The Way to Enough

Norsk Hydro's work-life experiments test a radical idea: A company can compete on the basis of balance. The company's central thesis: The race goes not to the swiftest but to the most sustainable.

"In Norway, the standard of living is the highest that it's ever been. But now we're seeing some paradoxes. People have very nice homes. But no one is at home during the day. Offices and homes are being underutilized. But we also have traffic and pollution. We have money and material goods, but no time for ourselves." — Ragnhild Sohlberg, Norsk Hydro executive

On the surface, Norway seems to be a moderate place. The climate can be intemperate, but the people and the lifestyle are just the opposite — the picture of restraint and judiciousness. Oh, there are some unassuming little oddities: Norwegians eat fish for breakfast, and often for lunch and for dinner. Caviar is so common that it comes in tubes, just like toothpaste. Very few people are overweight.

All of which seems charmingly unusual — but hardly alien.

The workplace, too, seems familiar: computers, cubicles, bullet-point slides. Familiar, that is, until you look more closely.

Every weekday at 6:10 a.m., Morten Lingelem boards a train at Sandefjord for the 90-minute ride to his job in Oslo. Lingelem, 42, a process-technology manager, has a standing reservation in the train's "office car," where he can power up his laptop and work in quiet comfort. That office car serves a purpose that's exactly the opposite of what it would be in the United States: It enables Lingelem to hold down a demanding engineering-management job, to spend more than three hours a day commuting, and still to be home by 6 p.m.

Atle Tærum, a colleague of Lingelem's, lives on a farm 90 minutes west of Oslo. And, two days a week, that's where he is, taking care of his 10-month-old daughter. Tærum is never without his cell-phone. On those days, customers — perhaps calling from Africa or from the Middle East — often reach him while he's plowing his fields, or chaperoning his son's kindergarten class.

Norway is, in fact, a sort of alternative universe of work. The inhabitants, the setting, the language, and the profit imperative all seem familiar. But Norwegians have a very different attitude about work — and a singular view of what work can become.

That vision is rooted in the notion that balance is healthy. The argument: Work can be redesigned to promote balance. More than that, balance can become a source of corporate and national competitive advantage. Working less can, in fact, mean working better.

Norsk Hydro, the company that employs both Lingelem and Tærum, is one of Norway's dominant institutions. It's the world's second-largest producer of oil from the Norwegian North Sea, and the single-largest salmon farmer. Hydro fertilizer feeds Florida tomatoes and Arizona golf courses. Hydro metals toughen Cadillac Seville bumpers and Nokia cell-phones.

Hydro operates in 70 countries and employs 39,000 people, many of whom live and work outside of Norway. But it remains emphatically Norwegian — an organization not easily understood in American terms. As excess defines American culture, so balance shapes life for Norwegians, who long ago discovered sane responses to the tension between work and family. Norway is a place, after all, where people typically leave work between 4 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Working women get at least 38 weeks of paid maternity leave; men get as many as 4 weeks of paid leave. Norway's answer to "How much is enough?" is found in the way the nation operates. Balance is the place where conversations about work and life begin.

In its 94 years of operation, "Hydro has created and nurtured industry in Norway," says Roald Nomme, a consultant and former manager at Hydro. "What is deep in the culture of Hydro is to think in the long term, to think more holistically — to think about the connections between employees, the company, and society."

Now Hydro is reexamining these connections. In a series of experiments across the company, it is testing a much more ambitious vision of balance. The two-year-old project, known as Hydroflex, has given hundreds of employees varying combinations of flexible hours, home offices, new technology, and redesigned office space.

What has Hydro learned?

Hydro believes that it can help employees find a better balance by redesigning physical work spaces — and by redesigning work itself. It can free people from old restrictions on where and when they work. That flexibility makes workers more productive and jobs more appealing, and more appealing jobs attract more talented people.

Linked to the push for flexibility are new notions of diversity. Hydro believes that diversity goes beyond race or gender. Diversity has to do with perspective — and it exists within individuals: Each of us is many different people at different times in our lives. Cultivate that diversity, and greater creativity will follow.

These workplace initiatives come at a critical time for Hydro. Because of weak commodity and oil prices, profits dropped by 4% between 1994 and 1998, even as revenues increased by 40%. In most American companies, such performance would be enough to end any grand experiments in work redesign, diversity, and balance. But at Hydro, those projects persist and even thrive — because, to Hydro, these initiatives are not indulgences. They are critical strategic elements for survival.

Yes, Hydro must go head-to-head with competitors in the United States — and in Germany, in Singapore, and in Mexico. As it fights these global battles, Hydro is up against relentless freneticism. We Americans pay lip service to sanity, but when the going gets tough, we readily abandon balance and work even harder.

Norwegians believe that such mania is not sustainable. In the end, they say, balance will win out.

Farming Knowledge Workers

"When you're a knowledge worker, when do you work?" asks Ragnhild Sohlberg. Then she answers her own question: "As long as you have your brain with you, you are working."

Sohlberg, 63, is an able guide — to Norway, to Hydro, to an altered attitude about work. As Hydro's vice president of external relations and special projects, she is one level removed from Hydro's CEO, and so she has a free hand to push her views on work and balance throughout the company. She is one of the first women to have reached the level of director at a major Norwegian company. She is worldly and reflective; her perspective has been shaped by her U.S. education, by motherhood and grandmotherhood, and by impressive careers in both academia and business.

Sohlberg married at 18, had two daughters, and spent a decade "quite happily" as a housewife. Divorced at 30, with her two daughters (ages 6 and 9) in tow, she headed for the United States. She studied economics at the University of Wisconsin and then focused on NATO manpower issues at Rand, the famous think tank in Santa Monica, California, where she pursued a PhD.

She went on to teach at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School before moving to the private sector. First came a stint at energy conglomerate Brown Boveri. Then, 13 years ago, she returned to Norway and took a job at Hydro. Today she still teaches university classes, and she also chairs the board of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics.

Her daughters are now married and have children of their own. "I see a tremendous difference for them," she says, "in the changes in the lives of families that have dual careers, plus tremendous pressures at work. There's a real time squeeze. I'm very concerned about baby boomers' early burnout. We cannot afford the personal cost, and we cannot afford the cost to business, to industry, and to society."

By training and inclination, Sohlberg views the world in terms of balance and in terms of the optimum allocation of scarce, valuable resources — whether those resources are farmland, parents, or employees. Sohlberg's view is simple: Experienced farmers don't plant, harvest, plow, and reseed their fields season after season; they let the soil rest. Yet modern companies think nothing of working their most talented engineers, programmers, and managers ceaselessly.

"Look at all these consulting companies, where people work 60, 70, 80 hours a week," she says. "What happens to them? They burn out, and, a couple of years later, they leave. And all their experience goes with them. It's lost. That practice is not good business."

To compete sustainably, companies must tend to their knowledge workers as a farmer tends to his land. Which is, as it turns out, the lesson of Atle Tærum's farm.

Working on Atle's farm

Atle Tærum, 42, lives at the intersection of the old Norway and the new Norway. He is a knowledge worker — the chief agronomist at Hydro, an expert in the use and subtleties of fertilizer. He heads a group that provides field support to farmers outside of Europe.

Tærum is also a farmer. He and his wife, Ragnhild Lie, own a farm — 46 hectares (about 110 acres) — that his grandfather began tilling in 1890. Tærum grew up in the farmhouse on this land, as did his father. His three children now play in the same rooms that he played in when he was a child.

In Norway, small farms are considered so vital to the landscape, to the economy, and to the culture that farm owners are strongly discouraged from selling land for development. And, traditionally, the oldest son takes over his father's farm. That's just what Atle and Lie did in 1992, when they moved from Oslo to Skotselv.

The appeal of farm life is obvious. The house is solid, the outbuildings are abundant, the landscape is soothing and invigorating, and the work is deeply satisfying. The farm provides a rhythm to the days and the seasons, and a connection to family and to Norway itself. But the farm cannot support this generation of Tærums. Because of pressure on commodity prices, it barely breaks even. So Tærum works at Hydro, and Lie does CAD-based drafting for an architectural and furniture-design firm.

The challenge for Tærum, and therefore for Hydro, is profound: How can he best contribute to his company — while staying true to his traditional heritage and to the life he and his wife want for their family? His sense of balance is admirable but also precarious: It's dependent on his own as well as his employer's commitment. So how does Hydro accommodate an invaluable employee and also get the most out of him? How does it cultivate his potential?

The answer is rooted, first, in flexibility. Since his third child, Mathea, was born last August, Tærum has arranged to work three days a week at Hydro's headquarters. He gets paid 80% of his full-time salary for the work he does on those days. The other two days of the workweek, Tærum stays at home while Lie goes to work.

Much of Tærum's work at Hydro involves providing support and answering questions for Hydro fertilizer salespeople: What kind of fertilizer works best for mangoes? For mace? For rice? When is the optimal time to apply it? Technically, Tærum is off work on his days at home. But because his office phone is forwarded to his mobile number, a call will often come in from Kuala Lumpur or Cairo or Angola. As often as not, a farmer is calling.

"Sometimes I will be out plowing a field," says Tærum, "and I will get a call. Recently someone from Russia called, and I could say, 'As it happens, I'm sitting on my tractor, putting some fertilizer on my own field now.' I can draw on my own experience as a farmer, and people trust me more for that reason."

Tærum likes the arrangement. Despite changing responsibilities and ever-shifting schedules, he says, "I feel less stressed this way. Before, I was leaving the house early every day. I was back at 6 p.m. I was tired, I was traveling, and, in a way, I was never happy. Now I can manage my day and my life a bit better. I think I'm doing a better job for Hydro. I'm doing different things five days a week, and I'm more connected to my family."

Certainly, the arrangement is far from perfect. The mobile phone can ring at all hours of the day or night. Tærum also travels up to 100 days a year. On those weeks, the flexible arrangement breaks down. Meanwhile, the farm always waits. "Some days during the summer," says Tærum, "we work 17 or 18 hours."

Still, he says, "When you are doing one job, you are resting from the other." In fact, Tærum hopes to return to 100% pay — but on his terms: three days at the office, and two days a week working at home. "With the kind of work that I do," Tærum says, "working at home should not be a problem. If you can't find a flexible solution at Hydro, you can't find one anywhere."

Turning Work Style Upside Down

For Ragnhild Sohlberg, Tærum exemplifies how knowledge workers work: As long as he is conscious and has a phone, he's on the job. His balance between the farm and the office, she thinks, presents an appealing model. "What he has is something that we're all fighting for," she says. "We're all desperate for time to reflect. We have a kind of Calvinist work ethic. We're always moving."

That said, Skotselv or even Oslo is hardly midtown Manhattan. The pace of life in those cities is decidedly more human. Indeed, Norwegian culture — the prism through which Hydro's efforts at balance must be viewed — takes some fundamental American attitudes about work and turns them upside down.

In the United States, for instance, working long hours is seen as admirable, even heroic. At Hydro, the standard workday, even for professionals, is seven and a half hours. If you're still sitting at your desk at 6 p.m., people wonder why you can't get your work done.

Work in Norway is also shaped by a tradition of cooperation between unions and management that's unheard of in the United States. Labor and management typically work together to change processes and structures for greater efficiency. Unions believe that higher productivity brings more jobs and higher pay. Management wants higher profits — but satisfied employees aren't bad either.

All this allows — and perhaps requires — Norwegians to consider balance in fundamental terms. A rich life is a diverse collection of compelling experiences, some of which involve work. Work that is all-consuming is unhealthy — for the individual, for the organization, and for the community. Time spent away from work is restorative. More to the point: Time spent outside work fuels work itself.

As she drives her blue Saab through the Norwegian countryside, Sohlberg nods at the passing fields. "Here," she says, "my mind is at ease. I never know what I might think of."

Designing the Hydro Flex Work Space

A group of Hydro employees has gathered to describe how Hydroflex works. Their impressions have some import: Hydro plans to build a new headquarters near Oslo, and lessons learned from the work experiments will influence the building's design. How many workers must it accommodate — and how many will work at home? Which interior designs make workers most productive?

The connection between work and design is critical. As the discussion unfolds, however, a surprising message emerges. These experiments aren't just about flexibility. Nor is the new headquarters just about heightened productivity. Underlying all of the planning is the pursuit of something more important: diversity.

Kjerstin Skeidsvoll, 29, a consultant in the HR department: The idea of Hydroflex is this (she flashes a vision statement on the screen): "To work effectively, unconstrained by time or location across the organization." You want to become a more flexible organization. Hydroflex is about getting out of rigid thinking. You need to concentrate more on the product you deliver and less on how much time you work. The distinction is important for the office building.

Erik Gudbrandsen, 29, a psychologist who works in Hydro Data, the company's information-technology department: With the new building, the question is not "What should the modern office look like?" but rather "What kind of people are working here, and what kind of work is being done?" At Hydro Data, our starting point for Hydroflex was simple — lack of space. From there, our goal has become something grander (he uses an overhead projector to flash a vision statement on a screen): "We will have flexible working conditions that enable all employees, their families, and the organization to achieve balance in a functional and satisfying way." But Hydro Data is also an internal service provider for Hydro divisions. We show people how to use technology as an organizational-development tool. And for those customers, our goal is diversity. For example, we don't want to make it impossible for people to work for Hydro just because they have small children. If we exclude one part of the work world, then we won't have enough people, and we won't have enough talent.

Skeidsvoll: If you can offer this or that solution, more people will be able to work here. To attract and keep the people you want, you need to give them flexibility and freedom.

Redefining Diversity

In offices throughout the United States, "diversity" is an issue that people discuss exhaustively — but to little effect. We have built a complex apparatus and a thriving industry for confronting human differences. The effort is admirable, yet diversity remains an inherently self-limiting goal — a matter of pursuing equal opportunity by coding employees according to race, gender, or national origin.

In Norway, where only 5% of the population is non-Norwegian, diversity has a different meaning. "Diversity doesn't necessarily concern gender, ethnicity, or culture," Sohlberg says. Nor does it mean allowing for the possibility of difference. Rather, diversity means cultivating difference and puncturing conformity.

For Hydro to compete globally, its managers must seek out different perspectives — and make use of those perspectives. They must understand that the measure of an organization's creativity is directly related to its diversity. "A company can't be creative when it employs a group of homogenous people," Sohlberg says. "Creativity and innovation come from putting unlike people together."

But there's something more — a proposition that's ingenious as well as intuitive. Diversity, Norwegians argue, is personal. "You have a lot of diversity within yourself," says Sohlberg. "In an organization, one has to be conscious of that kind of diversity." Because people aren't one-dimensional, they can contribute in a variety of ways at any given moment — and in a variety of ways over time.

Which leads Sohlberg to yet another modest proposal: "What we need," she suggests, "is career development based on each stage of a person's life. Atle has young children, so he should travel less. People who are young and single or who have no children often love to travel. And they should. You should be able to plan your career according to your phase of life."

That "timed-release career path" that Sohlberg describes does not as yet appear in Hydro's HR packets. But it's under discussion — a future weapon in the company's competitive armory.

And, ultimately, this is all about competitiveness. "The diversity issue is so important because the world today is more complex than ever," Sohlberg says. Only those people who have rigid mind-sets and narrow responsibilities are free to work every day from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. — in the same location, sitting at the same desk, without distraction. In the global economy, the company that insists on that kind of competence will eventually cut itself off from the talent that it needs to survive.

Changing Work Style — and Work

Work redesign brings flexibility. Flexibility furthers diversity. Diversity, in turn, enhances competitiveness. Therefore, improving competitiveness begins with changing how people work.

Unni Foss, 47, lives on a peninsula across the fjord from Oslo. She commutes by ferry to her job as a graphic artist at the Hydro Media group, which publishes Hydro's in-house communications and offers design services to other divisions throughout the company.

In early 1998, after two years of planning, Hydro Media's 35 employees inaugurated their Hydroflex project. Every employee was set up with a home office (including appropriate computer equipment and an ISDN line) and given up to $2,000 for furniture. Staffers were urged to work at home up to two days a week.

"I saw the possibilities immediately," Foss says. "You work when it fits you and your work. When I need to be in the office, I'm in the office." ISDN communications lines allow workers like Foss, who use data-intensive graphics, to work from home. Foss makes corrections from her home office and then sends her work to the Hydro print shop for delivery to the appropriate in-house division.

As the Hydroflex experiment unfolds, the deeper challenge lies in changing people's attitudes — about their work and about one another. The arrangement, after all, has recast relationships between peers as well as between staff and management. "I used to wonder, Do they really mean that we can do this?" Foss says. " Do they trust us?"

Management not only trusts — it cares. Last winter, in the months before her father's death, Foss worked at home full-time. Foss was able to be with her father and to support her mother. She kept her salary, and Hydro got good work from a talented staffer. Where she worked didn't matter. When she worked didn't matter, as long as tasks could be coordinated with her job partner.

"We used to focus on how many hours people were in the office," says Ole Johan Sagafos, 43, head of Hydro Media. "Now we focus on the results. It doesn't really matter to me what my colleagues are doing, as long as they deliver the results on time."

Roald Forseth, 42, also works for Hydro, but his world of work couldn't be more different from Foss's. He labors at the furnaces in the magnesium plant at Porsgrunn, 60 miles from Oslo. There he melts raw ore to produce magnesium ingots. The job is demanding and dangerous, requiring him to work with blistering-hot liquid metal for long periods of time.

For the past three years, Forseth has participated in another experiment in work redesign. The plan emphasizes teamwork — turning foremen into "coaches" and allowing workers more autonomy, more control. It's just the sort of strategy-of-the-month that makes factory workers roll their eyes. At Porsgrunn, however, teamwork has gradually taken hold.

"When the project first started," says Forseth, "I knew only about my own job. We hadn't been using all of the information that was available, all the competence in the organization. What we discovered is that we can learn from one another freely. We've taken responsibility for collecting knowledge for the team. And running the casting house is easier when everyone knows everything."

For Forseth, diversity is about something supremely practical: Teamwork requires accepting diversity of opinion. "Before, if you criticized someone, you were as likely to get a black eye as not," Forseth says. "Now we have a common language. We're more open-minded. We've all taken responsibility for everyone else."

All of which proves that muscle workers can also be knowledge workers. Forseth and his coworkers have gained new skills, and productivity has increased by 25%. It's not hard to imagine the team eventually managing not only its work but also its schedules and its training. Flexibility is not for white-collar workers only.

Competing on Balance

"Hydro," Sohlberg says, "is not an idyllic place where employees can come and go as they please, and work whenever and wherever they desire." Flexibility, diversity, and balance, she says, all serve a business purpose. Ultimately, they are strategies to make workplaces more effective.

Yet Hydro, like all of Norway, remains distinct from much of the rest of the world. Balance is not a core business value elsewhere. As it grows and globalizes, Hydro is starting to absorb that reality.

"We are finding out that our little company, here in our little country, is part of the big world," chuckles Hans Jørn Rønningen. Rønningen, 53, Hydro's senior vice president in charge of global human resources, is a good-humored but blunt-spoken man. He is not one to put a positive spin on negative circumstances.

"Who competes with us around the world?" Rønningen asks. The list is daunting and includes the likes of Exxon and Royal Dutch/Shell. That, he says, is why Hydro must move faster than ever before. Global cost competition creates severe pressure for companies that try to take care of their employees.

"Until now, we may have been naïve about meeting challenges," Rønningen says. Then he adds, only half-jokingly, "Ragnhild [Sohlberg] is the dream. I am the reality."

Yet Rønningen also acknowledges that Sohlberg's dream isn't so crazy. To compete against the world's best, Hydro must attract and keep the best people — and not just in Norway. "So how do we keep the best people?" Rønningen asks. "We need to offer new challenges. We need to give people flexibility and options."

The question, then, is this: As the global marketplace becomes a single economy, will Hydro abandon its defining Norwegian spirit? Will it forsake balance for performance? Or will the rest of the world meet Hydro on its terms?

Sohlberg, naturally, expects that the world will discover what Hydro is already learning. "Hydro may be ahead of the crowd," because of its Norwegian heritage. "But this search for a more effective workplace and a better society is a global issue."

If Sohlberg and Hydro are right, balance is an economic imperative. Long-term competitiveness may require balance, just as it requires speed, sensitivity to customers, and profits. And if competitiveness requires balance, the 21st century will look much different from the 20th century.

Charles Fishman (cnfish@mindspring.com) is a contributing editor to Fast Company. In a modest experiment in work-life balance, he took his wife and son with him to Norway. Instead of bringing along a laptop, he packed an eight-day supply of baby food. You can visit Norsk Hydro on the Web (www.hydro.com).

Add New Comment

1 Comments

  • Jeff D'Ambrosia

    Norway isn't the USA, where competitiveness is all-consuming, so the cultural difference would be hard to overcome. Additionally, US companies are compared on the stock market in very short-term intervals, and the kind of company culture Norsk Hydro has would come under a lot of fire on the street if they had a bad quarter.