Well, more precisely, I’m certainly not in Iowa, where I lived and worked before I came to Iceland in February. Kansas, Iowa… it doesn’t really make a difference. In the US, one flat Midwestern state full of corn is pretty much like the next; it’s not like Iceland, where 200 kilometres is the difference between rainforest-level rainfall and desert. But it’s not just the geography that sets this country a world apart from America. Icelandic workplaces, too, are a very different breed from their American counterparts.
Before I describe what it’s like to work in Iceland, let me be clear that my experience is only that of a software developer working at a particular company. Clearly the checker scanning groceries at Bónus or a person baiting fishing hooks in Bolungarvík isn’t going to have the same experience as me. Likewise, I should reiterate that getting a job in Iceland, especially as someone from the US, is an exceedingly long and difficult process, one that requires that I leave the country for months at a time. Something that will, much to my chagrin, have happened by the time you read this article.
All that said, working for an Icelandic company is such a pleasant experience after working for American companies my whole life. The place I work at has so much more of a family feel to it—it’s a family with an obsession about not having airplanes run into each other. My boss is always helpful and full of suggestions without ever coming across as demanding. Unlike at other jobs I’ve worked, he’s always concerned about making sure that all employees have the big picture of what’s going on instead of doing development in some little box just to meet a set of specs. This combined with a real laid-back environment where it doesn’t seem you’re being forced to work really helps you feel like you own the tasks you’re working on, like they’re your own projects. I found myself staying late at times simply because I wanted to get things done on the projects.
There are five employees in the large room where I work (perhaps 5x11m). A typical work schedule is something like 7:30 to 15:30 or 9:00 to 17:00. There are, of course, plenty of breaks in there. Indeed, while I’m glad to have gotten to the point where I can understand parts of the meetings that are conducted in Icelandic, for some reason I always find my easiest Icelandic conversations are with random people in the cafeteria.
The “cafeteria,” for lack of a better word (it’s more like a restaurant), has two cooks on staff, who are just excellent. They always have a fresh vegetarian soup and delicious breads in addition to the “réttir dagsins” (daily meals), and they are always teaching me new words related to foods (although I once accidentally started a debate over whether butternut squash counted as “grasker” (pumpkin) or not 😉 ). The company is always running various initiatives and events, and this was my company’s “Heilsuátak” (“Health Initiative”) for two weeks that I was there. Consequently we had a guest chef from a local restaurant fix one meal and a chef from a cooking school fix another.
Other events from the Heilsuátak: free fruit, various lectures on health topics, health check-ups, yoga at the Sóley Nature Spa, massage, and a company hike. All this is during business hours. The masseuse told me that there are companies that bring her in every week. In general, Icelandic workplaces seem so much more relaxing. There’s always people hanging out in the cafeteria—chatting, reading, knitting, etc., or going on walks or errands during the day. But really, what sort of people do youwant handling your air traffic control: relaxed employees that have been treated well or stressed-out overworked people?
I wasn’t supposed to come in on my last day before having to return to the US again, but I didn’t feel I’d gotten enough done on the previous day and hadn’t gotten to see everyone off (especially my boss), and I really wanted to. So I woke up extra early and made what I jokingly called “amerískar-íslenskar pönnukökur”—the thick American-style pancakes but made with skyr instead of milk (they were all gone by lunch). I worked a few hours and said proper goodbyes before leaving to head to the airport. Yes, I could have used the time to continue my search for a house, for more furniture, or to spend more time with friends, or just to take in one final hike through some beautiful countryside. Yet I wanted to be at work.