VP of People and Culture Planday
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HR hygge: three culture lessons from Scandinavian business

What three lessons can businesses learn from the Scandinavian approach to company culture?

27th Aug 2019
people working in a light, bright Scandinavian office
iStock/Drazen_

According to the global 2019 Deloitte Millennial Survey, younger generations are feeling disillusioned with traditional businesses motives. The survey uncovered a rise in feelings of pessimism and unease when it comes to social and economic progress and the role of millennials in the world.

In this climate of increased anxiety in the workplace, companies are paying more attention than ever to creating a strong company culture.

Young people expect more from their employers than just a paycheque. They want to feel part of something bigger, part of a group with the same values beyond financial rewards.

Around the world, there are countries leading the way when it comes to employee happiness, equality, work/life balance and ultimately company culture.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that Scandinavian and Nordic countries appear at the top of most global leader boards with regards to happy workforces.

In the 2019 World Happiness Report, Denmark regained its title as the world’s happiest country, and it easy to see why.

Working for a Scandinavian company whilst being based in the UK has put me in a unique position to understand the elements of people operations and culture that we could learn from in the UK.

There are three approaches Scandinavian businesses adopt that help them to stand out when it comes to company culture.

1. Equality

Scandinavian and Nordic countries are at the forefront when it comes to equality in both personal and professional spheres.

Denmark boasts a low gender pay gap and has a shared parental leave model that is adopted by most businesses across the country.

Scandinavians are known for their honest and frank nature, which can be alarming to us Brits, but this approach helps to provide an open environment, where employees are comfortable to share their opinions.

Although we are now starting to see a shift in the UK towards a more balanced gender pay gap, there is still a long way to go, and issues around parental leave are still problematic.

We can learn a lot from the ‘walk the walk’ approach Scandinavians take when it comes to people’s rights and pay.

Although they are not perfect, they are creating the path for many other countries around the world to follow, where all employees are treated fairly, irrespective of gender.  

2. Transparency

At the centre of Danish culture is authenticity and transparency.

Objectives based on these values have always been a vital aspect of Scandinavian business models, as that is the way that people live their personal and professional lives.

Scandinavians are known for their honest and frank nature, which can be alarming to us Brits, but this approach helps to provide an open environment, where employees are comfortable to share their opinions and feel it will be valued rather than minimised.

The weight and value that Scandinavian people place on money is much lower than that in the UK, with a sense of purpose and wellbeing ranking higher than purely financial motivators.

Transparency is applied to most of the Nordic and Scandinavian way of thinking. For example, in Sweden it is possible to find out anyone’s salary by getting in touch with the tax authorities.

This may sound extraordinary, but the gender pay gap is as low as 6% in Sweden, which means that pay transparency has resulted in a more equal environment.

In addition to a low pay gap, Sweden implemented a rule that businesses with 25 or more employees must establish an equality action plan, and companies with big pay gaps face fines if they fail to stick to the plan.

Although we may not get to such a level of transparency around salary in the UK, there are definitely lessons to be learnt from this approach and the authentic culture it creates.

3. Hierarchy

One of the key contributing factors to workers being happier in Scandinavia is the way that hierarchy is viewed and adopted throughout society.

In Denmark in particular there is a sense of antipathy when it comes to hierarchy.

Speaking generally about what I have experienced in contrast to the UK, self-sufficiency, individuality and decision-making rank highly as core cultural values, whilst materialism and competition are lower priority, which helps to explain the lack of hierarchy experienced in the office.

You will often find both CEO and junior team members in the same cafeteria at lunch. The whole office eats together at a set time each day.

The weight and value that Scandinavian people place on money is much lower than that in the UK, with a sense of purpose and wellbeing ranking higher than purely financial motivators.

By placing these values high on people operations strategies, businesses in Denmark are able to provide solutions that their workforce want and respect.  

Clearly, Denmark and its neighbours are doing something right when it comes to staff motivation and happiness.

It’s great to see that in the UK we are making real strides around employee wellbeing and understanding the wider demands of our workforce.

We can take insights from countries around the world, but ultimately it is HR teams and leaders who must find the best way that works for each company’s own employees.

I’m excited to see where this motivation for a strong culture takes our businesses.

Interested in this topic? Read Workplace hygge: how to embrace it.

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