Work comes second in Norway during the Winter Olympics

Norwegians -- born with skis on their feet, as one saying goes -- go wild every four years for the sporting rendezvous at which they excel.

Work comes second in Norway during the Winter Olympics
Photo: Lise Åserud / NTB scanpix

People all over the country follow the Games closely, even in the workplace.

“If the phone rings during the final sprint, I call back a few minutes later,” smiles Espen Thoresen, an online community manager. In Norway, work sometimes comes second during the Winter Olympics – often with the blessings of bosses.

At Kahoot, a young Oslo start-up that makes educational apps, a big flat screen TV on the wall of the common area is showing the Vikings' latest exploits thousands of miles away in Pyeongchang.

On this day, two employees — both Norwegian, though the staff here is almost as international as the Olympic Games — drop themselves into two armchairs to follow the men's Nordic combined where athletes compete in cross-country skiing and ski jumping.

Because of the time difference, “the Olympics are on in the morning here, so you can give yourself a few small breaks,” says Thoresen, who ignores his work phone when the events get exciting.

“And it's finished by 2pm. Then it's full steam ahead for the rest of the day so we still get a lot of work done in addition to watching the Olympics,” he explains.

He's far from alone.

Almost a quarter of Norwegians said before the Games started that they planned to watch the Olympics on work time, according to a poll conducted by Norstat for cable TV operator Get TDC.

Among men, 12 percent said they would even defy their boss if he or she banned employees from watching during work time.

That hasn't been necessary at Kahoot.

“It's tradition in Norway to gather children during class time to watch some of the most exciting events,” says co-founder Asmund Furuseth.

“So when you start working, it feels normal to be allowed to watch the Olympics even if you're at work. Norwegians are good about prioritising their workday.”

During the Winter Olympics, Norway falls into “a kind of state of emergency”, according to Vegard Einan, vice president of the Parat trade union.

“To watch the end of a relay, or a speed skating race, or ski jumping or a downhill without answering the phone is generally accepted,” he explains.

And, he insists, it has no negative impact on Norwegians' work: “It makes people happy and we know that happiness in the workplace increases productivity.”

Employers are as passionate about the Games as their employees.

“My experience is that companies find good solutions and manage to combine the wish to watch the main sporting events and productivity,” says Nina Melsom of the employers' organisation NHO.

In 2014, Oslo's then-mayor Fabian Stang made headlines when he suggested that the city's 55,000 municipal employees ought to abstain from watching the Sochi Winter Games during work time. An outcry ensued, and he had to soften his stance.

Twenty years earlier, Norway was so absorbed by the Olympics it was hosting in Lillehammer that a robber took advantage of the opportunity to make off with a national treasure: Edvard Munch's painting “The Scream” was nabbed from an Oslo museum just hours before the opening ceremony.

“Of course the Olympics could mean a drop in efficiency (at work) in the short term,” said Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who has been seen absorbed by competitions on her tablet and mobile phone.

“But if Norway does well, people are happy and this happiness helps increase efficiency,” she told TV Norge last week.

And, let it be said, Norway is not just doing well, it is doing excellently.

The country of less than 5.3 million inhabitants is currently dominating the medal standings in Pyeongchang — its most prolific Games ever.

Even combining the USSR's and Russia's medals, and those of East and West Germany, Norway is among the top three countries in the history of the Winter Olympics. It is also home to the three athletes who have won the most medals: Marit Bjørgen (14), Ole Einar Bjørndalen (13) and Bjørn Dæhlie (12).

So will it be hard to go back to work on Monday morning once the Games are over and the euphoria has subsided? “It'll feel a little empty,” admits Alexander Remen, another sports fan at Kahoot.

“But then we can still rejoice in the fact that we've won so many medals.”

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