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I work in Norway, one of the most productive countries in the world. Here's why – and how our work differs from the US.

Megan Carnegie   

I work in Norway, one of the most productive countries in the world. Here's why – and how our work differs from the US.
  • Norway is often in the 10 happiest countries in the world, but is also in the top 3 most productive.
  • A Norwegian CEO based in Oslo whose worked in the US shares the major differences.

This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Sondre Kvam, co-founder and CEO of Naer, a VR platform that helps teams improve their productivity with fully immersive workshops, who lives in Oslo, Norway. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I live and work in Norway and am a co-founder of Naer, a VR productivity platform. I work with employees based all around the world and travel to the US frequently. I often think about productivity and how to embed it in working practices.

Sweden is often lauded for its working practices, and of course, it has a larger economy, but it's Norway that's often ranked as one of the most productive countries in the world. Looking at GDP per hour, Norway often falls in the top three countries globally.

These aspects of Norway's working culture contribute to high productivity while maintaining a good work-life balance. Norway also falls in the top 10 happiest countries in the world.

People spend less time navigating workplace conflict

Much of our work life is based around the Norwegian model of cooperation and mutual respect between employers and employees, unions, employee associations, and the government.

There are laws to ensure good information flows between businesses and employees. For instance, if you have more than 30 employees, you're obligated to have an "employee representative" as part of the board.

There are unions for knowledge workers and most normal jobs like restaurant work. Discussions between unions and companies usually happen via the "Næringslivets Hovedorganisasjon" or NHO, a sort of union businesses can join. Companies don't have to join the NHO, but most do.

Norway has something called "lønnsoppgjøret" or "the salary settlement" every year, where general guidelines around pay are established for each industry in negotiations with unions and employer associations. Once a wage baseline has been set in each sector, every business has some leeway to give more to high performers.

Civil conversations between all these players are the norm, and people don't spend much time in conflicts regarding workplace issues because they're handled by these trusted bodies.

Because of that, Norwegian employees tend to be focused and spend their time well during work hours. Most people work traditional hours like 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. or 9 p.m. to 5 p.m. There's a mentality that you should strive to have a life outside work by working set hours and having boundaries.

Deep work is the default

At work, Norwegians are working, and deep work is expected of everyone. So there's no doing life admin, answering LinkedIn messages, chatting to colleagues about unrelated topics, or online shopping, like in UK or US offices. Most of the time, Norwegians are head down working or collaborating. Pretty much every Norwegian has some sort of noise-canceling headset. If you're wearing one, you want absolute peace.

Going to the US, I often hear of people putting in 80-hour working weeks. However, Americans have a different relationship to the workplace — they stay later because they have longer commutes and maybe can get dinner, use the gym, or other life admin services at their offices. 'Busywork,' life admin, and rest time all happen at work.

In Norway, anyone working at any large company logs off and continues with their home lives when the day's allocated working hours are up, which are tightly regulated during collective bargaining. That's across sectors — banking, consulting firms, and service jobs.

A lot of people turn off notifications outside work. I've set up my notification systems so that only important things come through outside work hours. I like getting up early, reading books, and trying to spend time with things relevant to my work. There's this misconception that being constantly available for your workplace makes you more productive or faster. Being constantly "on" just interrupts time to think things through or get inspiration from other places.

There's an understanding between employers and employees in Norway that you will do better work if you're not thinking about work all the time. Talking of work outside work is not taboo, but you don't want to be the guy who can't shut up about work. Norwegians are encouraged to take holidays and spend time with their families. Stress and exhaustion narrow your perspective, which in turn degrades your work.

Ahead of time, or you're late

For Norwegians, being late to anything is incredibly rude. Either you're ahead of time, or you're late. Sitting around waiting for someone to join a meeting is one of the things Norwegians hate the most. It's throwing both money and time out of the window.

As a society, we do not praise "grinding for the sake of grinding," and there's an awareness of the cost-benefit of doing so. I don't feel a pressure not to work, but there's a clear expectation that I keep an eye on my own well-being.

As the cofounder of a startup, I work a fair amount, with particular crunch points like launching products, sorting recruitment, and preparing for a fundraise. Having customers in other time zones also means I must be flexible with my work schedule and sometimes work in the evening or early morning.

As everywhere else, there is a problem of people being burned out as founders in Norway.

My girlfriend is much more strict on the boundaries of her work. She is a data scientist and backend engineer for a Norwegian startup. When she's done for the day, she completely switches messages off. She probably gets even more annoyed than I about waiting for someone on a call.

It links to the fact we have limited time at work. You get used to this dynamic where time is precious and hate it when someone's late outside work. If I were to be more than 10 minutes late for a date in Norway, that would be unacceptable. That relationship would be finished before it started — it's a total dealbreaker.

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