What can Denmark’s capital of wellbeing bring to the future workplace?

Copenhagen tops the world city index for happiness. But as its inaugural WORKTECH conference suggested, can we have too much of a good thing? And where does the Scandinavian office go next?

Denmark has made itself at home atop the many ‘world happiness’ indices we’ve seen, and it’s not hard to see why. The short walk to Rebel Work Space – an aptly named coworking hub and host of the inaugural WORKTECH Copenhagen on 26 March – showcased cafes decorated wall-to-wall with pastries and cakes; the rows of bikes that lined each cobbled street were left unlocked and although the wind was cold, the people were anything but.

This was the ‘Living Danishly’ we’ve all heard about, but what about working: how is this unique way of life reflected in the workplace? What can the rest of the world learn from the Scandinavian model? And is it possible to have too much of a good thing?

Recipe for inclusion

On hand to dissect these pertinent questions was a panel of Scandinavian workplace professionals curated and chaired by Gensler’s Philip Tidd. The debate centred around the notion of ‘lives well lived’ and outlined the Scandinavian recipe for an inclusive, productive and happy workplace: flat hierarchies that elevate individual responsibility and autonomy; managers accessible not only in location but in their personability too; and an equality of  opportunity where diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, genders and workstyles promote a flexibility in thinking and a vibrancy in office culture.

Lene Becker, founder of design firm LAIKA, delivered a precautionary analysis for those hoping to emulate this approach elsewhere. She noted that the virtues of Scandinavian working – trust, diversity and equality – are direct parallels of the wider society, and so come more naturally to the region. They can also apply a break on transformation. Lene described the egalitarian ABW (Activity Based Working) model as a reflection of the socialist tendencies in the country, so perhaps the Scandinavian success in workplace is simply a mirror of the wider political context in which it operates? A truly fascinating, if slightly disheartening, idea to put to a room full of workplace professionals.

Fellow panellist Elsebeth Pedersen, consultant to Dansk Bank, reaffirmed this idea with a similar point. The vast majority of Danes are financially stable, and those that do fall on hard times can be comfortably propped up by the country’s generous welfare state. Workers can get by out of work for periods of time, meaning long hours and overly laborious work is not required. The result? A working culture that winds up around 4pm each day and can even include some four-day weeks. No surprise it’s the work wellbeing capital of the world.

Network of tribes

SEB Bank’s Steffan Andre, however, suggested we do still have a significant level of autonomy in influencing our own work cultures. SEB Bank delved into the world of anthropology for its head office design, constructing a network of tribes, each made up of clusters of 60-80 people to ensure each tribe fell comfortably within the Dunbar number – a posit that 150 is the maximum number of people that any one individual can maintain a stable and meaningful relationship with. The bank’s tribes are social groups united by leaders, common goals and culture; they facilitate communication among members and stimulate a willingness to cooperate.

Maintaining a focus on instilling a culture of collaboration and stimulation, the conference widened the lens from Scandinavia and headed to the Netherlands. Dutch futurist and author Juriaan Van Meel’s over-arching opening keynote gave shape and substance to current buzzwords in workplace. Mapiq’s behavioural specialist Anne Wernand presented a behaviouralist take on the pitfalls of ABW adoption: our over-prescription of value to things we are deemed to own; the decision fatigue suffered with the seemingly infinite choice we face in the workplace; and our intrinsic tendencies to act as creatures of habit, on cruise control for 40 per cent of each working day.

Mapiq believes that the very best way to support ABW is by harnessing technology to nudge behaviours. Shifting personal possession to common ownership through a unified mobile app that allows users to control their surrounding environment, removes the individualistic perception of space. Creating a room booking system that provides recommendations as to which space should be used for your next session can help break up the routine in the workplace, engineering the serendipitous encounters that we know to be so productive.

Fifth industrial revolution

Furthering the technological discussion, we delved into the workings of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its role in the future of work. The message from Danish specialist 2021.AI was clear: over the next decade it won’t be AI that replaces managers, but managers comfortable and confident in using AI will replace those that are not.

In the eyes of the day’s final speaker, former IKEA futurist George Muir, mass adoption of AI and robotics is set to become the ‘fifth industrial revolution’; the typical 9-5 job will disappear entirely, and the emergence of AI will facilitate a shift from full-time human/part-time AI work to part-time human/full-time AI. Muir believes that AI is set to remove 75 million jobs by 2025 but insists that changes in the job market need not be all doom and gloom. Provided that gaps in skills are addressed early and effectively by businesses and educational institutions willing to adapt, these lost jobs could be replaced by 133 million new, less strenuous roles.

Addressing the circular economy

Ultimately, despite its unique setting, the first WORKTECH Copenhagen mixed up familiar themes around people, place and technology. Nicola Gillen of AECOM, lead author of a new book called Future Office: Next-Generation Workplace Design, skilfully reminded her sustainability-savvy Danish audience of the importance of the circular economy in office design. Encapsulating the key themes of the day, WORKTECH Academy Director Jeremy Myerson proposed that an amalgamation of enhanced workplace culture, emergent technologies, Scandinavian-style wellbeing and behavioural insight will propel standard workplace user experience (UX) to an unprecedented new scale – the super-experience (SX).

Myerson used a range of examples (from Amazon’s forest-filled orbs in Seattle to Airbnb’s ‘home wherever you are’ in San Franscico) to show that the world of work is ready to transcend the classic goals of efficiency and optimisation to embrace empathy, curiosity, intrigue and delight. When it comes to empathy and human-centred design, clearly the Danes have a head’s start.

Exclusive Academy video interviews with WORKTECH Copenhagen speakers here:

Juriaan Van Meel, author and consultant

Johan Grundström Eriksson, Sony

Lene Becker, LAIKA Space Design

Stefan Andre, SEB Bank

Luke Bailey is a workplace analyst at UnWork WORKTECH Copenhagen 2019 conference website here
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