News - January 26, 2012

Three months of the open office

Working without a base of your own. This has been a reality for 120 staff at Facilities and Services in the new building, Actio, for three months now. Armed with a mobile phone and a laptop, they look for a suitable work station every morning anew. ‘If you find a good place you want to hold on to it. Especially on Monday.'

The big eye catcher in the large reception area with the colourful lounge corner is the ‘vertical garden', a green wall of plants. Behind the doors, which only open for the elect of 120 Facilities and Services staff with a pass, it's all a bit more run-of-the-mill. There are groups of people working at the rows of white tables that stretch into the distance. The walls are white and empty, the carpet grey. You find yourself talking more quietly, as if you were in a library. Talking is allowed at the front of the room but not at the back.
The concept of the open office has been around for at least ten years, but in view of the far-reaching changes needed to make it work, it is only slowly catching on. The recently completed Actio building is the first to embody the approach in Wageningen. The best-known feature of the open office is the fact that workers do not have a desk of their own. But an equally important aspect is the division of the space according to task type: concentrated work needs a different environment from that suited to a job requiring open lines of communication. And this is what we see at Actio. ‘You plan your day in advance. I work in three blocks: concentrated, accessible, and in consultation', says the head of the real estate policy section Eise Ebbelink, who is sitting in a bright green ear-shaped chair in the middle of the room. Further along are the focus rooms, glass one-person cubicles in which people can work silently or make phone calls. ‘The number of emails going between colleagues has gone down, because you see each other more in the course of the day. But the biggest improvement is the facilities, like the meeting rooms with video conferencing. I consult with colleagues in The Hague and Lelystad a lot. Now you're really in contact, live', says Ebbelink.
More sociable
The real novelties are the lounge corners, the quiet little library and the Wii gaming computer upstairs. Controller Paul Veenstra is one of the few Wii users. ‘If it's raining in the lunch hour, a couple of colleagues and I have a game of bowls or tennis. And if you are completely worn out after a meeting, you play for quarter of an hour.' At the ‘café table' upstairs eight members of the purchasing department are having coffee, tea or sandwiches. Eating is not allowed at the work stations, but it is here. Senior purchaser Ben Kranenburg is happy with the new setup. Due to his height, 2.05 metres, he is the only person in Actio who does have a chair of his own. ‘We do sometimes wonder if we are more productive now', says Kranenburg. ‘But we are definitely more sociable', adds a colleague. Although it is still difficult, she goes on, to give and take feedback about noise, such as people talking too loud. Another purchaser doesn't like the rule that you can only leave your workstation for a maximum of one hour without having to clear it. An hour is too short. ‘If you find a good place, you want to hold on to it. Especially on Mondays.'
In general the purchasers think the open office has improved the atmosphere. The sober furnishings do not detract from that either. The department has asked permission to display Christmas cards on the kitchen unit. This was allowed, but only for a week. Some, like environment expert Monique Groen, think Actio is a bit too minimalist. She used to have a collection of fluffy cows in her office. Now she just keeps one. ‘I miss that homely feeling.' On the other hand, the open office is not as bad as she feared it would be. ‘I like working on paper and I had to tidy up metres of it. I prefer not to read permits on the screen. My wishes have been listened too. So now there is a filing cabinet that we have access to, for instance.' But most people find the 80 to 100 cm of shelf space that everyone is allocated enough.
Only one screen
Not all the staff are so enthusiastic. For ICT support staff member Ariën van Leusden, the new system is far from ideal. Van Leusden is working downstairs at a flexi-work station which people can occupy for short periods at any time. Formerly he was used to working with two 24-inch screens and several PCs. Now he has to make do with one laptop with a 15 inch screen. ‘Sometimes you are lucky and you find a place with a screen, but there are days when it is already full at 8.30. That is difficult, because we regularly take over a computer by remote control. Then you set the virus scanner going while you do something else.' If Van Leusden has to move from his place to go and solve a technical problem, he has to interrupt the scan. Another issue is that his colleagues see him less. ‘Your day is broken up, you're out and about and you don't see each other. I do meet more people from other departments, mind you.'
The problems faced by the ICT group are acknowledged, says Peter Booman, director of Facilities and Services. Several solutions are in the pipeline. One of these is a plan to equip all desks with a screen and have dedicated computers for technical support by remote control.
No hair-splitting
Other sticking points will be monitored too, by means of evaluations meetings and written surveys of the staff in February and at the end of the year. ‘We have agreed in advance not to start splitting hairs about the concept itself, but to take people seriously', says Booman. ‘About four percent of the staff are having trouble adjusting and miss their own place, for example, as well as their familiar roommate. But I am hopeful that we can help them through it too.'
In the long run the entire IT department of 150 staff and possibly the library, with 90 staff, are due to go over to the open office system. Booman: ‘We are the pilot. We hope people in other departments will be inspired.'
Although Booman himself occasionally finds the new way of working a nuisance. ‘I stagger from one meeting to the other and I constantly have to look for another work station. There are days when I don't even get my laptop out of the locker.' Booman would not want a room of his own, however. ‘It's a good feeling when I walk around here and see people working together. I really want to be part of the creativity and dynamism. You can feel the energy.'
At five in the afternoon Actio empties out fast. The odd worker is still there when the cleaner gets started. ‘It makes quite a difference to us', she says. ‘Normally you have to work around people's stuff. Here they keep it nice and tidy.'
Tips for a soft landing
1. Budget for attractive, good quality fittings and furniture.
2. Prepare staff well for digitalization of documents and make sure they know how to adjust furniture ergonomically.
3. Involve staff in choices, of appropriate office chairs, for example.
4. Draw up regulations and train staff in giving and accepting feedback, so that they are able to tackle each other effectively on any issues that arise.
5. Adapt the system as necessary as you go along.
Work stations for 70 percent
‘Cutting costs was never the aim. We hired an interior designer and we invested in good office chairs, nice-looking furniture and good audio-visual equipment', says Rolf Heling, Actio office manager. ‘The average occupation rate on the work floor in our old building was 47 percent. On peak days such as Tuesday and Thursday it went up to 71 percent'. An activity analysis was part of the preparation for the new office. Every hour, someone checked the occupancy rate as well as what kind of work people were busy with - phoning, meeting or typing. ‘Now we have spaces for 70 percent of the staff. If everybody is in, you sometimes have to search a bit for a good place.'
Heling himself thinks it is a lovely work environment. ‘People can find me more easily and they stop me to talk to me much more. Because you can solve things informally in the corridor, you spend less time in formal meetings and on emails.'