Geographies in Depth

What I learned from a year of working Danishly

The Nyhavn canal, part of the Copenhagen Harbor and home to many bars and restaurants, is seen August 11, 2008. In times like these, no one is immune to depression. But surveys show the Danes are the happiest people in the world, and a core factor is a quality in global short supply -- trust. Picture taken August 11, 2008. To match feature FINANCIAL/DENMARK/HAPPINESS         REUTERS/Teis Hald Jensen     (DENMARK) - GM1E4AG0LLE01

A blueprint for success? Image: REUTERS/Teis Hald Jensen

Christian Bason
CEO, Danish Design Centre
Simona Maschi
cofounder and director, Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design
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When I first came to Denmark, I stayed with my best friend. Her brother, who had just been fired, was also living with her. Every morning, he would put on a suit as if he was going to work and spend the day at a cafe. He was so relaxed. It seemed like a luxury to be laid off.

His behavior was totally foreign to me. In Italy, where I’m from, I’d be desperate to find a new job. So I asked him why he was so calm. Why wouldn’t I be? he said.

He was still collecting 80% of his previous salary, and would for two years, thanks to a Danish benefit called dagpenge. He felt no bitterness toward his former employer, nor was his employer squeamish about dismissing him, knowing he’d be taken care of and unlikely to complain, or sue. What’s more, when not sipping a latté, my friend’s brother was actively retraining himself, taking classes to learn new, useful skills that appealed to him—all on the government’s dime. That may seem like a hefty tab for taxpayers to pick up, but it ensured that his next job would be a better fit, guarding against the far greater economic risk of repeat unemployment. The message was: Take your time, we need you to be stable, employed, and happy.

Happiness. You hear a lot about Denmark’s monopoly on a candlelit mental glow these days. “Hygge—that feeling of cozy contentedness—has displaced mid-century chairs and Lego as our most popular export. Read any one of the countless best-selling books about the Danish way of life and it’s easy to believe that good lighting and a square of cake is all you need to produce inner sunshine in one of the darkest places on earth.

But the untold story as to why the Nordics hoard the top three spots on the happiness index every year is better illustrated by the story you read above. And there are a million other profoundly ordinary ways in which society, infrastructure, and businesses are designed to cultivate values like social trust, community, and deep well-being, not just an afternoon tea break.

A belief in collective well-being is instilled from childhood in Denmark—that the health of a flowerbed is compromised when one tall poppy sucks up more than its fair share of water and nitrogen. There are many, many examples of how that belief is expressed, my favorite one being that the meaning of the Danish word for taxes—“skat”—is variously translated as love, darling, sweetheart, luvvie, babe, and ducky, despite the Danes coughing up a full half of their wages to it.

These taxes are levied to support what we’ll call Denmark’s collective-centered design. Not socialism, mind you. It’s true that the Nordic countries have strong social welfare systems, but they rely on the revenue generated by a capitalist system to fund it. And, counter to what American politicians might claim, prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen assures us that Denmark is driven by a died-in-the-wool market economy.

But not a heartless one. As a resident here, you feel confident that people like my friend’s brother will be taken care of in the same way you’d want to be taken care of yourself. That allows you to exhale in a meaningful way. The existential anxiety and sense of isolation we hear about from our friends in the US is very low here. That shows up in business culture, too, where young Danish entrepreneurs are more focused on generating human value than on valuation.

I’ve now been leading the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design for 12 years. When I first met Christian, the head of the Danish Design Center, on a typically gray and rainy day, we agreed that it was very Danish—and maybe not so Italian—to be ambitious and entrepreneurial against an intentionally humble, minimal backdrop. We’ve since teamed up to mentor the next generation of Nordic startups in a program called Innofounder, taking the core design principles of the Danish way of life and injecting it with some high-powered oomph.

Based on what we’ve learned through working with these young entrepreneurs, here are a few values that might make for a slightly more Danish work culture—securing both human and economic capital in the long term:

Leave work at 4pm

The Danes have among the shortest work weeks in the world—there’s a swarm of bikers heading home by 3:45pm—and still hold the #2 spot in the EU on the 2017 Global Entrepreneurship Index. How does it all add up? Turns out our output improves with fewer hours at work. Across the world’s richest countries, higher productivity correlates with shorter work weeks. This also allows employees to have a better work-life balance. Want to head to the gym before dinner? Check. Pick up your kids from school? Check. When your workday ends at 3:45 instead of 6, the rest of your day doesn’t feel like a sprint.

Ignore personal success

In the Nordics, young people are taught that collective responsibility, empathy, and being a good citizen is more important than personal success. Despite that, for a country of under 6 million, we have produced international giants in nearly every sector including health care (Novo Nordisk), Industry (Maersk), and consumer goods (Lego and Carlsberg). Those companies, which account for an outsize share of overall GDP, are not founded and run by lone wolves like Jobs, Zuckerberg, and Bezos, but rather by family foundations. These companies also pour a lot of money into public programs (including both of ours), both in Denmark and abroad. This benefits not just the future of business, but the future of everyone.

Image: World Economic Forum

Encourage risky play

We’re not talking about trust falls at the company retreat. If you want to accelerate innovation and reduce the threat of being disrupted (or outright replaced) by emerging tech, encourage truly risky play from an early age. At Davos this year, the Taiwanese venture capitalist, former Googler, and AI expert Kai Fu Lee said we need to develop the skills that algorithms cannot perform as well as humans. And according to the World Economic Forum, the skills that will build the resilience of your workforce (and reduce the anxiety of becoming irrelevant) include things like empathy, people skills, complex problem solving, coordinating with others, and creativity.

How do you build those qualities? Building more dangerous playgrounds would be a good start. In Denmark, playgrounds are full of natural elements like water and rough-hewn branches; trampolines and high peaks with no safety nets; and even mini bike lanes with traffic lights so children can practice their future pedal-powered commute. Kids are expected to take risks, negotiate with and help one another, talk to strangers, and come home with raw knees. That expectation should be brought to work, too. Tolerance for failure, offices that allow for creative play and daydreaming, permission to take initiative, and funding for small groups will do much to build uniquely human capabilities.

Pay people in meaningful ways

In Denmark the government cover three times as much as other countries for early public daycare (from the time your child turns one). This frees parents up to stay in the workforce: As of 2017, 76% of Danish women work, according to the OECD, compared to 56.8% in the US. Kids also go to school for free from kindergarten through university in Denmark, so they and their parents are not saddled with debt when they graduate. Since that isn’t likely to be a cost other governments can or will take on, private industry in other countries could fill in and offer help with student loans in lieu of a maternity/paternity benefit. For example, Wells Fargo offers scholarships to children of employees, ranging from $1,000 to $3,000 each. More of that would help fill in for the lack of public support and do much to boost loyalty and retention in your workforce.

Have you read?

Initiate rituals that build trust

Another key to building a productive and collaborative work culture is building meaningful bonds between employees. So, while the rest of the world frets over increasing STEM skills and early literacy, Danish kids learn to cook for one another. As part of their curriculum, grade school kids rotate through each other’s homes on dinner duty. Two or three of them make the meal for their classmates, and the rest serve and clean up. What rituals could you build into your workplace that focus less on knowing how to code and more on a code of conduct that builds deep trust, collaboration, and the collective value of helping others succeed?

To be sure, Denmark is a small, wealthy, relatively homogenous country. We aren’t saddled with many of the modern challenges other nations struggle with, so our advice may have a whiff of the self-satisfied elite. But for companies and startups that are amassing unprecedented wealth and wondering how best to spend it, building a sense of collectivity, trust, stability, and, yes, happiness will create a halo of positivity around your business that will ripple out in wonderful ways.

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Related topics:
Geographies in DepthEconomic GrowthJobs and the Future of WorkEducation and Skills
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