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In Focus: Should we be trying to work like the Danes?

Our In Focus series of articles originally appeared in The Leadership Bulletin, a free weekly bulletin for leaders and managers. You can subscribe here.

Denmark is much admired as a country. In 2014, it was one of five countries featured in the best-selling book The Almost Nearly Perfect People; a few years later, the Danish concept of Hygge went viral as people throughout the world tried to capture a little bit of the Danish lifestyle for themselves. (Hygge, for the unfamiliar, is the Danish feeling of contentment that comes from being cosy and comfortable; think hot chocolate, winter fires and hand knitted gloves). For the past few years, it seems we’ve all been admiring, or wanting to emulate, our friends over the North Sea.

In this week’s Bulletin I ask: what does work mean to the Danes? And is this also something we should try and emulate?

One place to begin answering this question is the official website of Denmark, the face of the country to anyone wanting to know more about, or even invest in, Denmark. Here’s what it says about how the Danes work:

“Stop by a Danish office at 5pm and nearly every desk will be empty. While the Danes are hard workers… Staying extra hours is discouraged, and most employees leave at around 4pm to pick up their children and begin preparing the evening meal.
“If you try to visit a Danish office during the last weeks of July, you may find the doors locked entirely. Business largely shuts down at this time of year, as the Danes take time off to enjoy the short Danish summer.”

Offices empty by 5pm; workspaces vacant for much of July. It’s a remarkable assessment of the country by its own government which represents a striking self-confidence in their way of working. The Danes are happy and proud to say that they are not burning the candle at both ends, staying late or sacrificing their family life for the sake of their career.

What impact does this approach to work have on the Danish economy? After all, we know that working fewer hours is only really viable if you’re more productive in the time you are working. If that wasn’t the case, then you would simply produce less and therefore earn less. But in Denmark, they are producing more value per hour worked than almost any other country on earth. In fact, the Danes are the fifth most productive workers in the world, producing $44.83 of economic value per person per hour. This gives them a GDP per capita of $60,334 (approximately $12,000 more than here in the UK).

We have got to be cautious when drawing conclusions from this data, not least because UK workers barely work any many hours than the Danes. (Anybody hoping that the Danish case study would provide evidence for the four day working week, for example, is likely to be disappointed). But we can at least say that the key to the UK becoming a more prosperous nation is not necessarily working more hours. It’s about being more productive with the time we do work.

This might mean adopting more technology in our businesses and organisations. It could mean switching to a more task-focused, rather than time-based, approach to work. Or it could suggest that we need to reduce the hours we work “in” our businesses and increase the hours we work “on” our both them or ourselves, finding ways to improve how we work and boost our long-term productivity.

I’ll return to some of these themes in future weeks, but one thing is clear: the Danes are working well and we should see what we can learn from them.