Having been in Denmark for over half a year, I thought I would write a post on the Danish work environment. Given that my work experience is limited to one Danish company, it is not always apparent which of my observations are company-specific and which are applicable nation-wide. However, I have tried to supplement my observations with information from other sources including comments from friends.
Denmark (and Scandinavia in general) is a very consensus-oriented country and the work environment is no different. Not surprisingly, there are benefits and shortcomings to such an approach. The downside is that the decision-making process can be somewhat prolonged compared to other countries. The upside is that, following a decision,
there is much more rapid progress and buy-in as everyone feels that they have had a say in the process.
Management Structure: Perhaps because of this consensus-oriented nature, Danish companies have a very flat management structure. Although there is a definite hierarchy, the gap between upper management and entry-level employees is remarkably small compared to other western countries, including with regards to pay scale. While executive and other senior staff do receive higher salaries and benefits, the gap observed is not nearly as great as observed elsewhere. Furthermore, nearly all employees have an open door policy, meaning that it is possible to speak to any colleague just about any time, regardless of position.
Janteloven: This flat structure is somewhat influenced by the Janteloven, or “Jantes
Law”. This law (better described as a set of rules), originated from the book “A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks” (En flyktning krysser sitt spor) by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel
Sandemose (1933). In the book, he outlines a series of 10 unspoken rules which place emphasis on the collective while minimize the achievements of the individual. While certain rules are of merit, others are clearly designed to debase the value of the individual. Despite being much maligned (including by the Queen of Denmark herself), the impact of the Janteloven is still palpable in the Danish work culture and society as a whole. The rules are as follows
- Don’t think you’re anyone special.
- Don’t think you’re as good as us.
- Don’t think you’re smarter than us.
- Don’t convince yourself that you’re better than us.
- Don’t think you know more than us.
- Don’t think you are more important than us.
- Don’t think you are good at anything.
- Don’t laugh at us.
- Don’t think anyone cares about you.
- Don’t think you can teach us anything.
Employee Autonomy: Despite the focus on the collective, employees are given a tremendous amount of autonomy in completing their day-to-day tasks. Emphasis is placed almost exclusively on output with the decision how to reach a particular outcome left up to the discretion of the employee. As a result, the micromanager commonly present in the North American workplace is largely absent in the Danish work environment.
Dress: Danes don’t put a lot of emphasis on formal attire. Unless you are an executive or dealing with external clients, standard attire is jeans and a buttoned shirt. Even executives frequently do not wear ties and many dress down on Friday and during the summer months.
Office Design: Although not true at my employer, many offices in Denmark are open-concept or glass-enclosed. Because of the dark winters and frequently overcast weather, offices and buildings are designed to allow in as much natural light as possible. The downside of this is that it often becomes quite warm during the summer months as buildings are rarely equipped with air conditioning.
Office Furniture: Danish offices place much greater emphasis on functionality than the typical North American office space. Pneumatic desks are common, allowing employees to sit or stand at the desk. I frequently stand to stretch my legs or when working on the computer together with colleagues.
Another common feature are exercise balls. Many employees have these in their office and prefer to sit on them because they are supposedly more ergonomic. Regardless of the reasons, I have stolen my colleague’s ball (in my defense, he rarely uses it!) and use it when I want a break from standing or sitting in a conventional chair too long and because I think it’s just cool to sit on a ball!
If you compare gross salary to working hours, Denmark and Scandinavia have some of the highest hourly wages in the world. While the average Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita is $56,000 in Denmark (compared to $46,000 and $40,000 for the US and Canada, respectively), the average work week is only 37 hours and I’m convinced that the average Dane does not spend much more than 30 hours at work.
Employees are given tremendous leeway with regards to working hours and it is not uncommon for employees to arrive around 9:00 and leave by 4:00, particularly if they have children in daycare. On Fridays and during the summer months, the office is largely empty by 4:00. Much is made of Danish productivity when trying to explain this apparent paradox between high GDP and shorter working hours. Danes would like people to believe that it is because they are more productive on an hourly basis than employees in other countries.
While this may be partly true, the primary reason for this productivity is due to the fact that Danish companies typically specialize in highly specialized, high margin, value-added products and services provided by the likes of world-class companies such as Maersk, Vestas, Novo Nordisk, Novozymes and Lego. Heaven knows it’s not because they work long hours…
At this time, I would like to redirect people to my previous posts on taxation and cost of living before they continue reading this section. Otherwise, I may inadvertently be accused of contributing to people quitting their current job to move to and work in Denmark. The company I work for does have a reputation for having very extensive employee benefits so I will try to identify which benefits are company-specific and which are more general.
Vacation: All employees are required BY LAW to take 5 weeks vacation per year. Many companies also provide their employees with 5 additional flex days. While employees in other countries may use flex days for doctors appointments and other mundane issues, the flexible work environment in Denmark means that most Danes utilize these days as a sixth week of vacation. Some employers (including my own) provide employees the opportunity to have these days bought out but with a marginal tax rate of 52%, I prefer six week’s vacation. Some employers (including my own) also give employees the opportunity to roll over these flex days, allowing you to acrue up to seven weeks vacation in a year.
Vacation Homes: Bigger firms frequently have vacation homes which are offered to employees at discounted rates. The company I work for has several homes in various locations throughout Denmark as well as in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Although I suspect the rates vary by company, the cost for a week’s rental at my employer is somewhere around 2,000 DKK ($380) during the summer months with discounted rates in the spring and fall.
Food: Most private companies provide employees with subsidized lunch. Actually, the word “subsidized” is probably not entirely appropriate as I think the primary reason that companies charge employees is because they would otherwise be require to include it as taxable income. To circumvent this, they charge employees a nominal fee (usually around 350 DKK or $67 per month), the equivalent of about $3.50 per meal.
I have heard people from other firms grumble about the food quality but I think this is highly dependent on the company. I have absolutely no complaints about the quality or selection of food at my employer and have had lunch at another firm which was had even more selection. For me, this has a significant influence on the cost of groceries and is one of the reasons why I have found that I am spending significantly less on food than originally projected.
In addition to lunch, my employer provides employees with a wide selection of fruit not to mention beverages (coffee, tea, etc) free of charge. An additional perk is that employees can preorder dinner on Thursday to be picked up before leaving for home. The cost is 40DKK but once again, this is deducted from gross income, meaning that the effective cost after tax is roughly 20DKK ($3.80)
A key feature in all of Denmark is Friday morning breakfast. Depending on the company, this may be provided either by the company or by employees (as is the case at my company). Breakfast usually consists of nothing more than fresh bread, jam, cheese and chocolate along with coffee although it may also include an assortment of pastries.
Something that will blow the minds of North Americans is that the company keeps beer…yes, beer in the fridge. From my observation, it has a fairly low alcohol content and I must admit that I have not observed too many employees drinking it (usually only on Friday) but the thought of offering beer to employees just makes me laugh (and no, I do not work for Carlsberg…)!
Subsidized Transportation Costs: Many companies subsidize transportation costs which can be a substantial benefit depending on the distance travelled and means of transportation. My employer offers a 10% discount on all transit with the costs deducted from gross salary. Once again, because of the high marginal tax rate (52%), this effectively cuts the cost of a monthly transit pass by almost 60%.
Miscellaneous Benefits: Depending on your position, companies may provide a number of other benefits. Many employees (including myself) are provided with free internet in addition to a corporate smart phone and laptop. Perhaps because of the obscene taxation rate, corporate cars are also offered to many employees, regardless of whether it is integral to you position or not. I would be eligible for a company car in the event of promotion despite the fact that it would be of limited use in my position.
Flex Benefits: Another initiative taken by my employer are so-called “flex benefits” which include televisions, computers, and other electronic equipment which can purchased using a salary-deduction scheme. Once again, the cost is deducted from gross income, effectively cutting the price of these products in half. This is on top of a corporate membership program which provides significant discounts on things ranging from
hairdressers to theater tickets.
Finally, the company offers a number of clubs including a wine club, riding club as well as a number of athletic clubs. For sponsored events (ie, races such as marathons), it is possible to get the cost of the activity reimbursed through these clubs. Needless to say, I have very few complaints when it comes to employee benefits…