By Rasmus Holst of Huddle
A topic that seems to have captured the fascination of the American media recently is the Danish concept of “hygge” — a style of living to facilitate happiness. While hygge has no literal translation to English, it essentially means “cozy” but also encompasses everything from mindfulness to intimacy and trust. As someone who was born in Denmark but spent the majority of my professional life building hygge abroad (I most recently relocated to the Bay Area), I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to translate the concept across cultures, since it doesn’t always come intuitively — especially in Silicon Valley.
The famous Hofstede score ranks countries according to their working habits. Denmark ranks low for hierarchy and “masculinity” (competitive drive) and highly for individual empowerment and indulgence (appreciation for work/life balance). These values, which promote happiness and fulfillment, are perfectly in line with the principles of hygge, but they don’t always resonate particularly well with the “work hard, play hard” attitude I’ve encountered in my time in the Bay.
Some skeptics might think that hygge-focused workplaces wouldn’t accomplish as much as more pressure-fueled environments, yet Danish productivity rates are consistently high when compared with the rest of the world, ranging between 99.11 and 122.92 in 2016 (for comparison, the U.S. rates were between 27.6 and 107.) Happy, hygge-empowered workers make for stronger professionals. Here are the best strategies I’ve come up with.
Establish a culture of honesty, and build it into company processes. Unfortunately, many workers I’ve encountered haven’t been exposed to workplaces where they felt genuinely empowered to voice their opinions. In 2013, Edelman’s trust barometer found 82 percent of American workers don’t trust their boss to be consistently honest. Even if you articulate a policy in which everyone has a voice, it’s likely that many people will remain cautious based on those past experiences.
To overcome that natural hesitancy, create safe spaces where employees are encouraged to share feedback to get people in the habit of offering an alternative viewpoint. Reward those who speak up and make it clear that every opinion will be weighed equally — regardless of rank or seniority.
Although open communication still isn’t the norm in America, the idea of an equalized playing field has already taken root in many of the companies that I’ve worked with in Silicon Valley. Meritocracy has become something of a hot topic in the past few years, which has been interesting to see as an outsider looking in.
I’ve been very impressed by many of the ideas I see these young companies talking about, but the Californian version of meritocracy is still not quite in line with hygge as it exists in the Danish workplace.
Encourage intimacy by abolishing formality. Any leader who wants to bring hygge into his or her employment will have to abandon the idea of leading through fear or intimidation. Your employees will only feel comfortable voicing their opinion if they know they don’t have to worry about being dismissed. The best way that leaders can establish that comfort level is to set an example of informality themselves.
Here’s one of my favorite examples: when Lego CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp announced that the company achieved its strongest financial quarter ever. Like a typical corporate CEO, he appeared at a press conference to announce the results to reporters. Unlike a typical CEO, he followed the announcement with a spot performance of the song “Everything is Awesome” from the Lego movie. To an unfamiliar observer, the incident looks absurd, but the silliness is telling; the culture at Lego clearly doesn’t emphasize stoicism or traditionally “professional” behavior. Being fun-loving is okay, because it’s balanced by real talent and quality leadership. After all, it was the company’s best quarter ever, and for Lego employees, everything is awesome (and yes, Lego and Jørget are Danish).
If Silicon Valley companies want to achieve the same (or slightly less musical) effect, they should get rid of stilted titles and instead focus on what really matters: ability. Hygge means letting go of concerns about appearances and rewarding real accomplishments and good work.
Make work/life balance a matter of policy. The value of work-life balance in terms of happiness and overall success is widely known, but the task of enforcing it tends to fall on the employee. Making explicit rules to support work/life balance ensures that workers take the rest they need (preventing burnout) and boosts their productivity in the long run. In Denmark, this comes across through long maternity/paternity leave and generous vacation policies. Some companies in the U.S., like jobs site Authentic Jobs, have even introduced minimum vacation policies to keep employees from “feeling guilty” for taking PTO.
I’ve noticed that many companies I’ve worked with here replace true work-life balance with extravagant “perks.” I’ve heard of quite a few beer-fueled offsites and companies with in-office bars, high-tech games and expensive parties. But those types of activities, though fun, don’t breed real intimacy or sustainable happiness. Parties don’t make people more comfortable. If anything, it increases the pressure to maintain a false bravado. To build true hygge, be explicit that merit matters — hours in a chair or afterhours at a bar with coworkers don’t. Employees should have confidence that their bosses won’t fault them for maintaining a balanced lifestyle and employers should trust their employees to get their work done, and done well.
Take a team-based approach. Denmark’s most famous (or infamous) ancestors are the Vikings. Hundreds of years ago, the country was made up of nothing but warring tribes. Luckily, few of the behaviors and traditions that were popular then are still around today, but one thing that did stick is a tendency to break organizations down into multiple smaller teams. Rather than having one massive marketing or sales department, Danish companies tend to have smaller more specialized groups which are each empowered to make their own decision. The benefits of this are twofold: first, employees can take swifter, more authoritative action and second, business development is more agile. The intimacy and familiarity that comes with working on a small team will also make employees more comfortable and efficient. This is an approach that I’ve used consistently in both in Denmark and abroad, and have consistently found to be effective for workers of every background.
A hygge lifestyle makes for a stronger and more balanced workplace, but it takes time to build. In cultures like some of those here in America, where higher achievement is understood as the result of long, stressful hours, it may take a while to establish the open environment that you want. But when you do, you’ll be rewarded with happier more productive workers and a reputation as an employer people want to work for. Even in Silicon Valley, where “moving fast and breaking things” is a mantra, incorporating hygge in the workplace can lead to more empowered employees and a more successful business. At the very least, that’s what this proud Silicon Valley transplant is doing.
Rasmus Holst is Huddle’s Chief Operating Officer and joined the business from Syniverse where he served as General Manager of the $300m Revenue and Risk Management business — responsible for strategy, product management and development. During his tenure, Rasmus also delivered the strategy, go-to-market, product integration and cost consolidation of the MACH business into Syniverse. Over the last two decades Rasmus has served in leadership roles at Oracle, Intec, Digiquant and Nokia. He holds a Masters degree in Engineering from IKT Copenhagen.
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