What it's like to work in Denmark: "Lunch is catered, and everyone eats together."

A globe-trotting game designer on paternity leave, workplace culture and how travel can help your salary

Work-life balance, parental leave, office culture—those are important considerations when you’re starting a new gig anywhere, but they’re especially significant if you cool new job happens to be located in a totally different country. In this series, we’re looking at what it’s really like to be a Canadian ex-pat. This week, we’re hearing from a Toronto video game designer who’s on his second ex-pat experience.

Name: Ian Sinclair
Age: 33
Industry: Video Games
Occupation: Designer
Hometown: Toronto
Current Location: Copenhagen, Denmark
Years Working Abroad: 1.5 years

How did you end up living and working abroad?

To be frank, I saw it as an opportunity to see some more of the world on someone else’s dime. To get ahead at the company I’d left behind in Toronto, I’d been working quite a lot in my spare time on various side projects using a particular set of tools. I eventually became interested in seeing if I could find work that would allow me to train up with those tools during the day as well. Being paid to learn something I’d be doing in my evenings anyway—and getting a ticket to another country at a company with global name recognition—is what originally made me pack my bags. I left Canada late March 2017. I spent one year in New Zealand, then moved to Denmark.

What are the best parts of working internationally?

It provides solid proof that there are different ways of doing things, despite what people may say back home. And it’s allowed me to experience different parts of the world more as a local and less as a tourist. You can’t help but befriend your coworkers in my industry, and any one of them can provide amazing advice and recommendations about where you are. The odds are also slim that your hometown will just happen to be host to the studios you consider to be the best in the world. That would be quite a coincidence. To keep moving up, odds are you’ll have to hop around.

What are the hardest parts of working internationally?

Life goes on back home, and while you might fly back for a wedding, it can be painful to contemplate the little things you’re missing. As much of a privilege as it is to move around and have new experiences, I have found myself asking whether it’s better to always be chasing new things, or to just log more good time with the friends you’ve already accrued over your life back home. The answer is probably it’s healthy to do a bit of both, but being in another time zone makes it hard to be balanced.

How does your income compare to a similar job in Canada?

I was able to negotiate a substantial salary bump when I went to work in New Zealand. It’s worth noting that the group I was working with had partnered with an American firm with an enormous amount of venture capital behind them. The effects industry in NZ pays pretty well anyway, but I think I penetrated a strange bubble of indirect cash flow there, where normal rules maybe don’t apply. But generally, the more you move around, the more you’re arguing about your salary, and you don’t tend to make less when that happens.

How does the cost of living compare to your cost of living in Canada?

I wouldn’t be confident talking about the overall cost of living in Denmark or New Zealand compared to Canada. On some things that matter to me (coffee, electronics), it’s definitely more expensive than at home. But average wages are also higher. It’s also hard to compare rent prices between cities with different neighbourhoods, layouts and infrastructure. In any case, the story between the cities I’ve lived in is pretty similar; the rent is getting higher, and it’s hard to keep pace with your own salary. It’s outpacing most people. One thing about Denmark’s rental market in particular is that it’s normal to have to front six months of rent (or more) to get into a new lease. And some of that is a deposit you might not see back. It’s difficult to hop between short-term stays, too, so it’s not especially friendly for newcomers in that sense.

What is the office culture like in the country where you’re working?

I think Danes generally think of themselves as favoring flat management structures, and from what I’ve seen that’s quite true. The culture is fairly laid-back. People rarely work late. It’s not seen as especially scandalous to crack a beer in the afternoon.

What is the attitude toward work-life balance?

It’s a high priority in Denmark generally. People don’t view overwork as especially healthy or praise worthy, from what I can tell.

How do your benefits compare to the benefits you’d be entitled to at a similar job in Canada?

Once I’ve put in a year here, I’ll have six weeks of vacation, about twice as much vacation as I did in Toronto. Until then, as a visitor, I have less—two weeks. Healthcare here is pretty similar to Canada, as are pensions. Sick days aren’t counted against a limit; people take what they need, and sometimes work from home. Bonuses come up rarely where I work, so I’ll have to wait and see. At any rate, for me, bonuses weren’t very reliable in Toronto either.

What kind of attitudes are there toward taking parental leave?

Denmark’s a very progressive place. As far as I can tell, there’s no taboo here whatsoever when it comes to parental leave. We have several fathers away for four-month-long paternity leaves now. It’s not considered unusual, and I think leave can be transferred between partners.

Did your company help you navigate your move?

They did. I was provided a stipend, and connected with a third-party company that helps expats with their paperwork and provides flexible housing. (This was expensive, but it shields you from having to navigate the rental market in Copenhagen as a newcomer.)

Do you have any plans to come back to Canada?

One day, I think I will. My parents are immigrants from South Africa, so we don’t have much family in Canada, and I don’t feel great about being away from them (or my old friends) indefinitely in a foreign land. I’d like to get a project under my belt and see how feel from there.