Hygge in the workplace


Recently, I came across the concept of “hygge”. It is a Danish word that does not seem to have an English word equivalent. Some people describe hygge as coziness, warmth, and togetherness. Others describe it as a feeling when you relax with family and friends, perhaps gathered around a fireplace. This would seem quite apt in Denmark, one of the darkest and coldest places in the world. At the same time, Denmark is also one of the happiest places in the world, and hygge is often cited as a reason for that. Perhaps there is something about adverse environments that draws people together, and builds connection and community?

The concept of hygge has fascinated some organizations. They want to learn how to create hygge in the workplace. Some ideas include: slowing down to notice each other, making a coffee together in the office pantry, or looking up from your monitor when your colleague arrives and just catching up with him or her for a few minutes.

These are great suggestions that many of us would love to see in our workplaces. Yet, it could be naïve to believe that our workplace cultures would be fixed, and wonderful, if we could just get people to do these things more often.

Because what is often not asked is, what is it about our current work environments that prevents or discourages these things in the first place?

Consider the idea of catching up with a colleague for a few minutes. Implied in doing this is that whatever we are doing at that moment can afford to wait a few minutes. Can it wait? I would like to think that in many situations the answer is yes. Will organizations allow it to wait? That, I don’t know. The answer may be unique to each organization and only the people who work in the organization have the answer. In some organizations I’ve seen, some answers include:

  • Oh, we’re so busy! Always busy! (In fact, why am I talking to you? Bye!)
  • Time is $. Chatting = not making $ (Time to make more $!! Sorry!)
  • Ask me later! I need to reply to the boss’s query NOW!! LOTS of them!!
  • Hush… If the boss sees us talking, he’ll think I’m slacking. Please, go away…
  • Show me the business case for this. Show me the delta.

You may recognize some of these in your organization (and laugh at them).

This is just an example, but if it is indicative of what goes on within organizations, it may suggest that enhancing workplace culture goes beyond implementing a list of good ideas and best practices.

More useful perhaps, is learning why the current environment is not conducive for such good practices to flourish.

Even more useful, might be learning what beliefs and values shape that current environment.

Therefore, it’s not that good ideas and best practices aren’t useful. It’s how we use them. If we apply them directly in our organizations, we assume (or hope) that something that works well elsewhere will work just as well in ours. Success then depends on those assumptions (and hope).

A better way perhaps, is to use those good ideas and best practices to invite a deeper learning and understanding about our own environments, and how those environments are in turn shaped by our very beliefs and values. Doing this, we stand a better chance of learning something deeper about ourselves in order to find answers that may work better.


On a related note, this quarter I am a teaching assistant for a new class. This class uses many videos. The school is migrating to a new learning system, so we cannot transfer the videos from last year’s class. They need to be re-digitized in a different format and added to the new system.

Clueless about how to do this, I emailed the school library for help. One of the staff, “H”, responded and attended to my queries. “H” was patient and helpful in troubleshooting, explaining how to navigate the system, and helping to check things. She even plugged herself in our class group to see that the videos were digitized and uploaded correctly.

I was very impressed with “H’s” professionalism. In my former organization, we would love to acknowledge a colleague like her. I thought, why not now?

thank you

One day, I had a few minutes at my laptop and decided do just that. I searched for the library’s feedback page and wrote a feedback. What I thought would take a few minutes to write took me more than 15 minutes. It took longer not because I could not recall the details, but because I wanted to provide my feedback as best as I could.

I remember thinking to myself at the time: “Why do you bother going through all this? You have spent 15 minutes on this, and you are not done. You have a class coming up soon, and you are still trying to make this feedback as nice as possible. This is someone you corresponded over email; you hardly know her and you may never meet her again.”

This voice in my head is not an evil voice. In fact, it is a highly rational voice.

At the same time, there was another voice in my head, perhaps an “irrational” one. It said, “The world can do with more appreciation! This may seem totally irrational, but it is worth it and you want to do it. If it means you have to rush to class, so be it!”

Is this an example of hygge? I don’t know. Perhaps I should consult a Danish friend! :) But it feels close enough. It suggests that hygge starts from a belief or value, and some people even refer to it as “a state of mind”. It appears to be something that gives reason and meaning to an otherwise “irrational” situation.

Back to my story. Some people may suggest: if we want people to show appreciation, why not implement a 5-point rating survey? It takes only a few seconds to click, and it is a lot more efficient.

Indeed, it would be more efficient, but would the hygge be the same?

A few days ago, I got an email from “H”. The library had forwarded my feedback to her. She told me that it made her day. And hearing that made my day too. Sometimes, the irrational can make a lot of sense :)

Photo Credits:

Morten Wulff via photopin cc

Laurent Manning via photopin cc


Monkey (used to) See, Monkey (can now) Do

Monkey 4

Lately, my social media feed has been buzzing. A few incidents back home seemed to hint that people were becoming more ugly and ungracious.

  • People were abusing a “citizen journalism” website, posting irresponsible photos and distorting facts that had caused grief to others. This led to a petition to shut the site down.
  • Some bloggers were causing alarm by fabricating untruths about public policies.
  • Foreign workers who were planning to celebrate their national day in the city had to cancel it after the organizers received several phone threats.

Many people have spoken out against these acts, saying they do not represent or define us, and we should not condone them (which I agree). They add that the schools must educate our young and inculcate the right values (which I also agree). And parents must do likewise at home (yes!).

It’s tempting to think that these measures will address the issues. And to be fair, they probably will, to some extent.

At the same time, we should also ask: Are we indeed becoming more ugly and ungracious? And if so, why?

In pondering possible underlying reasons for such behaviors, it struck me that they were not new behaviors. In some way or another, they had always been present in the larger society.

  • On irresponsible “citizen journalism”, the precursor to this were things like paparazzi and investigative journalism. In fact, it’s interesting how we feel that one form of it is wrong, yet we have no issue enjoying the other form every night on TV. We even legitimize the latter by arguing that celebrities and public figures being who they are, the loss of privacy comes with the job. But really, how different are the two forms?
  • On the issue of fabricating untruths, from the government to business to the media, who hasn’t been regularly distorting facts whether in big or subtle ways to suit their own agendas?
  • Likewise, when coercive threats and bullying present themselves in the open, we find it repulsive and terrible. Yet, this is not new either. It has routinely gone on in business, legal, politics and geopolitics. We simply turn a blind eye, or we accept it as a way of life.

So these behaviors have always been present in the larger society. As social creatures, we are always drawing cues from the larger system about what are acceptable behaviors and norms. When some forms of behaviors are allowed to continue without people speaking out against them, the implicit message is that others forms of it is fair game. And so, Monkey see, Monkey do.


The other thing is that in the past, many tools of power lay in the hands of the organized few, for example, in government, business or the media. The major turning point happens when increasingly more of these tools end up in your hands and mine. For example, social media confers in everyday people the sort of power (network power and broadcast power) they never had. And so, what Money used to see, Money now have the means to do!

At the heart of this, is that people are wielding power that they do not know how to use responsibly. And more so than not, we are likely to see more of such behaviors.

If you accept this theory, it is not a stretch to imagine what other trends might crop up in the future. All we need to do is to look for past abuses when power lay in the hands of a privileged few, and multiply it many times more when the power becomes available to everyone.

Without noticing such larger systemic effects, it would be naive to believe that adding values education in the school system alone will solve the problem.

When you look at it this way, these are certainly not easy problems to solve. At the same time, there is hope too. Because we are part of the system, problems that start with us can also end with us. However, change never starts with someone else; it always starts with us. And as many of us will need to see ourselves as part of that change.

Photo Credits:

Dyanna Hyde via photopin cc

Dyanna Hyde via photopin cc

What value, the nonprofit work?

The following is an excerpt from an email from the CEO of a nonprofit in Singapore, reproduced with permission:

“We have much to be thankful for this week. Several people who had participated in our programmes visited us with offers of help. A 28-yr-old mother who is gradually experiencing some stability in her life offered to give free facial treatments to the mothers residing in her neighbourhood. She is now living elsewhere but wanted to do something for the people who supported her and her children when she was in difficulty.
A young man in his 30s dropped by with his fiancé asking if our reception area was still called the Peace Café. He was showing his fiancé where he lived as a child and the places where he hung out. We told him that it is now called Café Beyond and we chatted a little about his experiences here. As he left, he told us that he will be seeing us again as he will be registering as a volunteer on http://www.beyondself.sg.”
A younger man in his early 20s who had “worked” at Café Beyond also dropped by on his day-off. He was a resident of a home we used to run and is now working at a restaurant at the Marina Bay Sands. He came by offering to link our members to opportunities at his workplace.
Finally, there was also another in his 30s who rode his motor-bike right up to our door-step with his fiancé riding pillion.  He had come after work and was still in his overalls. He services the lifts and escalators at Changi Airport and is deeply grateful for the life he is having now. He told me that he woke up one morning last week thinking of us and decided that he had to visit. He recounted that as a rebellious teenager he had been in trouble a few times and wasted quite a bit of precious time. He left us a small donation and said that he will be visiting again to explore volunteering opportunities.

I always look forward to hearing from this nonprofit, Beyond Social Services. I am familiar with their work with troubled youths and their families, and I know how challenging the work is. Challenging, not because the people they serve are problematic, but because most of us find it hard to imagine and appreciate how life takes a different path for some people, and we have a tendency to hold them against some conventional standard. It’s also challenging because for many of the youths, their families, friends and communities may have long given up on them.

Despite their challenges, with the support of nonprofits like Beyond, many of these youths eventually find their paths in life. Their stories struck me, because they have gone from being outcasts of society to being active contributors, and they have gone from being receivers to givers. Their gifts may be simple: a small donation here, a little contribution there. The monetary value may not be huge, but the transformation and the intangible value is.

A friend recently sent me an article about “10X programmers” in Silicon Valley. These are programmers who are 10 times more productive than their peers. In the same breath, my friend asked whether 10X efficiency was possible in service sectors especially public service.

I don’t have a good answer, but I suspect it will not be found using the same perspectives and thought processes we are familiar with in the for-profit world. Perhaps a 10X social worker is not so much one who can work at 10 times the speed of others, or who can create a product that can be sold at 10 times the price of others. Perhaps a 10X social worker is more towards someone who can, through his/her sincerity, passion and skills, inspire and turnaround even the most troubled youths that the rest of society has given up on?

Or, might that even be 100X?

Natural Destruction

It was mayhem in the Midwest yesterday.

Tornadoes swept many cities, with the nearest one only an hour away.  Unlike the recent typhoon in the Philippines, the casualties were low, thankfully!  But many homes were destroyed, with winter fast approaching.

Tornado 2

Last night, when Fern and I took Rusty out for his night walk, the night was unnaturally quiet.  The sky looked too clear and serene to be true – it belied the havoc a few hours earlier.  As we stood in the peace of the night, it was hard to believe that hours away some families lost everything and will spend the cold night (and the next few winter months) in makeshift shelters.  Hard to believe, but it’s true.

There’s no reason why the tornadoes could not have headed our way.  Sometimes it’s hard to fathom why terrible things happen to large swathes of good people.  Amid such madness, the discomforting truth is that sometimes the fine line that separates those affected and those spared is simply a matter of luck.  When disaster comes within touching distance, we can’t help but feel blessed and thankful to be spared.

In a world that has grown so unequal and apart, a natural disaster reminds us that there are many things we still share in common.  When nature strikes, it does not matter whether we live in a hut or a $10mil mansion.  Our fates are joined, and we are the same community.  It fades the sense of self, and you just want to do something nice to help someone else.

Many of us live blessed lives.  Particularly so in Singapore, where we have never experienced natural disaster.  The closest we experience is tremors when there is an earthquake in Sumatra, and sometimes we get calf-deep flash floods when the rains pour hard.  But nothing devastating or earth shattering.  Yet we are always complaining and unhappy.  There are so many things to be thankful about.  We really should count our blessings in life…