Worldviews, a new column in Penang Monthly, shares perspectives learned from different cultures. The idea is to facilitate meaningful conversations and interactions from a place of respect and empathy, as Penang strengthens its presence globally.
AT MOST OFFICES in Bjorvika, Oslo’s new financial centre, lights go out after 5pm. A typical work week for a Norwegian is only 37.5 hours, but the country’s labour force is one of the most productive in the world. It placed 8th according to the International Labour Organization, while its GDP per capita – approximately USD75,000 – also puts it among the top 10 countries globally.
Norway enjoys the second highest life quality (after Finland), as listed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2020. But how did the nation manage to successfully achieve a healthy work-life balance? Norwegians love spending time outdoors, either hiking, skiing or ice bathing in the numerous frozen fjords during winter. The Covid-19 pandemic has unsurprisingly enabled more Norwegians to connect with Nature than ever before. It is estimated that last summer, 60% of Norwegians went overnight camping in the woods.1
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Several large companies have given employees the ability to work from home indefinitely. Employers generally tend to trust their employees, and the flexibility they are granted makes many families able to split household chores more evenly. At the same time, Norway’s high GDP per capita reflects women’s participation in the workforce; continuous effort is put into giving men and women equal opportunities in employment.
Working from home often means working from your summer cabin or winter chalet. Although the population is sparsely populated (1 person per 15sqm; to compare, Malaysia has 96 people per 15sqm), the country’s 4G coverage remains among the best in the world. It is higher than 99% and the network is one of the fastest.
Even with the pandemic, people often take Fridays off to escape the “city crowds” and isolate themselves on mountain tops with friends and family over the weekend. Perhaps it is this urge to reconnect with family in a remote area that has given rise to the Norwegian culture of efficiency. The concept of “FaceTime” is rare, as most managers will be rushing to the mountains come Friday afternoon.
Prioritising Quality over Quantity
Another explanation for the focus on efficiency may be that since its economy has grown rapidly in recent decades, Norway has shifted to a more services-based economy based on innovation and high levels of expertise. In essence, work has become more about quality than quantity. To manage paying high wages, businesses have felt compelled to increase their effectiveness by working smart.
Evidence suggests that long work hours can impair personal health, jeopardise safety and increase stress. The Norwegian labour law therefore mandates that a citizen’s working hours do not exceed an average of 40 hours a week over a year.
According to a study by OECD, 3% of Norwegian employees work very long hours, much less than the OECD average of 11%.2 The same study discovered that full-time workers devote 65% of their day on average, or 15.6 hours, to personal care (eating, sleeping, etc.) and leisure (socialising with friends and family, hobbies, games, computer and television use, etc.). This is more than the OECD average of 15 hours.
But work-life balance is not only about reducing the time spent at the office. It is also about efficient work; one can have shorter work days if one maintains high productivity. This is an absolute necessity, if Norwegians are to sustain the high standard of living enjoyed in the Nordic states in general.
At a Tap of a Button
Digitalisation and automation have made huge contributions to that end, bringing obvious changes to many professions. Reskilling combined with free education are important tools in ensuring competitiveness, as well as fighting job losses. Norway has a highly educated population and it is the government’s priority to make it one of the most innovative countries in Europe.
To illustrate, incorporating a company in Norway can be done entirely online. The general meeting can be held virtually, shareholders and board members can sign the minutes using the government’s unique and secure ID system, and payment of the initial capital happens via online banking.
As a largely egalitarian society, Norwegians earn an average annual salary of RM250,000; and many employees prioritise flexibility over pay. This prompts employers in their competition for the smartest employees to guarantee them good work-life balance; this is after all also in the interest of the employers.
Research shows that a healthy staff performs better. Health and perceived quality of life are highly correlated, e.g. the average number of sick leave days has been shown to be consistently lower for people who exercise regularly. Perhaps this too is a factor contributing to both high productivity and work-life balance.
At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, each employee is given the flexibility to spend 1.5 hours for exercise during working hours per week. To counteract the negative physical and mental effects of the pandemic, this has now been extended to three hours. Although with a busy schedule, this is not always possible, a boost of endorphins released through a morning exercise lowers stress levels, enhances work performance and provides the staff at the Embassy a chance to enjoy wonderful Malaysia on their free time.
Photo: The Royal Norwegian Embassy
A note by H.E. Gunn Jorid Roset, the Norwegian ambassador to Malaysia:
“I have been with the Foreign Ministry for more than 20 years. When I began, I only had myself to worry about and could spend long afternoons in the office. After getting married and having children, I found that both myself and my husband focused on working more efficiently and to separate between work and family time. A working environment and culture that enables us to choose flexible solutions, has made it possible for us to build a career while raising a family.
The Norwegian work-life culture enables more innovation, better productivity and a loyal and motivated workforce. It is possible to work hard and be productive but also, to adapt to family needs. In many countries, young people, especially women, are out of the labour market already when the children are small, which is bad for them and bad for the country since a lot of talent and productivity are lost.
Flexibility is the key to ensuring great output in the workplace. As a leader, my mantra is to provide this to all my employees – both young and old – so that they can be productive and innovative while at the same time, feel that their need to care for children or parents – or to connect with Nature – is taken care of.”
Photo: The Royal Norwegian Embassy
Woon Nyok Mooi, who has been with the Embassy for 37 years and counting, shares her experience of a Norwegian workplace:
“Firstly, I must say that I got an entirely new perspective when I began working at the Embassy. I find that Norwegians are generally more amiable than the people I previously worked for.
Work-life balance at the Embassy is a rather important aspect. I’m appreciative of the freedom that has been afforded me here. I don’t just mainly concentrate on my work; I also have the liberty to choose how to approach my work assignments.
I never have a problem balancing between work and personal time. I find that I’m able to enjoy my hobbies in photography, gardening, in learning to play a musical instrument and helping out at the animal shelter. During the pandemic, I was given the flexibility to work from home. The support given by the Embassy has been immeasurable. I greatly enjoy what I do.”