Working in a new country can be both exciting and challenging. Denmark has much to offer, but there are also cultural differences that are useful to understand. Among the myriad of distinct cultural characteristics, Denmark has forged its own path in the business world.
What do Danish clients value in business? What are the differences between Danish working culture and British working culture? What have been the biggest surprises, and where can symmetry be found between the UK and Denmark in the workplace?
Read on to explore some key insights from a British national’s first year living and working in Denmark and what I wish I’d known a year ago.
Long-term vs. short-term:
The British business culture prioritizes immediate wins. What is the ROI (return on investment) this week and this month? Generally speaking, the British want to close the deal as soon as possible. The Danish are more focused on long-term relationships and building trust, which is the foundation of any business relationship here. British sensitivities may feel slow and methodical. There is a risk that the British may feel frustrated and impatient if they are not used to this longer-term approach.
This shift from a UK short-term mentality to the long-term focus here stirred up an uncomfortable feeling in its first example for me. In my first few months in Denmark, I attended networking events and mixers. Back in the UK, I might go to networking events to seal some quick deals, and I could expect to have contracts for new business signed within a few weeks of the initial interaction. Networking was really my go-to strategy if work seemed to be drying up and I needed more for the coming months.
Although each event I attended in my first chapter of living in Denmark presented opportunities, it was only through developing these relationships over time that the fruits of these interactions were reaped. It was uncomfortable because, at first, I couldn’t understand what we were waiting for, and a niggling feeling of concern had me questioning my skills.
However, patience prevailed. One client in particular had me in the ‘consideration zone’ for over 6 months. In that time, I spoke to various people from the business and was eventually given a one-off project, which has now led to my most exciting and lucrative contract. I suppose the important thing to note here is that networking is not a quick way to gather more business but rather should be seen as part of your long-term growth strategy.
The British are famous for being diplomatic, which often means being quite subtle about their real meaning and hoping the recipient of the message understands what they’re trying to say. The Danish expect communication to be more direct. They place a high value on transparency, honesty, and openness. You’re expected here to give detailed, candid information. Don’t try to hide anything or skirt around the issue; just say it.
One huge benefit I have found of this expectation for open communication is that, once you get used to it, you stop questioning how to say what needs to be said in the ‘right way’ and start focusing more on the impact of the issue, which, let’s be honest, is actually what matters. For example, if you find you’re struck by a nasty bug and too poorly to meet a deadline, it is helpful to simply say exactly that. Rather than being met with suspicious follow-up questions like, “Are you really that ill?” here, I have found that people tend to take you at your word. There seems to be much more trust from the get-go.
The British look for good value, which often means engaging with the business that delivered the lowest quote. This is sometimes to the determinant of the project, as most of us may be aware, the cheapest option is often not the highest quality. The Danish prioritize quality and sustainability and will take their time making a decision on the contract or person that they feel aligns with their values and will deliver at an appropriate level. The cost to the business does not seem to be the ultimate deciding factor. Whereas, in the UK, there is far more focus on cutting costs. Perhaps now more than ever due to the cost-of-living crisis and the ‘pinch’ felt by businesses across the UK.
If you run a business or work freelance you might wince at the question; “How do you price yourself?”
For many Brits this is an uncomfortable subject as, if you put the work into pricing yourself appropriately; taking into consideration your skills, education, years of experience and the value to the client of the work itself, you may well end up pricing yourself out of the market. There is always someone who will do it cheaper and, in the UK, this perhaps poses a greater risk to your chances of winning business than in Denmark. As we have already explored, in Denmark they play the long game and, if you can evident that your work will fit the quality expected, you are more likely to get the deal you want, even if there are cheaper options available.
The Danish place a far higher value on job satisfaction and work-life balance than the British. You will find that the working hours are shorter, and work is at a slower pace. People go home on time; employers don’t put pressure on their employees to work long hours. Generally people in Copenhagen are also far more relaxed on their commute compared to London. Whether on bikes, metros, S-trains, ferries or buses, I get the impression that, unlike the British, the Danes don’t begin their working day stressed and dreading their journey during rush hour – if rush hour is even a thing here!
In my last corporate role as a communications manager in the UK, the culture tended to encourage the idea that we should wear our extra hours like a badge of honor. I felt compelled to get into the office as early as possible (I actually enjoyed this as I got in before rush hour in London!) and stay in the office as late as possible. Competing against our colleagues to prove our commitment to the company felt encouraged and never going home was applauded.
Here, the attitude towards extra hours and staying late feels the complete opposite. I think here, if I behaved like I did in the UK, my colleagues would wonder if I was OK personally and query why I don’t want to go home to my family.
In the UK employers typically believe that to increase productivity people need to work harder. In my experience this creates stress and low job satisfaction. Things are improving in the UK, but many British employers, and even the UK Government, still regard flexible working and remote working as the enemy of productivity. In Denmark they believe that increased productivity is achieved by improving employee well-being, assuring job satisfaction, a healthy work-life balance and a comfortable working environment. Flexible working is common. In Denmark happy employees are the assured route to a healthy balance sheet.
In July 2023, The Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill announced that, in the UK, from Spring 2025, employees will be allowed to request flexible working from their employer two times in each 12-month period. However, a study by flexible working consultancy, Timewise, showed that although nearly half of UK workers would like the opportunity to work flexibly, 21% would not request it, and 30% percent were unsure whether they would.
There could be many reasons for the reluctance to ask for flexible working and one, I believe, ties into the lack of trust I have mentioned before between employer and employee in the UK. In Denmark, there are fewer rules and regulations regarding work (e.g. there is no minimum wage and no general law on working hours) and ‘Flextime’ is typically considered case-by-case. I feel this gives workers and employers more freedom to strike up deals amongst themselves that work for everyone.
EVALUATION OF PRODUCTIVITY:
Productivity measures in the UK tend to take no account of anything except those quantitative measures that are easy to calculate. Danish employers look beyond quantitative measures and consider other important issues, such as overall contribution to the company, impact on the culture of the company and other people. Does the person help improve the job satisfaction of others, or do they create a stressful atmosphere?
Of course, this approach changes the way people behave at work and, if you’re used to a UK corporate role, the focus on keeping stress to a minimum or at least, the appearance of stress, might seem somewhat alien.
I feel the wider approach to evaluating productivity serves to present a more holistic picture of your contribution to the workplace.
WHAT DO INTERNATIONAL WORKERS THINK?
I recently commissioned a poll in the Expats in Copenhagen Facebook group asking:
“What do companies in Denmark value above all else?”
The results from 100 respondents from this group can be seen below:
Work-Life Balance – 51%
Innovation and Creativity – 3%
Sustainability and Environmental Responsibility – 6%
Equality and Diversity – 5%
Quality of Work – 6%
Professionalism and Punctuality – 7%
Effective Communication Skills – 2%
Employee Well-Being – 2 %
Strong Teamwork and Collaboration – 5%
Adaptability & Open-Mindedness – 5%
Respondents also added their own options to the poll:
Resilience – 2%
Delivery & Effectiveness – 3%
Privacy & Themselves – 3%
As you can see, an overwhelming majority of respondents believe that in Danish business culture, work-life balance is the highest priority. Taking into account how small the group of respondents was, and the fact that they are likely all internationals who have moved to Denmark, leads me to wonder if the results of this poll would be different if posed to a group of Danish nationals. I feel another poll coming on.
We have so far focused on the differences between UK and Danish business culture but there are also similarities to note that may make life a little more comfortable when you first start working here.
Both countries operate in business environments that are on the global stage. They rely on international trade and recruit internationally. They value the cultural diversity and thinking this brings them.
FAST CHANGING WORKING CONDITIONS:
As with the UK, the pandemic made people reassess the way they work. Flexible working is becoming more normal in both countries, although as described above, attitudes to it can vary.
Employers in both countries believe in defining success and measuring it against KPIs (key performance indicators), however, you might find differences in exactly what your KPIs are here.
Most British expats will not find working in Denmark a huge culture shock. The differences are more commonly a pleasant surprise that might incite you to reevaluate your own priorities and why you hold them. You will have an easier time joining any business or workforce in Denmark if you understand the differences in communication and priorities and find a company that holds values you feel you align with. Consider a more holistic approach to business here, as it’s not about the immediate returns and profit, but long-term value and quality of life.
I wonder what shocks and symmetries you have found between the working culture of your home country and Denmark?
Let me know and good luck in your professional endeavors!