Organisation - October 20, 2010

Goodbye to a desk of your own

Working at your own desk surrounded by your own bits and bobs and looking across at the same colleagues every day. Is that your idea of an office job? Well, forget it. Wageningen UR is entering a new era: the era of the flexible office. And it is starting on campus with Facilities and Services.

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Long corridors lined with offices. All the staff in their own little boxes. The corridor is dull and depressing, and the offices are not much better: a desk, a chair, a cupboard and a coat hook. Plenty of space for junk, it has to be admitted. All in all, the offices of Facilities and Services (in building 116 on the corner of Akkermaalsbos and Bornsesteeg) are pretty typical of Wageningen UR. At least, they are at the moment. But come back in a year's time and you will see colleagues lounging in trendy armchairs on your left while others meet in a closed space on your right, and up ahead of you is a group in deep discussion at a bar. Meanwhile, there is a jolly gathering at a big central table: it seems to be someone's birthday. In the distance you can see the focus area where people are working in silence. What strikes you most is the almost total lack of walls.
Facilities and Services to be guinea pigs
The new building where all this will be happening is to go up on the Akkermaalsbosweg next to building 116. More or less where the tennis courts are now. The staff there will be guinea pigs for a new kind of work floor in Wageningen UR.
Away with fixed individual work stations. That is pretty much the essence of the new catch phrase 'new way of working', explains Annet de Haas of Facilities and Services. 'A building full of work spaces to fit the work you are doing at any given moment. That means areas you can concentrate in, lounges where you can consult with colleagues, meeting rooms for bigger groups and cosy corners for a creative brainstorming session.'

Game zone and bar
The aim of this 'complete makeover', says De Haas, is to improve collaboration. 'The new way of working ensures more interaction between departments. It facilitates more creative and efficient work. That is the belief it is based on.' The fact that the new use of space also saves money is an incidental advantage. 'Many companies think it's a matter of money - saving space. It can do so, but that is not the main issue for us. Our aim is better communication.'
With this in mind, the new-style office will be full of spaces for meetings and consultations. Interior designer Ramon Beijen (of Rietmeijer Concept & Interior Design) presented the first pictures of the new work floor last week. Among the more eye-catching features - besides the diversity of work spaces already mentioned - are a game zone for playing on the wii, a bar and a huge central table with a 'vertical garden' - a green wall of plants.
 
'I am easily distracted'
Healthy scepticism. That is how purchaser Ans Geerling (see photo) describes her attitude to the new way of working. 'I am not saying it won't work. But I am curious what it's going to be like. The idea of everyone constantly changing places for every activity is something I can't see happening. I think whoever gets in first will bag the best place and stay there all day. And who is going to ensure fair play, and act as policeman? If you ask me, it is going to be very noisy too. Take me, for example: I've got quite a loud voice. I'm quite easily distracted by lots of noise and movement around me. On the other hand, human beings are naturally conservative. I have my doubts, but I'll go into it with an open mind.' 
A change of working culture
Those are the extras. But the real point is the work, of course, and having the right sort of space to get the job done. 'That is why we have started a survey on people's activities', explains De Haas. To get an idea of what people do when, in an average week. When is it busy and when are rooms occupied? This will provide data on the numbers and kinds of working spaces that are needed.
 
It turns out that Facilities and Services is a typical Dutch office. On average about half the work stations are occupied, and that goes up to about 70 % on peak days. The busiest day is Tuesday and on Fridays you could practically fire a cannon without disturbing anyone. As well as changing the physical work place, the new way of working is going to support digitalization and the development of a new working culture. Working digitally is essential. 'You need to be able to access your information anywhere at any time', says De Haas. Secondly, managers will need to provide leadership from a distance far more. 'Targeting output. You no longer have the whole group around you all the time. People are given a lot more freedom and responsibility.' Responsibility for a clean desk, for starters.

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