Work Life

Study reveals the different way Nordic business leaders measure productivity to achieve work life balance

Photo of Paul Sephton
July 5, 2019
Reading time
7 minutes

From the first floor of the building, looking out from the West wing of the expansive office space, the car park drains with the last to leave work for the day. It’s just gone 5:47pm. The parents started to trickle out from around 3:30pm to pick-up their children, and the remaining workforce found their way home not long after on this characteristically grey day in the Nordics. All that’s left in the now-deserted car park are the flags, blowing in the rain as they take a beating in order to proudly mark each corporate headquarter in this business district. It’s a Tuesday in Copenhagen.

The concept of balanced work hours is a fantasy for most, but the scene described is what leads the OECD to consistently rank Denmark as the best country in the world for work/life balance. And though it’s one thing seeing these sorts of statistics in rankings, its effects on societal happiness are entirely different when you experience them in practice. Now, a new study on workplace productivity sheds light on how Nordic businesses succeed while driving productivity to enable work/life balance.

A new study on workplace productivity sheds light on how Nordic businesses succeed while driving productivity to enable work/life balance.

Globally, we have a problem with time and work. Too much of one, too little of the other. Just this year, Carl Richards, author of The Behavior Gap, wrote in the New York Times that “Busy is not a badge of honor.” And yet the predominant work culture that cultivated the need for that headline tells another story.

Busy has become a measure for success and importance, and not having enough time is seen as an accomplishment-signalling curse. Even Bill Gates has tried to point it out: “it is not a proxy of your seriousness that you have filled every minute of your schedule.” And yet for most people, it very much is.

Globally, while companies have trialled New Zealand’s four-day work week and introduced nap pods or work-from-home policies, there’s still one dominant barrier to work/life balance. While time and workloads are globally shared, deeply entrenched societal acceptances have created a work-day norm that extends far beyond the prescribed eight hours. Not excluding history, conflict, depression and financial crashes that have contributed to these modern-day norms, a large part of it stems from the actions of business leaders.

Deeply entrenched societal acceptances have created a work-day norm that extends far beyond the prescribed eight hours

Work is a dominant enough factor in society for its leaders to govern more than just what goes on within the walls of a corporation; they set the pace and cadence that moves the needle on societal behavior. Time and time again, the effects of corporate cultures have been shown to have direct impacts on the societies in which they operate.

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Companies like Apple, Facebook and Google have faced much criticism in previous years around the locations and designs of their mini-city campuses and the impact that they have on their surrounds. Louise Mozingo, the chair of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at UC Berkeley refers to their separatist geographies in her book Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes. The choices that companies make about their offices as well as their cultures have profound impacts on society. Just look at how employee campuses are often isolated, branded as innovative designs and serving amenities and benefits which lock people into more than just a nine to five.

The choices that companies make about their offices as well as their cultures have profound impacts on society.

These spaces have radically impacted socially accepted workplace practices and stigmatized acceptable notions of work/life balance. And yet it’s not hard to see the power big companies wield in the cities in which they operate. Amazon’s recently withdrawn plans to build a second headquarters in New York had major ramifications. The city awarded HQ2 was set to see 25000 new jobs created, new public infrastructure and increasing educational training in the area. But while the physical impacts of a company are apparent, solving the cultural ones is a much deeper, and more important issue.

With a history in developing audio products that drive productivity, Jabra invests significantly in studying how to thrive in an increasingly busy world. Their 2019 productivity study tells an interesting story of modern-day global productivity, how it is measured and by whom. It might even offer clues on how to solve it, leaning on key differences uncovered between Nordic business leaders and their global counterparts. The study turned to business leaders around the world and examined the culture they set around productivity, as well as who is responsible for its measure.

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New insights from Jabra’s study revealed that on a global scale, between the board, C-Suite and CEO, it is CEOs who are by far seen as the most responsible for their workers’ productivity, especially by their direct reports. Paradoxically, very few know how to measure productivity or approach that accountability. In the days when most workers made something tangible, it was easy to see how productive they were and to measure it. “With knowledge workers it’s more difficult, because what they create is often abstract, like new knowledge or strategic decisions,” says Holger Reisinger, Senior Vice President at Jabra.

“With knowledge workers it’s more difficult, because what they create is often abstract, like new knowledge or strategic decisions,”

Holger Reisinger, Senior Vice President at Jabra

Carl Richards echoes this sentiment that knowledge can’t be tracked the way that factory work was, with office work being about quality, not quantity. However, “the problem with this completely reasonable idea is that we live in an unreasonable world. People wear ‘busy’ like a badge of honor,” he says. The study found that while almost three quarters of businesses say that measuring productivity is important, no-one is taking ownership of the issue. Most business leaders around the world believe that it’s incredibly complex to measure, and yet this complexity is likely causing a society accepting of unnaturally imbalanced work lives.

In the Nordics though, business leaders had a rather different outlook. Interestingly, the study revealed that business leaders in the region are significantly less concerned with measuring their employee’s productivity, with only 56 per cent saying that it is important – by far the lowest in the survey. What’s more, only 46 per cent plan to do so in the future. This begs the question as to how Nordic businesses ensure productivity. Jabra’s new insights revealed that what sets the region apart is that Nordic business leaders showed that they were squarely focused on solving, rather than measuring productivity.

Driven by design, these leaders were interested in creating environments in which work can be achieved, and it seems to be leading to higher productivity and shorter working days. Take for example the approach to working from home. In a 2018 global study conducted by Jabra, almost 90% of Danish employees said they could work from home. Compare this to only 43% of American respondents in the same research. It’s reflective of the incredibly trusting Nordic cultures, and how business leaders are committed to solving productivity for their staff.

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Few Danes are more vocal on the subject than serial entrepreneur David Heinemeier Hansson, perhaps the best-known evangelist for what could be described as a work and productivity mindset rooted in Danish culture. Founder and CTO of Basecamp, Hansson has also written numerous bestselling books around work/life balance, productivity and making your time count for more.

Hansson’s buy-in to remote work is backed by the belief that an eight-hour work day would be enough, if it weren’t for the distracting environments in open offices and at work. Speaking to Fast Company, he says “everyone is quick to simply reach for more hours, few are willing to do the harder work of getting the ones already there to count.” Nordic companies seem to be adopting a similar approach, seeking ways to combat open-office distractions.

Jabra’s research revealed that CEOs in the Nordics were taking practical steps toward cultivating a culture of productivity, adapting existing technologies and processes to improve productivity, rather than measuring output. The key area of interest was around improving knowledge workers’ ability to connect and collaborate, in order to be more productive. One answer to these businesses’ problems is likely to be an investment in technologies that enable workers to filter out office noise and distractions, and collaborate better with colleagues.

Key indicators to this type of investment are evident both globally and in tech companies in Denmark. GN Audio’s recent acquisition of Silicon Valley start-up Altia systems, a huddle-room video conferencing solution, demonstrates the growing global trend toward enabling collaboration for remote and office workers. Jabra’s research also revealed that investment in artificial intelligence is increasingly seen by leaders as more important than increasing workforce in order to impact productivity. As companies expand, they will face increasing pressure to deliver public good as a part of the corporate incentive. But first, they need to deliver employee good, by investing in the culture and technology to empower employees to live better lives.

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