Hygge (pronounced WHO-ga) is Denmark’s intrinsic concept of comfort and togetherness. Applied to the workplace, hygge is an incredible way to boost workplace morale and employee retention.
Hygge doesn’t have a direct English translation; the concept tends to evolve as it gets further from Denmark. At its core, hygge is almost a philosophy, but has been branded into a trend, defined by chunky knit blankets, minimalist candles and cozy ceramic mugs. You can find hygge-inspired gift lists, hygge home decor and over 1,000 hygge books for sale on Amazon. And on Instagram, nearly 5 million posts are tagged #hygge.
But in my home country of Denmark, we don’t have hygge how-tos. To us, hygge is instead an omnipresent, invisible force. A feeling that, while never overtly highlighted or noted, is elemental to Danish society. Sure, hygge can mean cozying up around a fire with homemade pastries and a cup of gløgg, but the concept is far grander.
Hygge in the workplace
Workplace and organizational structures have an important place in society, and in Denmark they also reflect elements of intrinsic hygge. Like a society built on trust and cohesiveness, a Danish workplace is defined by a natural, flat corporate structure, a delegating mindset and a high level of trust in employees to do the right thing. Building trust can be challenging when it means having tasks delegated to you that might normally be considered tasks for more senior employees. However, when combined with a flat structure and general cohesiveness, employees are challenged, but also content and happy.
When my Danish-born startup opened an office in New York City, elements of Danish corporate culture also made the migration. Introducing these elements, as well as some hygge, was nothing but a positive experience for our American employees and something they readily accepted. By blending the best of American culture with the best of Danish culture our office thrives.
Workplace hygge in practice
While hygge is a feeling and philosophy, there are some very tangible ways that it’s cultivated in the workplace. The following metrics are not necessarily unique to Danish workplaces, but in their Danish application and intention they evoke the true spirit of hygge.
Unlimited paid time off (PTO)
Allowing employees to take as many days off as they need is an emerging workplace trend. But the intention behind the change can be less employee-centric than it first appears. While this isn’t true for every organization, many introduce an unlimited PTO policy to avoid paying out unused PTO. Danish organizations give employees unlimited PTO with the idea that time off fundamentally creates happier people. When employees are encouraged to take time for themselves, to live hygge and rejuvenate, they come back refreshed and ready to work at their highest potential. In Denmark, it’s normal for employees to take five to seven weeks off each year. To keep pace in our US office, we encourage employees to take at least five weeks off each year.
In Danish offices, we eat lunch with our colleagues everyday. The difference is, the meal is prepared fresh and paid for by the company. It’s a comfortable, relaxed social activity and a chance to commune with colleagues in a low-stakes, non-work capacity. Everyone in the organization eats together, high and low. It helps maintain our flat corporate culture and creates a greater voice for employees regardless of their rank or function
For offices where this is not the norm, making the change can be a tough adjustment. But implementing weekly or even monthly communal, paid-for meals is a great way to do something simple that makes your employees feel valued and happy to work at your organization.
Danish citizens have free social healthcare. When we opened a US office, we didn’t want our American employees to be worse off than our Danish ones. So, our company covers healthcare costs for employees and their families. We also make sure to provide the best possible plans, removing any stressors that healthcare might create. Free healthcare is something that contributes to Denmark’s hygge culture — feeling safe, content and cared for — so we wanted to mirror that in our U.S. office.
The intangible effects of hygge
Togetherness is hygge — and is also what lends Danish workplaces their flat hierarchy. Every employee is accessible and approachable regardless of title. For example, in our office, it’s easy to approach the CEO because he sits among the employees. While it’s true that we are still a smaller, fast growing company of 200 people, this practice is very much the case for large Danish enterprises as well.
In trust-filled, hygge office environments, collaboration flourishes between departments. Danish people help each other, it’s something ingrained in our culture. We look to solve things together because we trust each other. And due to the high levels of trust, there is little micromanagement in our workplaces. We have faith that our employees will do the right thing.
For workspaces in Denmark and elsewhere, the intangible elements of hygge really reveal themselves in how you view your employees and your colleagues. Are they people or are they resources? When considering the person next to you, do you see a dynamic person or a colleague? This makes hiring for culture fit just as (if not more) important as hiring for talent.
We all need talent in our workplaces. But for organizations to succeed, they need team players, not individualists.
The wrong way to hygge
Many industries, most notably tech, are in the midst of a benefits race. Ping pong tables, kombucha on tap and fun murals define a new generation of workspaces. But the truth is, these perks don’t keep employees happy for long. Instead, they act as diversions from larger issues like rising healthcare costs, overexertion and toxic cultures. Implementing perks that books and the internet describe as hygge rather than those that build trust and feelings of safety does not contribute to feelings of greater employee happiness over time, will not create a cohesive corporate culture and does little to combat low retention and morale.
What really makes employees happy is waking up and feeling excited to join a supportive, positive office environment and perform meaningful, challenging work while they are there. If employees are happy showing up to work because it’s somewhere that they feel valued, challenged and content that’s not only hygge, that’s a win for the entire organization.