Thoughts about hr and management in the real world – extra information I couldn't fit in my books!.

Have we forgotten what’s work is about?

I was in Copenhagen last week (I got obsessed with Denmark after watching Borgen and The Bridge so when a friend moved here and said we should come and visit – it was an easy decision!). While there I talked to Danish people about their culture. Interestingly Denmark has a similar population to New Zealand, however it’s GDP is much higher. Why? There’s one particularly interesting workplace culture issue I’ve discovered which I wondered about.

In the last couple of years there have been a number of movements like the HR Game Changer, Teal Organisations, Holocracy and Conscious Capitalism which have all looked at how we make our workplaces more humane. To make them less about just work and more about recognising what people want and need from work and their life and trying to balance that.

This sounds right. It sounds like it is going to be the next step past capitalism where the focus is not just about making money.

The thing is – while a few companies have had success, the concepts haven’t been going that well in many other companies trying it. This may well be due to there not being a road map on how to do it well. Human psychology comes into the equation and makes it complicated.

Over the last few years, having trained thousands of managers through the Management Bites programme, and managers often find it challenging in situations where:

  • People are working flexible hours so they aren’t all in the office at the same time
  • Not being sure what people are working on when they are working remotely or at different times
  • People feeling interrupted constantly by open plan office space where people come and chat with you when you’re in the middle of something
  • A loss of focus on what needs to be achieved, and more about everyone working well together, when managers are rewarded just for achievement not on engagement

What’s different about Denmark?

The first day we were in Copenhagen city centre, at about 4.15pm the city was suddenly flooded with people on bikes.  Everyone was finishing work and cycling home. The streets and trains are exceptionally well designed with bike lanes each side and bike racks everywhere. And people seem really healthy from all the cycling.

The issue is why are they finishing at 4pm?

Because while they are at work, they are there to work. They don’t chat to each other constantly. Unlike NZ and the UK, they aren’t necessarily friends with or looking to be friends with the people they work with. They don’t mind so much if the team doesn’t personally like each other or want to have morning tea together. They are at work to work. And so any conversations that happen are about how to solve issues or make decisions – not small talk.

This means because they are focused on work being work, they can leave early and then spend quality time with family or friends.

I wonder if in our quest to make workplaces more humane, we’ve made them too social. Would it actually work better if there were periods of the day (e.g. 10am – 12pm, 2 – 4pm) where everyone focused on working, and there was no talking unless it was about work?

We know that 40 hours weeks aren’t productive, yet we stick with them because it’s easy. It doesn’t matter that many people have stretch out their work or have hours that are unproductive. If we actually focused on outputs, and made work about work – it might mean everyone could finish early and spend quality time doing what they want to do.

I know at Elephant over the years we’ve sort of gravitated towards that as we’ve been open plan and do have to concentrate without interruptions. But I just never thought about it as a more structured way to work. The introvert would be a lot happier as well as everyone who has to do thinking work and doesn’t need to talk to anyone while they do it.

I read a suggestion recently that New Zealand should become the first country to start a 4 day week, every week. To do that we’d need to change what we produce when we’re at work and how much we can make work social. But if we got every Monday or Friday off – wouldn’t it be worth it?

And for anyone considering visiting Denmark – I’d highly recommend it! There might not be much small talk but it’s fabulous none the less.


Angela Atkins is a best-selling author and business entrepreneur who has been working to transform the HR profession. She is the People & Learning Director for Elephant – who run HR training, conferences and management development in both New Zealand and the UK. For more visit or 



One comment on “Have we forgotten what’s work is about?

  1. juliansummerhayes
    September 26, 2016


    There arise a number of questions:

    1. What is work?
    2. What is the meaning of work?
    3. Is work keeping us from pursuing our highest calling?
    4. Why do need Teal (as a rubric) to start talking about wholness at work (I love Laloux’s book but he’s no more than a maven of something that’s been there a long time)?
    5. As a society, what are we working towards?

    For me, as an ex-lawyer, where greed and unhappiness were rife (strange or not so strange bedfellows), I can’t remember a single person, certainly not in HR, questioning the edifice that we were all pouring our hearts, minds and souls into building. It was like we were robots — too scared to challenge the status quo in case someone turned off the power. Just imagine instead if someone had asked a few fundamental questions, not least what does it mean to bring true self to work.

    Anyhow, enough of my jaunty little comment. Back to work…for myself.

    Best wishes

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This entry was posted on September 19, 2016 by in culture, Leadership and tagged , , , , .
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