We’ve come a long way in the past few years, but Britain’s work culture remains steeped in stagnant practices that erode happiness and motivation.
Not every industry or country has the same unforgiving structure, however.
As Europe’s tech scene booms, we speak to two female leaders at its forefront about the ground-breaking approaches they are putting in place to ensure balance in the workplace.
From collective lunches and a 5pm office exodus in Sweden to nap rooms and visiting therapists in Berlin, find out how our European neighbours are turning the rule book upside down for innovative workplaces that foster wellbeing...
“We don’t measure time spent in the office”
Victoria Bastide, a single mum of two, is Chief Technology Officer of health app Lifesum. She lives in Stockholm, where offices are mostly empty by 5pm. Leaders at her company go out of their way to avoid glorifying overtime. The team spends one hour every day eating lunch in a collective space, rather than at their desks, and mums and dads both take lengthy periods of time out for shared parental leave.
In Sweden, a typical working day runs from 8am to 5pm. It isn’t common to work overtime or late into the evening here, and we don’t measure time spent in the office. We have a lot of flexibility enabling us to leave early or work from home.
At Lifesum, we are conscious not to create a culture where overworking is glorified. This starts with the leadership team - we make sure to not stress our colleagues by staying late, or emailing at night or over the weekend. Occasionally I do work at the weekend, but when this happens, I make sure that this isn’t seen. Otherwise, colleagues may feel pressured that they ought to be working, too. Our office is mostly empty by 5pm.
We make sure to not stress our colleagues by staying late
I take an hour’s lunch break every day, as do most people. I used to work in Silicon Valley in the States, where it was common for people to eat at their desk.
In Sweden, that never happens. We all sit together at a big table and talk to each other while we eat. Many of us at Lifesum also exercise together during lunch times. We have a ‘lunch run crew’ that goes out at least twice a week, as a group. It’s non-competitive, so people of all different levels participate.
We do lots of other things to foster community spirit too, from taking mini-breaks for “fika” – pastries and coffee - to playing ping pong. Every week on a Monday, the whole company has breakfast together. We also have external speakers who come in during lunch times to give talks.
We believe in the importance of building on each other’s ideas, so when we have meetings we try to make it as interactive as possible. We conduct them standing up rather than just sitting around a table, and we don’t always have the same person running a meeting. We also do regular “meeting cleaning”, where we throw out meetings that are no longer needed so that we can be more efficient with our time.
We think that structure should only be in place when it is absolutely needed. We tend to always err on the side of "unstructured work”, which comes with a high tolerance for error. We believe this can help creativity, innovation and tolerance to failure.
There is a far greater acceptance towards family responsibilities in Sweden.
For example, when I first took on the role as the CTO at Lifesum and was about to sign the papers, I spoke to co-founders Henrik Torstensson and Marcus Gners. I said, “OK, before I sign, do you both remember I am a single mum of two young children?”
I was nervous about how they would respond, but - without skipping a beat – they replied, “Yes, that is one of the reasons why we think you are a perfect match. We are building a sustainably company, where you should be able to both have children and a career.”
That was huge for me. Having now been at Lifesum for a while now, I can see that what they said is reflected in the company’s ethos.
If a door opens for me, I make sure I take as many women I can with me through that door
It’s fine to leave work a little earlier if you need to pick up your children, and this task is divided equally between women and men. It’s also common for both men and women to take a long time off with their newborns.
This is such a norm that being a woman of a ‘child-bearing age’ is not seen as a ‘career setback’, because the male has the same ‘setback’. They too will stay at home for extended periods with the children. During a recent recruitment process at Lifesum, I had two men who let me know that they would be taking paternity leave within the coming year.
I believe that one of the best ways to encourage women in the workplace is to help your fellow women; this is my golden rule. If a door opens for me, I make sure I take as many women I can with me through that door.
“People are human – they need space to focus on their mental health”
Mother-of-two Ida Tin is CEO of Berlin-based female health app Clue. This period and ovulation tool aims to empower women all over the world, in a philosophy that is held true in Clue’s headquarters, too. Ida takes the happiness of her team seriously, and flexible working is central to her business. Clue’s offices feature a nap room, weekly yoga classes and a therapist to help colleagues achieve balance and look after their mental wellbeing.
Trusting employees to do their work is key and, at Clue, we’re very understanding of individual needs. Employees are encouraged to do whatever they need to do to take care of themselves. That might mean working remote for a day to get some headspace, or taking an afternoon walk by the canal to decompress.
We realize people are humans, and might need some time or space to focus on their mental health. We have a therapist who gives free one-hour sessions a week to all employees. Every Tuesday, we have 90 minutes for physical fitness in the middle of the day, including an on-site yoga class.
We have a therapist who gives free one-hour sessions a week to all employees
We don’t think too much about who’s in late or early. Traditional values of a strict 9-5 are fading - people work in different ways. Some are productive early in the day, others work better later. Some people work fast, others take more time.
At Clue, employees might work 8am-4pm or 10:30am-7:30pm. We aim for an overlap between around 10:30am-4pm, so that there is some critical face time for meetings.
It’s very important for me personally to leave the office on time every day, because I have to go and meet my two kids when they’re done with school. If I don’t leave on time, then I won’t see them before they go to bed.
Our working environment caters to creativity and equality, with an open-floor plan. The conference rooms are bright and comfortable, not intimidating or stark like your traditional set-up. There are many different nooks to explore and concentrate, whether you want to meditate in the nap room, or work as a team in the cycle seating area.
There are also green plants all around to keep the air - and our moods – fresh. We discourage eating at the desk, and most of our office goes out for lunch. It’s important to get a break from the computer and from the office.
Berlin is such a creative hub, and the city’s liberal attitude and gender neutrality makes it a great place for a female entrepreneur to grow and succeed.
When it comes to having children, women should feel confident that they are valued and that their choice to become a mother is supported.
We are constantly experimenting with our work-life balances in the company. For instance, I hired a personal assistant (who also is my best friend) to take care of my daughter who was four months old when I came back to work. They both hung out in the office, but I made sure I breastfed and held my daughter many times a day.
Berlin’s liberal attitude makes it a great place for female entrepreneurs to thrive
Once you get good people in the door, it takes much more than catered lunch, booze and ping-pong to keep them happy.
To encourage fun and playfulness, we like to get out of the office as a company. Twice a year, we hit the road and go somewhere new to disconnect, talk, and play. Sometimes we forget how important it is to be playful, regardless of age.
It’s an inherent part of our human nature and it makes us smarter.
Images: Lifesum and Clue