Why Danes Spend 22 Hours Doing Nothing at Work Every Week
It seems ridiculous, right? Twenty-two hours every week doing nothing. That's according to a recent book by Danish anthropologist Dennis Nørmark and philosopher Anders Fogh Jensen.
Given that a regular Danish work week is 32.4 hours, according to the OECD, Danes actually spend two-thirds of their time doing nothing.
It is no joke, and it is most likely not just a Danish thing. I bet Swedes, Norwegians and Americans do the same. Hell, even the Germans, known for their efficiency, are most definitely wasting their time.
We work in a bubble of meaninglessness.
If you want to become a champion of wasting time, you should start implementing processes for everything. Because that is exactly why Danes ended up doing nothing: meaningless analysis, reports, meetings and projects.
"Meaningless" in this context is whatever tasks that do not create any true value. Let me give you an example: I have personally experienced a video meeting with a team of around eight or nine people on the other end representing a recent "unicorn" company. Yes, we touched upon some of their respective responsibilities, but I reckon that we didn't need all of them to move forward -- and especially not the guy closest to the camera, struggling to stay awake.
This kind of thing is most definitely a result of meaningless work. You spend time in a meeting that you can't even connect to your overall purpose, thus ending up the poor guy who starts headbanging in an attempt not to stand out as unmotivated.
And we do that way too often. We have started to measure our contributions by attendance and activity. We pay our lawyers and consultants by the hour and we thereby accept that their attendance and activity is more important than the result.
And it's the same thing we do in our workplace. We hire people to build a new website, but we don't really know how it creates value to the company. We hire consultants to deliver a voice because we, ourselves, are too scared to voice our own opinion. Because what happens if we are wrong?
We've created an attendance culture.
We have created a culture where staying at work late is something we share on social media. It has become a way of expressing ourselves as dedicated employees, rather than to show off awesome results bringing value to the company. On the other hand, people might throw a sarcastic comment at you if you leave the office early to go home and spend time with your loved ones.
It makes absolutely no sense. But, that happens when employees are measured by attendance and activity rather than their value contributions. This phenomenon is called "pseudo work" and it covers the act of spending time at your workplace without true value creation, without relevance and without any kind of sense.
Nørmark and Fogh Jensen introduced this phenomenon in their recent book under the same title. Their perspective on the labor market is based on interviews with various leaders, employees and researchers who have spent lots of time doing nothing. Through the interviews, they uncover how rigid processes and meaningless tasks occupy them day in and day out.
Pseudo work thrives in the shadows.
According to Nørmark, the Danes are not even the worst population when it comes to pseudo work.
"Pseudo work thrives in larger corporations and there are not many of those in Denmark. It is easier to hide away in a large organization and they tend to have more bureaucracy and a greater need for processes," Nørmark told me.
"In Denmark we have a high level of trust, which also means fewer processes than abroad and finally we have greater respect for work-life balance," he says. "On the other hand, we operate with a very flat management structure in Denmark and we seek consensus rather than making decisions from the top. That yields more meetings, more data, more reports and then again more meetings. Altogether creating more pseudo work."
Despite this last argument, Nørmark believes that Denmark is on the lower end when it comes to the amount of pseudo work. And that seems scary.
You probably have a feeling that you have done pseudo work and if you do, you are not alone. Almost everyone ends up in the pseudo work trap. Nørmark and Fogh Jensen advise that if you are done with your tasks, you should either "play around" and experiment to learn or simply go home.
Be purpose oriented.
As an entrepreneur, I have never held a full-time position where I wasn't my own employer. I have never been part of the meaninglessness, but through my work as consultant I have seen it over and over again.
Nørmark and Fogh Jensen have brought a renewed focus on the way we work today and even suggest that if we cut the crap and reduce our pseudo work we can possibly end up with a 15-hour work week.
And that is no joke either. One Danish company has actually reduced its five-day work week to only four days, and according to its CEO with far better results. The company did it partly to avoid pseudo work, but also to compete for the best IT talent. Now it can offer a 30-hour work week at the same salary. But, it is not just the fewer hours; it is by all means also a stronger purpose.
Become an idea assassin
I have a strong opinion toward pseudo work, and I believe that the key to reduce this lies in becoming better idea assassins. We are not good enough to reject bad ideas and we are not courageous enough to voice our opinions whenever we face irrelevant and meaningless work.
Simply reducing work hours is one way; another is to build a culture around honesty and critical assessment. If Danes started to be honest about their work, honest about the lack of purpose and honest about the lack of true value creation, then we could at least start figuring out how to empower our workforce in a new way.
But, employees cannot do this themselves. Business leaders need to be the front runners here. They need to come up with better KPIs than attendance and activity, better ways to build greater courage, and they need to rethink their use of processes resulting in pseudo work.
But, you can start now. You can become an idea assassin. The idea assassin experiments, learns and chases true value creation.
- Before entering a meeting, the idea assassin has a clear plan to how the meeting will create value.
- Before starting a project, the idea assassin tests whether the project has a true purpose.
- Before writing an analysis, the idea assassin makes sure that the analysis is relevant and brings valuable new knowledge.
- Before creating a report, the idea assassin makes sure that the stakeholders have a true interest in and need for the findings.
The idea assassin always questions the task, the process and the outcome. The idea assassin is the future of work -- a future without pseudo work and more freedom.