7 Things Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Denmark's Culture of Work-Life Balance

Denmark consistently ranks first in the world for work-life balance and employee satisfaction.
Denmark consistently ranks first in the world for work-life balance and employee satisfaction. | © Max Adulyanukosol/Unsplash
Photo of Claire Lancaster
Tech & Entrepreneurship Editor14 August 2018

Denmark consistently ranks first in the world for work-life balance and employee satisfaction. Simon Sylvest, a partner at Scandinavia’s largest startup studio, tells Culture Trip about the Danish way of working and why entrepreneurial dreams don’t have to mean giving up a life outside of your job.

The Danes are regularly voted the happiest people in the world. Thanks to an extensive welfare state, Danish people enjoy flexible working conditions, generous parental leave, workplace childcare facilities and many more social-support benefits.

For Simon Sylvest, partner at Founders, a Copenhagen-based studio that builds startups and helps them get to market, living well doesn’t come at the expense of pursuing ambitious entrepreneurial dreams. “Business is done differently here,” Sylvest says, explaining to Culture Trip that entrepreneurs face less risk “because the state will catch you if you fall”. Plus, a lack of hierarchy paired with a focus on employee empowerment helps Danish workers to thrive. Here are seven things that entrepreneurs can learn from Denmark’s work-life mindset.

Workplace flexibility

One of the main differences between the Danish work model and that of other countries is the culture around ‘face time’ in the office, and the stigma around working for ‘X’ number of hours per day.

For Danes, “it’s not about the hours, it’s about the quality,” says Sylvest. “People should go home when they have nothing to do. We don’t have face-time requirements in the workplace as such. And that’s not just in the tech sector. In fact, the nature of startups means that these people are probably working much longer hours than most other segments – but they’re in control of how they use their own time.”

Mutual trust

Sylvest believes Denmark’s culture of flexible working is made possible by the mutual trust between employers and employees.

“People do their best work when they feel trusted to allocate their own time and have purpose in what they are doing,” Sylvest tells Culture Trip. “The large amount of trust given to each individual leads to significant employee empowerment to get creative and plan their day in a way that makes them most efficient. I think that is quite unique to how business is done in Denmark. Employees are given a lot of freedom, which of course is connected to a lot of responsibility.”

A yoga class at Founders | © Founders

Very little hierarchy

Danish institutions, from politics to businesses, favour flat organisational structures.

“We very much have a meritocracy – if you have something to offer and you are smart, you will be heard,” Sylvest explains. “This is definitely a key factor that has shaped my career. By the age of 26 I had started three companies – the last one, Founders, with partners 20 years older than me. The trust I have been shown and opportunity to prove myself is quite unique to Danish culture, I believe.”

International outlook

“As a nation of just 6 million, Denmark has long understood the need to look outside of its borders,” says Sylvest.

Popular international and foreign-language TV shows are screened in Denmark with text subtitles (rather than being dubbed), which allows Danish children to gain familiarity with English pronunciations from a young age. Kids are also formally taught English from second grade (around age seven), and German or French from the third (around age eight).

Increased focus on health

“There is definitely a health wave in Denmark – everybody bikes to work, runs or does CrossFit,” says Sylvest. “Exercise is baked into the way we lead our lives. You can structure your day any way you want, exercise when you want, as long as you get your work done. At Founders, we have meditation room. It should be OK to have a nap or go to swim club in the middle of the day. We still need to respect rough office hours to some extent, especially when it comes to working with others and respecting their time, but your time is your own.”

Llife outside the office and family time is highly-valued in Denmark | © Shane Rounce/Unsplash

Straight talking

“Danes generally say it how they see it,” says Sylvest. “That can take some getting used to, but it means we are direct with each other. That’s crucial in any relationship, of course, but even more so for early-stage startups.”

Family v work is not a binary choice

In Denmark, parents are able enjoy time together with their kids. Parental leave is flexible, and parents get state support for 52 weeks’ leave per child, 32 of which partners can split how they like.

It’s normal for employees to eat lunch together every day in Denmark | © Shane Rounce/Unsplash

“You don’t expect people not to pick up their children or be home for dinner for them to be judged as good employees,” says Sylvest. “It’s taken for granted that people have a family life (or a private life, for that matter). Kids are picked up at 3.30pm, but then the parents will often boot up their computers and work until 10pm. People are trusted to plan work in way that suits them the best. We have a more modern mindset about work that’s about doing things that make you efficient and get the job done.”

For more on Danish cultural values, read Hygge: The Secret to Denmark’s Happiness.

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