By Linda Dyett
Gather a bunch of Danes in a large room, and chances are, after a few minutes they’ll congregate into a group—a club … a guild … a league … a troop … a committee; heck, they’ll even form subcommittees. About half of Denmark’s population belongs to at least one group: a sports or recreation club (very popular), labor union, political party, co-op. In fact Danish co-ops date back to the late Middle Ages, when farmers began forming village communes.
The Danes have coined a word for this group affinity: foreningsdanmark ("association Denmark"). Evidently seeing the virtue of strength in numbers, they welcome every opportunity for cohesion and camaraderie—though Frede Vestergaard, an journalist who covers economics for the Weekendavisen newspaper, proposes that working in groups is a learned skill that’s given a high priority in school, as early as in kindergarten.
Many of Denmark’s larger workplaces, and some of the smaller ones, have individual employee organizations, which often double as local branches of trade or labor unions. Similar groups are in evidence at universities. What’s offered, in addition to policy decisions and collective bargaining, is a huge variety of goods and services—everything from arranging baby gifts and birthday parties to tickets to concerts and sports events to discounts at fitness centers and access to company-owned summer houses and vacations abroad.
“As taxes are high, this is a welcome way to secure benefits,” says Jens Jørgen Madsen, digital editor of Berlingske Media, a conglomerate that runs radio stations and websites in addition to newspapers. And it’s not uncommon for employees to proudly flash their benefits. But it's also about team-building, making employees feel committed to their workplace and colleagues; this creates a common corporate spirit. And for the employer, adds Madsen, “This is a way of positively branding their workplace. You might even say employee benefits are part of their storytelling—what it’s like to work at that company. And of course it’s a plus when attracting new employees.”
Typically, employee groups, which are voluntary, are funded through dues of maybe $35 per month—though it’s common for employers to contribute as well, to the tune of, say, 500 kroner, or just under $100 per employee each year. The perks vary from group to group, always reflecting the needs, wishes and aspirations of the employees.
Here are a few examples of foreningsdanmark at work:
At Carlsberg, the brewing company established in 1847, the employee association offers vacation stays at company apartments in Paris, Barcelona and Berlin.
The employee group at Ritzaus Bureau, Denmark’s main news agency, purchases artworks, which are then sold at members-only auctions.
Magasin du Nord, the iconic Copenhagen-based department store founded in 1868, has a longstanding employee organization that for much of the 20th century made its company-owned vacation home in Hundested (a coastal town favored by pleasure-boaters and sport fishermen) available to employees and their families. Another longstanding Magasin operation is its skittles club, founded in 1915.
Berlingske Media has arranged a host of discounts at local retail businesses, including a dry cleaner’s, a "cosmeceuticals” salon, a bakery, a home-furnishings store that sells pillow chairs and pet beds, and lots of restaurants (though lunch at the employee cantine is an unbeatable, all-inclusive DKr 32, less than $6).
The Novo Group, a recruitment advisory firm, has an employee association that arranges well-attended Christmas, bingo, and Fastelavn parties (Fastelavn being Denmark’s version of Halloween).
Jyske Bank’s employee group arranges ski trips, beer tastings, food demonstrations, family vacation packages, and evenings with famous artists.
The Lego Group’s association runs a scholarship fund that has supported a children’s home near its production facility in Juarez, Mexico.
So there you have it. Saunas, skiing, art, celebrations, philanthropy, food, wine, beer and pet beds. These are some of the perks that put a positive spin on foreningsdanmark, the culture of work in Denmark.
—Linda Dyett is a freelancer who’s lived in Copenhagen. Her articles about Denmark have appeared most recently in Monocle and Afar.