Having it All, the Workplace Hygge Way
Modern working practices often feel less like progression and more like a 1950s throwback (when the average working week was 10 hours longer). We are encouraged to be serial achievers. Achievement and ambition are celebrated and rewarded in the workplace. Anything less is simply, well, uninspired. Average.
Or is it? In a world that invites us to shoot for the stars, it might be worthwhile to look at reasons not to, and why they should be celebrated. Make no mistake, this choice is paradoxically gutsier than any ambition because, in our censorious society it implies apathy, despite nothing being further from the truth.
In the words of Thomas Merton, “When ambition ends, happiness begins.” (And your manager will thank you for it.)
What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?
Do you remember being asked the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” when you were a child?
The opportunities seemed infinite as you plotted your stratospheric rise from chief ice-cream taster for Ben & Jerrys at age 5, to the dizzying heights of Microsoft CEO by the age of 12.
In the Pursuit of Perfection and Having It All
Whatever your career choice (or compromise) was, hopefully it came with a hefty side of ambition because there is an unpalatable rumor circulating that you can have it all (well, not just a rumor; it’s also multiple articles, books and a song by the Kaiser Chiefs, but I digress).
And let’s face it, that’s a line organizations have been selling us for years in their pursuit of a utopian workforce. Those annual performance reviews that demand introspection, asking you to reflect on the skills you’d like to sharpen, the areas you’d like to develop. The subliminal message being — however good you are, you could be better. And if you don’t agree, you can be sure there will be some feedback to challenge that assumption.
Related Article: The Speed of Work Today: More, Faster, Now
Ambition Eats Parenthood for Breakfast
Working parents might be the biggest servant of our societal obsession with “having it all.” The woefully inadequate infrastructure of childcare leaves little scope to maneuver if your journey into work involves a commute of any description. A degree of flexibility from either your employer (easier to arrange but prohibitive to career prospects) or your childcare provider (more difficult to arrange and prohibitively expensive) is a prerequisite to make this hodge podge of commitments work.
If your child is unwell, or you’re on the curve of the calendar that is a school holiday or teacher training day, you are screwed, along with your fast track to promotion (albeit hybrid working has reduced the scale on which you might have to claw your way back into the good graces of management).
A working parent — particularly one with ambition — requires an off the scale emotional bandwidth, compartmentalization abilities that Samsonite would kill for and a supply of adrenaline that would make Usain Bolt weep with envy. In many cases, and however impressive your arsenal, the inevitable result is often complete burnout.
But Wait, Do We Actually Want It All?
Assuming it’s possible to balance a burgeoning career alongside parenting, socializing, travel or study, why wouldn’t you want it all?
Several reasons come to mind, none of which are damaging to organizational growth. Quite the opposite, in fact. What would happen if a generation of workers undefined by status, age or gender entered the workforce with the collective goal of equilibrium in their professional and personal lives? Imagine the balance such mindsets would bring to the otherwise frenetic pace of working life.
Such a balanced mindset could counteract those people who possess what MIT Sloan professor and founder of the MIT Leadership Center, Deborah Ancona identified as the "dark triad," a triumvirate of personality traits — namely narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy — who "often tend to be toxic leaders or employees." A distinct theme of power and ambition underlies this behavior.
Related Podcast: Why Flexibility and Trust Define the New World of Work
The Hygge Approach to Workplace Balance
The Danes enjoy a practice known as “hygge.” Pronounced “hoo-ga," it means time away from the daily rush to be with people you care about — or by yourself — to relax and enjoy life's quieter pleasures.
“Hyggers” (practitioners of hygge) ensure there is a symbiosis between their personal and working lives, which means the high-octane pursuit of ambition at 100 mph, with hair on fire, just isn’t an option. If ambition demands the equivalent of a kidney as part of that transaction, it’s a hard no, thank you very much.
HR Zone explored "Workplace hygge: how to embrace it," demonstrating why the practice is holistic, how it improves mental health, relationship building and offers a plethora of workplace benefits that transcend the ambition albatross.
It wasn’t so long ago — in those deepest, darkest periods of pandemic lockdown — when we found our lives enriched by experiences reminiscent of hygge. A catalyst to pursue a life with more purpose and fulfillment, and dare I say, that holy grail of balance.
How to Future-Proof Your Employee Experience Strategy in 2023
A framework to navigate through economic uncertainty
The Essential Role of Communicators in Fostering Wellbeing in the Digital Workplace
Join us for practical insights on how digital communicators can support employees to thrive in the digital workplace
Addressing Employee Needs and Wants with a Digital Workplace
The workplace is getting more and more digital – both in how we work and where we work
Maintaining a Human-Centered Approach During Digital Transformation
When it comes to digital transformation - people drive change, not technology
The Evolution of Employee Recognition
Leveraging the power of appreciation to improve the employee experience
How to Build a More Innovative and Resilient Workplace Culture
What would happen if every member of your team came to work focused on finding solutions and creating better results?
Hyggers: The New, Post-Pandemic Go-Getters
The Wall Street Journal recently asked "Where have all the go-getters gone?"
Despite reinforcing a somewhat exclusive rhetoric, the article provides evidence that “many white-collar workers say the events of the past 3 years have reordered their priorities and showed them what they were missing when they were spending so much time at the office. Now that normalcy is returning, even some of the workers who used to be always on and always striving say they find themselves eyeing the clock as the day winds down, saying no to overtime work or even taking pay cuts for better work-life balance.”
Derek Thompson, writing for the Atlantic, offers one more sign of a turning tide: "This year, Washington University researchers concluded that, since 2019, rich Americans have worked less .... In a full reversal of the past 50 years, the highest-educated, highest-earning, and longest-working men reduced their working hours the most during the pandemic. According to the paper, the highest-earning 10% of men worked 77 fewer hours in 2022 than that top decile did in 2019 — or 1.5 hours less each week."
Cast your mind a few years further back, and you may recall those much-maligned colleagues who actually took a lunch break and then (**jaw drops**) left the office on time.
With hindsight, that incredulity now feels wildly misplaced and begs the question — were these people the original go-getters, the hyggers in our workplace who didn’t need a global pandemic to assess what really matters to them?
Related Article: Making the Case for Mindfulness in the Workplace
Why Ambition Sentiment Will Shape the Hygge Workplace
Corporate well-being benefits often represent the quid pro quo to stressful jobs — gym memberships, dedicated voluntary days, subsidized cafeterias — all designed to help employees decompress, socialize and momentarily step out of the corporate hamster wheel.
In-house yoga classes are another popular offering in larger organizations. The sought after benefits they provide — mental clarity and calmness; body awareness; relief of chronic stress patterns; centering the mind — don’t happen in a vacuum. You can’t attend one yoga class a week (or even five) and expect to be insulated against the otherwise demanding pace of working life and personal commitments.
The solution starts with our attitudes towards ambition. And while the societal view may be a slower burner to change, organizational culture need not.
Let’s start by accepting, no, respecting, that not all employees have ambition, want it at all or wish to progress beyond their current working station in life, because they get their kicks elsewhere. Let’s not encourage the speculation about colleagues who are showing as “away” on their Teams status for 10 minutes, with no obvious explanation. When they don’t come online before or stay after their designated working hours, let’s assume they are doing something that brings balance to their personal lives and therefore makes them a calm, relaxed and centered colleague to work with.
For those of us who do have ambition, try to recognize the benefit of sharing oxygen (or virtual connectivity) with colleagues who are moderate, pose no competition, carry no agenda or nefarious schadenfreude and can actually be unbiased sounding boards with insightful perspectives.
And let's all bring a little more hygge into our days.
Learn how you can join our contributor community.
About the Author
I have delivered knowledge related content and internal communications (often based on transformation initiatives) applying content design principles — in particular, GDS — and UX writing to provide a relevant, informed, and positive user experience for external and internal audiences. My background includes product management and I'm a keen advocate of “clean digital” practices — to minimize our carbon footprint and promote sustainability — across intranet and content channels.