‘Laziness’ behind fall in productivity

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Too many Norwegians just want to have fun and head for their holiday homes, frets the boss of an international accounting firm’s operations in Norway who’s Norwegian himself. He went public Thursday with his irritation over fellow executives and employees alike who spend too much time at their “hytter” and not enough time in the office.

Long traffic queues on winter weekends, as Norwegians head back and forth to their holiday "hytter," contributes to poor productivity in Norway, argues an accounting executive frustrated by his fellow Norwegians' priority on time away from work. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Long traffic queues on winter weekends, as Norwegians head back and forth to their holiday “hytter,” contribute to poor productivity in Norway, argues an accounting executive frustrated by his fellow Norwegians’ priority on time away from the office. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

“The weekend traffic starts on Thursday. Mobile phones are turned off after work. If you work long days, (there’s a fear) you’ll burn out. Is it a surprise that productivity is sinking?” Trond-Morten Lindberg wrote in a commentary published in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on, appropriately enough, Thursday. Lindberg, at the end of a week when a government commission unveiled its first report on how productivity needs to start rising again in Norway, vented his personal observations of what he clearly sees as an alarming trend in Norway that threatens business and the economy in general.

“It’s not low oil prices that pose the greatest threat to the Norwegian economy,” wrote Lindberg, managing director accounting firm BDO in Norway. Instead, he claims, there’s a “national attitude problem” that results in lower productivity. “I think it’s dangerous for Norwegian business and Norwegian competitiveness that we have become lazier,” Lindberg told DN in remarks that embellished his published commentary.

Free time becoming more important than work time
Lindberg noted how productivity has “slowly but surely sunk” since 2005. The decline began, coincidentally or not, about the time oil prices jumped and the Norwegian economy entered an extremely robust period. Lindberg suggests that Norwegians have since become so affluent that they’ve become accustomed to “the good life,” which includes long weekends at fancy “hytter” (in the mountains during the winter and by the sea in the summer, with many families owning both) or trips abroad. He suggests that Norwegians also spend too much time working out at athletic clubs or in the great outdoors, and notes how it became so common for parents to take their kids out of school for holidays that local governments had to forbid the practice.

“We have had generations over time who have done well, we have had a rock-solid economy where many have earned well without necessarily having to roll up their sleeves and work a bit extra,” Lindberg told DN. He said he’s “amazed” by the “people in my situation (with a demanding job, a working spouse and children) who also manage to spend 15 to 20 hours a week exercising. Hats off to them if they also have time to do everything else they must do, but I believe it’s at the expense of something else. That can be their families or their productivity at work.”

He all but blasted his fellow executives and workers in Norway for their alleged desire “to use all their hytter, to exercise so much, to do everything other than what’s needed to make Norway a more competitive and clever country than it is today.” Too many Norwegians, he suggests, now take their well-paying jobs for granted: “If Norwegian productivity is to increase, we need both an understanding of crisis times and a fundamental change in attitudes.”

Facing swift reaction
Lindberg’s commentary seemed sure to spark debate in a country with strong labour laws that regulate work hours and conditions on behalf of workers. Norwegian worklife is also characterized by generous paternal and professional leave, relatively high pay and a culture that allows flexible hours and often puts “family first” over business. At the same time Norwegian workers are often viewed as being highly efficient while actually on the job, starting early and taking only short lunch breaks in order to be out the door at 4pm. Lindberg attacked many aspects of Norwegian business life that earlier have been envied from abroad and viewed as positive, not negative.

Berit Svendsen, managing director for Telenor in Norway, flatly rejected Lindberg’s claim that Norwegians turn off their mobile phones after work hours. She could produce statistics showing that mobile traffic is heavy all through the week, with at least as much traffic on weekends as on weekdays. Studies by Telenor have also shown that one out of three Norwegians work while commuting to and from their jobs, and that one out of three bosses expect their employees to always answer their email promptly.

“Norwegians are fond of their hytter and we know that good mobile phone coverage makes it practical to also work at their hytter,” Svendsen told DN. “I don’t think Norwegians work little or are lazy. On the contrary, Norwegians are good at working extra, they are good at using technology and they want flexibility.”

No longer tied to their desks
Kristin Skogen Lund, head of national employers’ association NHO and the mother of four children, shares at least some of Lindberg’s concerns. “We surely need to sharpen up and become even better at our jobs,” Lund told DN. “Many need to contribute to this, NHO included.” She doesn’t think there’s any unwillingness to work hard, but agrees that Norway “has had good times” and that “doesn’t always contribute to sharpening productivity. We need to make sure we don’t fall into a trap and take things for granted, even though most of us are very well off.”

Lund stressed, though, that spending more time at holiday homes isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “You need to be careful about thinking that people don’t contribute just because they’re not sitting behind a desk in the office,” she told DN. “More and more workers have flexibility and can work anywhere.” A recent study showed that many parents continue to work even when they need to stay home with sick children, for example, and thereby aren’t shirking their jobs.

A top official at trade union federation LO disagreed with Lindberg’s outlook on working culture in Norway. “Lindberg has misunderstood some important points,” Hans-Christian Gabrielsen of LO told DN. “Productivity has not declined, it’s just rising more slowly than it was before. And productivity isn’t a result of working the most possible hours. What’s most important is what we get out of every hour.”

Lindberg, who called on business leaders to demand high productivity, maintains that it’s not a good sign that it’s “steadily easier” to find parking places in town on Monday mornings because many Norwegians are still at their hytter. The recent importance put on “work-life balance” is self-contradictory, he wrote, “because it implies that work is not a part of life. Jobs and careers are, and should be, an important part of people’s lives. Less focus on work and more focus on free time results in lower productivity. That’s simple accounting.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund