Hygge, Wellbeing and Virtual Working in Winter

by Katy Lindsay

As we settle very reluctantly into the most recent lockdown, conversations I’ve been having with remote teams indicate that while there’s plenty that is working okay, there’s still quite a lot that we could improve on.

We’ve written lots about remote working and what teams need to do to be good at it in our remote working guide. For instance, people who are managing virtual teams need to put much more thought into how they plan their meetings. They need to take deliberate steps to get people collaborating across the team.

This being winter, though, I wanted to focus today on the more Hygge aspects of virtual working. If you’re not someone who reads the Lifestyle section of the Sunday papers, you might not have come across Hygge. It’s a Danish word, pronounced “hoo-ga” that refers to a cosy contentment.

In Lifestyle magazines, the achievement of Hygge in the house is shown using Scandi wood furniture with soft blankets and cushions draped in a way that inspires a sense of comfort and belonging. The idea is that in Scandinavian winters we humans benefit from wrapping ourselves up in Hygge to feel okay. Drawing on this Hygge at work sentiment, the two somewhat different aspects of virtual working that I want to focus on in this article are comfort and belonging.

Time for a comfort audit

Firstly, let’s look at comfort. This is not about how comfortable a person feels in a team. We’ll leave that to the belonging discussion later. Instead, it’s about how physically comfortable people are when they’re working remotely.

Lots of people started the first lockdown nearly a year ago by cobbling together whatever kind of work area they could in their new home offices. They bought some things. Sales of desk lamps went through the roof. They did what they needed to make their home working space just about good enough.

However, as we watch some companies make long term decisions to move to permanent working from home, even if only for a few days a week, it’s now time for a comfort audit. If you’ve been working in slightly the wrong position for 7 hours a day for 10 months, you’ll be starting to get aches and pains that you didn’t have before. If you’re working in insufficient light, your eyes will be under strain. If you’re working in the broom cupboard, on a rickety table, it’s time for a change.

In my own WFH set up, I finally realised that getting a separate camera would stop me having to lean forward uncomfortably during online meetings. I’d been putting up with the discomfort since last March, but without thinking about how to solve it.

So, what small change can you make to enhance your physical comfort when working from home and improve your Hygge at work? If you’re a manager, how can you help your team to improve their WFH set up? Maybe just starting a discussion with the team will prompt some useful thoughts. With this lockdown feeling so much harder for most people, look for anything you can do for yourself or your team to feel more physically comfortable when working.

Connection and belonging

The second Hygge-like element that I wanted to look at is belonging. Teams have now been remote for so long that many relationships are starting to feel quite distant. Some of the extraordinary efforts that people put in at the beginning of the first lockdown are no longer being put in.

Many people got tired of organising or even attending quizzes. For many people, the rhythm that we established in the Spring and early Summer was interrupted when we could get out and see each other more. People started seeing friends for a socially distanced walk or drink rather than staying in to do the office “virtual drink” on a Friday night. The habit was broken, and in many workplaces, it has stayed broken.

One of the essential roles of team leaders or managers who are managing virtual teams is to create a sense of team cohesion, connect the team members, and ensure that team members feel a sense of belonging. The social side of things, the quizzes and virtual drinks are a way of creating a sense of connection, but they don’t necessarily create a sense of belonging. If they’re not done well, they may even have the opposite effect.

More important than the virtual social events are virtual team meetings. In regular times, a best practice model for running a face-to-face team would include a weekly team meeting and a weekly one-to-one meeting, or at least proper catch up, between the manager and each team member.

With remote working, many teams have moved to a more frequent pattern of team meetings, to try to create the sense of cohesion that we mentioned earlier. Managers who were previously using the best practice pattern of once a week have moved to twice a week or every other day (Monday, Wednesday, Friday). Some managers are taking it to extremes, seeming to be on an almost endless Teams call (which may be helping with connectedness but is unlikely to be supporting their team’s productivity).

However, frequency is only part of the picture. When we’re looking for cohesion and belonging, it is important to ask what is going on in those meetings, which for many people are now their only window into their team.

Inclusion in team meetings

To feel they belong in a team, people need to feel they are both included and valued. In a face-to-face team meeting, there are numerous opportunities for the more socially aware team members to ensure that others feel included. They can spot someone who looks disconnected, catch their eye, smile at them, pour a glass of water for them. No words need be exchanged, but a positive sentiment is created.

In a face-to-face environment, it is less important if the manager lacks the social skills to ensure that everyone feels included and valued because there may be others who can fill that gap.

In an online meeting, if the meeting leader is not socially skilled and is therefore not actively thinking about whether others in the meeting are feeling included, then it is much harder for the more socially skilled members of the team to fill that gap. When they try to jump in, the oft-discussed video conferencing software problems means that people are quickly talking over each other and having to repeat themselves.

So, when managing virtual teams, it falls to the team leader to try to ensure that everyone in the team feels included and valued during online meetings. They need to act like a facilitator as well as a co-ordinator. A skilled facilitator will draw out contributions from everyone, referring to people by name to reinforce the sense of inclusion. Remote team leaders need to do the same.

If the leader can’t play this facilitation role well, and many people can’t, then they need to think of a workaround. For instance, a highly pace-driven leader who knows they’re not good at ensuring that people feel included might work in tandem with a more socially skilled colleague. They could defer to them at some points in the meeting so that they can make comments or questions to draw in people who are otherwise being excluded.

Look for small changes

As a final thought, I’ve heard of many people who decided not to bother with New Year’s resolutions in 2021. Self-improvement feels all a bit too difficult when we’re really just trying to hang in there. Taking inspiration from Hygge, wrapping ourselves up against the winter cold, maybe it would be more helpful just to look for one or two small changes that we can make to look after ourselves or help our colleagues feel just a little bit better. Perhaps we could all benefit from a little more Hygge at work.


If you’d like to read more about the psychology of remote working, download our guide on How to Get the Best out of Your Virtual Teams in 2021.

About the Author

Katy Lindsay is the founder and CEO of Aptimore, an online learning platform that develops management and leadership skills. She has extensive experience in assessing and developing managers and teams in organisations of all shapes and sizes, ranging from SMEs to global corporates.