The Nordic Guide to Happiness at Work

January 15, 2018


From civilized fika coffee breaks to family-friendly workplaces, here's what we can learn from Nordic work culture when it comes to happiness at work.

At Supercell, a mobile game development company based in Helsinki, Finland, employees receive five weeks of paid vacation annually and are encouraged to go home at 5:00 pm. All employees, not just the founders and managers, get stock options. They work in small teams — called “cells” – that develop a game autonomously and have control over its fate. If cells decide that the game they’re working on is not turning out to be top-notch, and that they should kill it even though that means throwing away months of work, they can decide to do that, no management approval required. All that is asked is that they share what they’ve learned in the process with the rest of the company.

I ponder this excerpt from Anu Partanen’s book The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life while sitting in the downtown Toronto coffee shop FIKA. “Fika” is a Swedish word whose basic meaning is “to have coffee” but whose common cultural meaning involves employees gathering and socializing over coffee and pastries to discuss both private and professional affairs. As opposed to a Canadian work break where we might dash to the nearest Tim Horton’s or Starbucks to grab a coffee to go, fika in Sweden signifies a leisurely work break taken together with colleagues (and not uncommonly, management) away from the office, to sit, talk and enjoy one another’s company over a cup of coffee. In Swedish workplaces, it can even be considered impolite not to join one’s colleagues at fika.

Returning to work I decide to take my colleague out for fika. Instead of our usual five-minute Starbucks run, we walk the 10 minutes to an independent French coffee and pastry shop up the street, order Americanos and chocolate croissants and chat for 45 minutes before returning to work, unusually refreshed. It turns out fika is just one among many examples of the differences between Canadian and Nordic workplace cultures that result in Nordic countries having some of the happiest workplaces in the world.

A HAPPIER WORK-LIFE BALANCE

Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Iceland, referred to collectively as the Nordic countries, have become renowned for fostering optimal work-life balance. In all five countries employers are, by law, required to offer at least 25 paid vacation days per year, plus public holidays, which employees are actively encouraged to take in full. In Norway and Finland, for example, residents will typically take about four weeks’ vacation during the summer, in July, or what has commonly become known as the Big July Shutdown where, across all industries, both countries effectively shut down for the month. It’s considered odd for anyone — no matter who you are — to be working during this time.

Working hours in the Nordic region are shorter, too, thanks in part to the 1993 EU Working Time Directive which set a 48-hour maximum work week. While in Canada in 2016 almost 6.62 million Canadians usually worked 40 hours per week, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Fins worked on average only about 36.2 hours per week that year, Swedes an average of 35.9 hours, Norwegians 34 hours and Danes a short 32.1 hours per week. In Sweden, some workplaces have even trialled a six-hour workday, where results have shown happier, healthier, more productive and energetic employees.

Espen Simonsen, who lives in Oslo, Norway, recently worked as a video journalist for Warner Bros Norway. He recalls his first week on the job when coworkers were surprised to find him still at the office on a Friday afternoon.

“I walked by the copy machine to pick up some papers and go home and only two guys were left in whole office: the CEO and the head of accounting,” explains Simonsen, who recalls the two employees laughed and seriously questioned why there were still people at the office on a Friday at 4 pm. Simonsen adds that at his workplace formal hours were 9 am to 4 pm, but that even those were flexible.

IT’S CLOSING TIME ALREADY?!

In Norway, normal business hours start and finish promptly at 8 am and 4 pm, but on the rare warm and sunny days of the year, some companies close up shop at 3 pm to allow their employees time to be with their families, play sports and be outdoors. This practice is also commonplace in Finland, where a typical work day begins at 8 am and ends at 4 pm, and where warm and sunny days are rare. In Sweden, business hours are closer to typical Canadian hours of between 8:30 am and 9 am to 5 pm. In Denmark, working hours are generally between 9 am and 4:30 pm but many Danes enjoy a high degree of flexibility, choosing when they start their working day and having the option to work from home.

So why the shorter working hours, days and weeks? It’s because Nordic countries have made family a huge priority, even at work. It is not at all uncommon for someone to regularly leave work 30 minutes early to pick their kids up from school or take them to sports practice. They can also use sick days to take care of children, if needed. Sporting events, gym memberships, health classes, event discounts, leadership classes, and team-building exercises are also commonplace and widely offered to employees. At the Norwegian chocolate factory Nidar, there are many opportunities for employees to take courses and further their education, including scholarships to go abroad to follow MBA courses. At Orkla Foods Sweden, a Swedish food production company, all employees have access to a gym as well as a leisure centre that arranges swimming, fishing, tennis and other recreation activities.

FAMILY-FRIENDLY WORKPLACES

The importance of family and a healthy work-life balance is also seen in the large number of women working part-time in Nordic countries, an ode to giving professional mothers the time and space to slowly reintegrate back into the workplace as they adjust to life with baby.

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“Studies have shown that a flexible, family-friendly workplace can motivate staff, reduce staff turnover, help attract new staff, reduce workplace stress, and generally enhance worker satisfaction and productivity,” writes Anu Partanen in The Nordic Theory of Everything, adding that OECD reports note that companies that have introduced family-friendly measures often report significant reductions in staff turnover, less absenteeism and an increased likelihood that mothers return to their original employers after their maternity leave. Not only that, family-friendly policies also increase innovation, by promoting a diverse workplace that includes more women. And offering employees enough vacation and sick days reduces stress, allows them to catch up on sleep, and improves their health, all things that have been found to boost workplace productivity as well as save businesses money.

Simonsen, who is a new parent himself having welcomed his first child this past September, adds that although maternity and paternity benefits are provided by the government of Norway, all Norwegian employers will provide fathers two weeks of something called “father’s care leave” when a child is born. While Norwegian law requires that all new fathers receive this leave, it is the employer who decides if the leave will be paid or unpaid — and in many cases, it is paid.

“With maternity leave and all the laws … unions have done a lot of good things in Norway,” explains Simonsen, noting that workers’ unions and the Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet) have always had a very close connection, allowing the Labour Party — which was in government for most years after WWII until the late 70s — to implement union demands, many of which focussed on healthier workplaces for workers and working families. In Sweden, too, the working culture is largely driven by agreements with trade unions where collective bargaining has pushed for a gradually shorter workweek over time, as well as flexible working hours and telecommuting. The model follows suit in much of the Nordic region and partly explains the long parental leaves and benefits which workers receive and are encouraged to take in full in Nordic countries.

So while, of course, Canadian employers don’t have the power to institute Nordic-style labour laws, it is possible for them to encourage their own internal family-friendly office policies that foster a healthier work-life balance for employees. Allowing more flexible working hours, enabling telecommuting, encouraging breaks and fulfilling vacations, and even re-imagining a more positive relationship with unions can contribute to a happier workplace culture: one where employees feel taken care of.

FAIRER, FLATTER MANAGEMENT

A commonly known term in Nordic countries is the Law of Jante, originally created by the Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in his 1933 novel A Fugitive Crosses the Tracks. The rules of the small fictional Danish town written about outlined a vision of equality where individuals were forbidden to think of themselves as being any better than the rest of their community or society.

The Law of Jante mentality is not about making oneself any lesser than others; it is about encouraging one to see other people’s equal value, thus creating an unspoken Nordic tendency to downplay individual “specialness.” Today, nothing makes Nordic people more uncomfortable than when “uniqueness” or “being special” includes the suggestion that certain people are of greater value than others. Rather, Nordics tend to emphasize the equal value of each individual regardless of his or her achievements, and thus hierarchies and celebrations of success are highly disliked.

It comes as little surprise then that the region’s workplaces are characterized by a flat management structure, a vision of management that is built “out” and not “up.”

In Sweden, this characteristic has come to define Swedish business culture. Organizations tend to be less layered, leading to an openness of communication and freedom of information among managers and employees. The structural flatness of Swedish management is also mirrored in the compensation scale. A combination of the tax regime and centrally agreed salary requirements has produced a country in which pay differentials are unbelievably low.

This holds true at many Norwegian companies as well. At one point bonus percentages were the same for everyone from top to bottom at Ekornes, a Norwegian furniture company.

In Norway, the hierarchy is often quite flat and decision-making models are based on consensus and compromise, which can take a long time as many opinions need to be consulted. Norwegians are generally unafraid of disagreeing with a superior, another likely consequence of an egalitarian society in combination with a society that holds strong job protections and an extensive social welfare system.

PARTICIPATORY DECISION-MAKING

“Where I worked, the distance to the top was small, so the culture is quite flat and that’s good for the company, because it means that whoever has an idea, the idea reaches the guys in charge,” Simonsen recounts.

“You’re never afraid to come with suggestions on making things better — you don’t just do your job and then nothing more. Most people go beyond what they’re supposed to do at work.”

At Warner Bros Norway, Simonsen’s team had a meeting every Monday where staff and the CEO would share work on current and upcoming projects.

“Even the girl at the cantina, if she comes with an idea, we will listen. Everyone will listen and sometimes we change stuff because of that,” Simonsen says.

This egalitarianism has naturally led many Nordic work environments to place importance on a more participatory decision-making process (read: lots of meetings) and freedom and responsibility for employees to do what they think is best in their role for their employer.

Researchers Jette Schramm-Nielsen, Peter Lawrence and Karl Henrik Sivesind studied the distinct style of Scandinavian management present in Sweden, Denmark and Norway and found that often no one wanted to depict themselves as superior or even different from others. They also found that managers liked to consult and felt the need to be seen as consulting, and meetings were held often and seen as informal and non-hierarchal in nature.

“As a Swede it is very hard to give an order,” said one of the Swedish executives interviewed, adding, “I take a lot of decisions, but we have a discussion first.”

Simonsen agrees.

“While the Law of Jante is more [evident] in social life … it’s also in the workplace. Even if people do great things they are quite modest. [If I said to my colleague] that was a great show, his response would be, ‘Yeah, I had a great team.’ ”

It is important to outline, however, that having everyone participate all the time isn’t the only option Nordic workplaces follow. There are a repertoire of decision-making models which Nordic employers choose from. Sometimes when the group of managers are unable to come to a conclusion, the superior makes a decision or forces subordinates to make a decision. But largely employees are left to decide what is best. For example, at Supercell, the Finnish mobile game development company, CEO Ilkka Paananen believes that a lack of bureaucracy, small and nimble work units, sharing and committed, but independent, workers — in short, collaborative relationships built on positions of autonomy — were behind the success of his company.

Of course, like anything there are pros and cons to the way things are done. Minna Seikkula, a Finnish PhD student and teaching assistant at the University of Helsinki, notes it is not all rainbows and butterflies in Nordic workplaces. In her workplace, she is noticing universities increasingly adopting the neoliberal practice of competition. This is in stark opposition to the egalitarian and collective mentality in evidence in Finnish and other Nordic workplaces.

“Equality questions are also not dealt with so well,” Seikkula says, explaining that Finland’s emphasis on equality and egalitarianism has not translated to workplace diversity. Very few non-Finnish workers can be found in jobs that require higher education. “It is not acknowledged as a structural problem, never mind discussed,” she points out.

While there are many aspects of work culture in which Nordic countries are light years ahead of Canada, there are also areas, such as workplace diversity, where they can learn from us.

A more flexible work-life balance, fairer and flatter management, employees with agency … it’s no wonder Nordic workplaces are some of the happiest workplaces in the world.

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WRITTEN BY
Denise Hansen
Denise Hansen is a freelance writer living in Toronto, Ontario.

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