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


Signs that say a lot about their organizations

Values are a huge thing for many of us. In an organization, consciously or not we are always comparing the values of the organization (and others in it) to our own values. If the values match, we feel that we belong. If they don’t match, we may feel out of place or out of sorts.

When the values don’t match, a few things that can happen. We may alter our values to suit those of the organization, or we may influence the organization’s values to mirror our own. If neither works, we may leave the organization, or we stay on but act indifferently.

This is a huge thing, yet many organizations don’t pay much attention to it. Interestingly, these may be the same organizations that try very hard to create a positive external image. They pay huge sums of money to branding professionals to “design” their organizational image, and buy expensive ad spaces or air time to market themselves.

Some of these marketing efforts do work. Maybe that’s why companies continue to allocate huge budgets for marketing.

For others though, they portray their values in a different and (less costly) way.

They live those values.

As an organizational development person, it strikes me how powerful it can be when organizations live their values i.e. when their internal and external values are consistent. For example, if employees live the organization’s values day-in and day-out, customers will experience those values through regular interactions. These things speak louder than any marketing campaign.

Here are two signs I saw recently:


This sign appears in every Pret A Manger store and speaks volumes about Pret’s identity:

  • Pret is committed fresh food.
  • Pret uses its unique identity and assets (i.e. fresh food) to meet the community’s need as a responsible corporate citizen.
  • Pret even manages to take a dig at competitors who sell old bread!
  • Finally, and I think this is the powerful part, Pret emphasizes that this is the right thing to do. It is a statement of Pret’s values that speaks to both external (i.e. customers) and internal (i.e. staff) stakeholders. Pret employees also better understand why they have to report for work so early every day – to bake new bread and prepare fresh food on site.



This sign appears in all Starbucks stores and it speaks volumes about their commitment to employees. Many organizations also invest in staff development, but Starbucks takes it further by communicating it openly and linking it to their value promise to customers. Effectively, Starbucks makes a few statements with this message:

  • Starbucks cares about their customers.
  • Starbucks cares about their staff. And this makes the statement above even more compelling.
  • Starbucks models the same set of values to its employees, as it expects them to model those values to the customers.

The beauty of this is that Starbucks is acting consistent both internally and externally.

We may think that what Pret and Starbucks have done is a clever trick that many others can adopt too. However, I would advise organizations to think it through carefully before they jump at it. Public commitments like Pret’s and Starbucks’ can be powerful, but they also work both ways. If Pret publicly says that these are the right things to do, but it does not honor them internally, you can bet their employees will be one huge cynical lot. (And you the customer will sense that). Likewise, if Starbucks does not really take care of their baristas, their baristas will take cue from that to determine how to treat customers.

Many organizations fret a lot over their branding and image. In my view, it need not be complicated – simply live up to the same values internally as they would presented them externally. Having said that, just because it need not be complicated doesn’t mean that it will be easy to achieve ;)