Ikea’s CHRO on why culture is the company’s ‘superpower’

Ikea’s HR chief explains how she is helping to preserve the cultural values established by the company’s founder and reveals what she did when the CEO gave her a license to ‘go bananas’

Ulrika Biesert Headshot Treatment Min

The word ‘genius’ gets bandied around a lot, but it is a fair description of Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad. At least, that’s according to Ulrika Biesèrt, group CHRO of Ingka, which operates Ikea’s retail arm.

Kamprad, who died in January 2018 aged 91, founded Ikea when he was just 17. Over the years he grew the business into the largest furniture retailer in the world, which now operates in 60 markets and employs 230,000 people. 

The Ikea corporate myth states that Kamprad’s upbringing on a farm in a poor area of Småland, Southern Sweden, helped shape the values Ikea employees are still encouraged to embody today – resourcefulness, togetherness and ingenuity. “He created a company that emphasised entrepreneurship, kindness and humility,” says Biesèrt. 

It is this culture to which Biesèrt attributes Ikea’s incredible run of form. “The success of the company is very much a result of our people approach,” she says. “People are at the core of everything we do… we’ve always had this focus.”

Since Kamprad’s death, Biesèrt has felt the responsibility to preserve his values and ensure they remain fundamental to the way Ikea operates. “For the board, but also for the family and Ingvar’s sons, it’s important for me to prove that I understand the culture of Ikea,” she says. 

The Ikea DNA

According to Biesèrt, the foundation of creating a good culture – and by extension a good company – starts with recruitment. “We have to be very intentional with how we hire,” she explains. In practice, this means using a values-based recruitment strategy that assesses whether an individual’s principles and credos align with those of the business, rather than evaluating their previous experience or the quality of their CV.

To put it bluntly, Biesèrt says: “If you don’t share and feel engaged by our values then you are not the right fit.” 

If you don’t share and feel engaged by our values then you are not the right fit

Recently, Ikea had to deviate from this recruitment philosophy when expanding its digital and technology teams. While the company would normally look to train up staff to fill skills gaps, the need to quickly expand the business’s AI capabilities forced it to recruit externally.

For Biesèrt, it was soon apparent that more work was needed to help these new members of the Ikea digital team become embedded into the company culture. 

To do so, the company recruited the help of Kamprad’s son, Peter, who held sessions in his father’s summer house to teach the Ikea cultural values to some of its new technologists. 

“They were astonished by the stories he told about the business,” Biesèrt says. “It has proven so popular that we’re looking to offer it to more people within the business.”

She claims that Ikea’s purpose-led mission and focus on sustainability and equality are now helping it to compete with the likes of Google when hiring tech talent.

Cultural upkeep

Preserving a positive company culture is no mean feat – it requires hard work. Biesèrt regularly visits Ikea stores to speak to the people on the shop floor to gauge opinion and hear their thoughts in a “less formal setting”

“You can feel the culture when you are out in our stores,” Biesèrt says. “Ikea’s absolute superpower is that people love to work for us and they stay.”

The company’s latest figures show voluntary co-worker turnover was 21.0% in the 2023 financial year. This was far lower than the average for the retail sector, which stands at 50%, according to the British Retail Consortium.

When cultural issues do arise, Biesèrt often prefers to resolve these in person. Recently, while at a European Works Council meeting, an Ikea union representative warned that some changes to stores in the Nordics region were being made at the expense of Ikea’s culture and values. 

Biesèrt has pledged to travel to the region to speak with the local country and HR managers. “That is the seriousness with which we take cultural issues,” she says. “Because the success of the company is totally built on culture.”

The success of the company is totally built on culture

Regular surveys are also used to assess employee opinion. “This involves questioning how we are recruiting, how we are promoting and how we are leading,” Biesèrt says. Recent results are positive: 84% of Ingka employees say they can be themselves at work, 80% feel included and engagement stands at 79%.

This feeds into employee performance reviews: while 50% is assessed in terms of individual achievement and business results, the other half is measured on behaviour and whether the individual is living up to the company values.

The concept of ‘leadership by all‘ is another new development that has helped to strengthen commitment to Ikea’s cultural values. “Within our organisation, everyone is a leader,” Biesèrt explains. “All 165,000 co-workers have the same set of expectations and behaviours – regardless of whether you’re the CEO or if you’re part time co-worker in a warehouse.”

While this may sound like a recipe for disaster, Biesèrt claims it has not created chaos. Instead, the intention is to empower staff to make decisions for themselves, rather than always having to seek permission.

Going bananas

The “go bananas card”, introduced by Ingka Group CEO Jesper Brodin, serves as an extension of this idea. These cards have been distributed among the company’s management and essentially give people permission to take a risk. Each card is co-signed by the CEO, meaning that, if the risk doesn’t pay off, the individual who used it is already pre-excused.

Brodin’s intention with the cards was to encourage a greater acceptance of mistakes. “The banana card has created some tensions but the business needs a bit of this,” Biesèrt says. “If we just operate within our comfort zone, it will only lead to problems.” 

Biesèrt admits to having used the card just once herself, to sign off on funding for a new staff scheduling system that has helped to increase the flexibility employees are afforded when choosing their hours of work. “It felt a bit uncomfortable to go against the current system but something very positive came out of it,” she adds. 

AI’s impact on culture

While Ikea has sometimes been slow to adopt new technologies (it only started selling products online in 2009 and didn’t retire its catalogue until 2021), the business is already using generative AI to enhance its customer experience. 

In recent years, 8,500 Ikea call centre workers have been retrained as remote interior designers, while customer queries have been passed over to AI. Drones are being used to monitor store inventory in 16 of its European stores and a robotic racking system is being trialled in Finland.

However, AI also has the potential to disrupt Ikea’s finely tuned culture as fears grow that the technology could make some roles redundant. When the company first began experimenting with AI, Biesèrt stressed that its use would not come alongside a reduction in headcount

We need to get better at reskilling but this also requires our co-workers to have an open mindset

So far, Ikea has actually seen the opposite happen with 150 new people hired. “We’re automating most of our processes but we’re also retraining our people,” Biesèrt explains. 

This has been seen with the retraining of its call centre staff but can also be seen in stores, where employees are increasingly being asked to work across multiple departments. “Traditionally, people have worked in one area of Ikea – such as the restaurant, the children’s section or the warehouse,” she explains. “As we’re creating more efficiency, the same co-worker might now need to be able to work both in children’s Ikea and in the restaurant.”

Although Biesèrt believes these changes will make people’s jobs “more fun”, by introducing some variety to their routines, she confesses that not everyone is happy with the changes. 

“We need to get better at reskilling and upskilling but this also requires our co-workers to have a little bit more of an open mindset that it’s okay to learn,” she adds.

Whichever direction these new technologies take Ikea, one thing is likely to remain the same and that is the set of values that Kamprad first established 80 years ago. “We always need to get back to the culture,” Biesèrt says. “Togetherness is key.”