Friday, December 11, 2015

Har du arbejdsglæde?

My Danish workplace...something I've been wanting to write about for a while.  Not only is it my first job after graduate school, it's in a foreign country.  I spend 5 days a week at this place.  Most of the Danes I know, I know from work.  Not surprisingly, my work environment has a big influence on my quality of life here in Denmark.

And the Danes seem to think so too (for everyone, not just me).  They even have a specific word for workplace happiness - arbejdsglæde.  And it doesn't seem to necessarily correlate with the difficulty of your particular job tasks, but it's more of a feeling that you can have with the right combination of a good job fit, nice co-workers, supportive managers, good work environment, sufficient resources, and general job satisfaction.  Like, your specific job tasks might be physically or mentally demanding, but you can still have arbejdsglæde if you feel equipped to meet those challenges and are in a supportive environment.

Heading home from work.  There's a large green space near my
workplace which is one of the buildings in the background.
This was back in summer, of course.

To give you some context on my particular job situation, I work as a biomedical engineer in the R&D department of company here in Aalborg that makes medical devices.  We have just under 50 employees most of whom are Danish but also two Romanians and two Americans (I'm not the only one!).  Of course, I only have experience with this one company here in Denmark, but from what I've gathered, we seem to be a fairly typical Danish company.

With arbejdsglæde in mind, it shouldn't surprise you that a lot of effort goes into making the office a place that you want to go to everyday. There's a lot of little things like fresh fruit for snacking and a bowl of candy for an afternoon pick me up and an endless supply of coffee and tea (seriously, no meeting can start until everyone has had their turn at the coffee machine).  But it's not just about free stuff for the employees.  There are bigger things within the company culture that promote a positive, healthy office environment, for example, our every 6 week retrospective.  It's a 1.5 hour meeting where the main purpose is to give everyone in the department a chance to share the good things and the frustrating things from the previous six weeks and a chance to share anything they are worried or concerned about within the company.  The subjects shared include the obvious things like project deadlines met (or not met), but they also include things like communication challenges between different departments or even opinions about the location of the Christmas party, anything related to your worklife is fair game.  And, no kidding, I've actually seen the management take action on things that were brought up during retrospective.  Simply having the forum to express frustrations and challenges makes it's harder to let things fester under the surface; it also gives us a place to celebrate the things that are going well.  Both of these go a long way towards arbejdsglæde which is important to the company because it is generally believed that happy employees = successful company.

Just one of the many, MANY cakes we have on an almost
weekly basis for whatever reason we can think of...
birthdays, anniversaries, deadlines met, vacations,
nice weather, anything really.

But arbejdsglæde doesn't just come from the top down.  The employees themselves also take responsibility for making our office a place that they want to work.  Everyone greets everyone else when they come in in the morning.  We do things like going for a walk together after lunch (which we all eat together at the same time in our lunchroom) or decorating our co-worker's desk for his or her birthday or work anniversary or making up any excuse for bringing in cake.  My co-workers readily offer their congratulations when a big project gets finished (especially when there's cake involved) and never seem to mind when I interrupt them to ask for help.  People get up from their desks, walk around, gather at the candy bowl and/or coffee machine throughout the day.  This is not a place where you remain silent at your desk for 8 hours.

So it doesn't surprise me that most of my co-workers actually seem to enjoy working at our company and value the culture that they've created there.  And I haven't even mentioned the 6 weeks paid vacation, generous sick leave, 37 hour work weeks, paid maternal/paternal leave, ability to work from home, company-provided cell phone, and subsidized lunches that were all just part of the job contract when I was hired.  All of these things that I hear my American counterparts negotiating for when they get a new job were just part of being hired at my company.  So I feel like I've landed in a pretty sweet spot.

Post-race beers after our 5K relay (left) and half marathon victory pose (right).
Our company sponsors employees in races or other events if at least 3 employees
participate so it's not a surprise we have a lot of runners.

But for all of the arbejdsglæde that I have at work, I also feel uncomfortable and/or stupid on a fairly regular basis.  Let's start with the language issue.  Our official company language is English (meaning I can actually do my job), but practically, the language most spoken is Danish.  I mean, of course, it's Danish.  No surprise there, but that doesn't make me feel any less self-conscious when I have to remind everyone that we should do the meeting in English if they want me to actually participate.  (I will give a shout out to my boss who does a really great job of remembering this himself and just starting meetings in English without me having to say something.  But not everyone pays quite as much attention as him.)  Besides feeling self-conscious, it's hard not to feel isolated when everyone around me is speaking a language I'm just beginning to understand on a meaningful level.  They always switch to English when talking to me, but I know that there are things I'm missing because I just don't get all of the Danish.  Almost daily, there's a big joke or funny story at lunchtime that I can't laugh at, and some days, I'll go through all of lunch without saying anything because everyone is speaking really fast Danish and I feel self-conscious for speaking English (and I'm usually really hungry anyway).    

So there's positive experiences at work and frustrating experiences at work, and then there's experiences that I didn't expect to have at work but have become really grateful for.  Namely, work is the place where I've learned the most about Danes and Denmark.

Step 1 in celebrating your co-worker's birthday...
decorate his desk with flags, lots of flags.

There's the things about Danish workplace culture like the fairly flat managerial structure and the attitude that work should be something that enhances not drains your life (and the other nice things I've already mentioned).  I'm (still) getting a grasp on Danish humor with its preference for sarcasm and irony.  I've learned that to properly celebrate a birthday in Denmark you must have a kagemand (see photo below), lots of Danish flags (see photo above), and a loud song about chocolate and cake.  Most of the traditional Danish foods that I've tried have been at work.  I don't know if our company lunch provider makes the best versions of these foods, but from what I gather, it's a decent representation of the smørrebrød, flæskesteg, hons i asparges, and leverpostej.  And whether it's about the lunch food or, most commonly, about the weather, Danes have a penchant for complaining (who wouldn't with the weather we get here?).

Step a cake shaped
like a person topped with candy.

My colleagues seem to love it when I try to do something Danish...whether it's speaking Danish (evidently my accent is similar to that of one of the princesses who's from Australia) or eating some Danish food that I haven't tried before...and I'm usually happy to try and always grateful that they're willing to share their culture with me.  I've had countless conversations about Danish culture, Danish government, Danish values, Danish people, Danish comedy, Danish TV, Danish weather, etc, and it's conversations like these that make me feel like I'm actually learning about the country I'm living in.

I've even been able to bring in some American culture too.  Danes know a lot about American culture as American movies and TV shows are widely available here.  But American football remains a topic of confusion, and I've given a few lessons on the subject.  I've also explained what exactly Americans are celebrating on Thanksgiving and where Black Friday comes from (which is making it's way to Europe even without what I consider the necessary holiday of Thanksgiving the day before).  And I greatly enjoy sharing some of my favorite American foods like Reese's cups and pumpkin pie.

Considering that, when we moved, we thought it entirely likely that I would not even find a job in Denmark, I'm very thankful for the job that I have.  Besides providing mental stimulation and an income, it has really been a cross-cultural exchange for me at my workplace.  This Danish adventure would have been a lot different without a job, and I hope my colleagues know how much I appreciate their kindness towards the American girl. 

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