September 18, 2020
We have very clearly arrived at a point of inflection in the world of work right now, with more time than ever spent pondering some of its bigger questions. Like what will individuals expect from their place of work? What will employers be willing to offer them? How will the culture – the very fabric – of our offices change as a result of the pandemic? In the midst of all the head scratching and soul searching over what this brave new world of work might look like, there is an increasingly vocal minority arguing that a new, better path has already been paved. Where? In Scandinavia, of course.
Want to know which countries consistently rank as the most productive in Europe? It isn’t the Germans or the British. It is their counterparts in Norway, Denmark and Sweden.
The secret to their success has less to do with number of hours worked (Brits work more hours on average than their Scandinavian counterparts) but a mentality – a philosophy – that has served them well down the years, and which may offer a glimpse of what things here in the UK could look like in our places of work.
One way to understand this approach is to look at them through the lens of five well-known concepts that both reflect and shape the Scandinavian approach to living and working:
FIKA: ‘Slow down and reconnect’ (Sweden)
In Sweden, the act of fika (a daily coffee break) is not something trivial – or really even optional. It is a daily ritual that marks the Swedish commitment to guarding wellbeing when at work. There is an expectation that, in the midst of a busy and bustling day of work, there is a need to pause, slow down, and reconnect – both with yourself and with fellow colleagues. It is a simple habit, but also one of the reasons that Swedish workplaces are hailed as both productive and happy.
Fika is a timely reminder of the need to recharge our batteries – before the warning lights are flashing.
JANTELOV: ‘Consider others as equally valuable’ (Denmark)
Office politics: a source of angst for countless number of workers across the country. But in Denmark the concept of jantelov (‘putting the community ahead of the individual’) encourages all employees to see themselves as peers – even equals – and to trust them as much as they trust themselves. It is a mindset that has led many companies to adopt flat management structures that encourage collective problem-solving and decision-making, as well as some of the most generous parental leave allowances in the world (which tend treat the mother and father as equals in their allowance).
Jantelov is the great equaliser – reminding all workers they are no more, or no less, important than the colleagues working alongside them.
LAGOM: ‘Find just the right balance’ (Sweden)
While countries like the United Kingdom are known for their burn out culture, the opposite is true in places like Sweden. The well-known concept of lagom (‘not too much, not too little’) encapsulates a philosophy of work and life – one founded on achieving balance. At the office, professionals are discouraged from working so hard that it leaves them stressed or absent from their family. The philosophy of lagom can be found across Scandinavia – where employers encourage workers to work longer hours in winter (when it’s darker) and shorter hours in summer (to enjoy the sunlight), and where the focus is more on ‘doing what needs to be done’ and less on ‘being seen to be busy at work’.
Lagom places work in the context of something bigger – life – and ensuring it knows its place.
HYGGE: ‘Create a homely atmosphere’ (Denmark)
Big wooly jumpers, comfy sofas, candle-lit evenings…that is the image that hygge (‘a quality of coziness’) often conjures up. But this popular Danish concept is about something much more; it is about creating an atmosphere of comfort and homeliness wherever you are – an experience designed to bring contentment. It is an idea that Scandinavian companies are increasingly seeing the benefits of bringing into the workplace – whether through office environments that more closely resemble the comforts of home or by giving employees greater flexibility to work from the comfort of their own homes (Finnish law already states that employees must be allowed to choose their location of work for at least 50% of their working hours).
Hygge reminds us that our places of work should makes us feel relaxed – even homely.
FRILUFTSLIV: ‘Appreciate the natural world’ (Norway)
The recent pandemic has placed the planet firmly in the spotlight – and made us all think again about what we can do for the environment. The Norwegian concept of friluftsliv (‘open air life’) may hold a few clues. A philosophy that encourages spending time outdoors – something Norwegians do at any given opportunity – also points to a broader theme of Scandinavian culture: taking sustainability seriously. A genuine appreciation of nature amongst its people has also led its companies to be among the most sustainable in the world (the top 3 most sustainable companies in the world are – you guessed it – Scandinavian).
Friluftsliv points to a future where love for the natural world shapes our places of work more than it does now.
If this is the beginning of UK companies putting people-centred design, balanced spaces, and sincere sustainability at the heart of their spaces of work – then we should all welcome that. Perhaps this way of working will one day not be associated with Scandinavia at all. It will simply be the way we do things now – and we would all be the better for it.