying concern of employee stress levels rising due to overwork.
Unfortunately, since not many countries outside of the Nordics regularly use saunas outside of luxury spas, it seems unlikely that it will catch on any time soon. There are a few international sauna societies trying to adapt the idea, but as of now they are generally only used by Finnish diplomats abroad.
Many countries have their own versions of informal post-work meetings, such as the British practice of heading to the pub after a long day. But perhaps if more businesses tried out Finnish sauna meetings, they would find it improves their client relations and overall company morale.