Organisatie - 14 november 2013

The semi-flexible office

Albert Sikkema

Two years after Wageningen UR launched the concept of the flexible office, it has only been introduced rather half-heartedly. Apparently flexible work stations are not very convenient for researchers. Although: ‘A lot of people are already working the new way without realizing it.’

Simone van Klaveren and Annet de Haas at Facilities and Services advise Wageningen UR on the flexible office. They know what they are talking about from experience, since for the last two years they have not had rooms or desks of their own in Actio. Every morning they unpack their laptops and go in search of a work station in the open office. They might put it differently. ‘We come in and look for a place that is best suited to what we are going to do,’ says Van Klaveren. ‘Do I need to write something? Then I go and sit in the focus room. For a consultation I book a meeting room or look for a couple of easy chairs. In Actio there are specific working areas for every kind of task.’ They wouldn’t exchange it now. But the same cannot be said for everybody. In spite of the ambitious objectives of a couple of years ago, the flexible office has only been adopted half-heartedly on the Wageningen campus. Nutrition scientists in the renovated Axis and the new Helix buildings, for instance, are all going to have their own desks.

Researchers are very attached to that idea, says Nanne Groot, supervisor of this construction project on campus. ‘In a working group we discussed what was important to people in the new accommodation. What came out was that we wanted to strengthen interaction between staff, but at the same time they need to keep up their high research productivity.’ In an open-plan office they will be too disturbed by each other, it was thought. ‘An important point is phone calls, which can be very distracting,’ says Groot. ‘Our staff are on the phone quite a lot to clients and students. So we wanted to create work stations where people can work and phone in peace.’ Van Klaveren and De Haas are familiar with the arguments against the flexible office. ‘There are always concerns,’ says De Haas. ‘People can’t concentrate in a noisy shared space, without a room of their own students cannot find them, they need a bookcase of their own and they often need to hold quick consultations in their rooms. A lot of these sorts of objections can be addressed, but only if you involve people in decisions about how the space is organized from the start. Just imposing the flexible office on people from above doesn’t work. People want to be involved.’

Flexibel lite
Although the flexible office in its purest form can only be found in a few places on campus, more and more departments are opting for a toned down version of it. The nutrition groups, for instance, have gone for joint use of laboratory facilities, meaning that more than one group has to book the same room. This saves on expensive laboratory space. Moreover, nutrition PhD students share offices with six to eight desks, while teachers are two or four to an office.

The Social Sciences Group is going one step further for its consultancy branch, the Centre for Development Innovation. The CDI has moved from the Hof van Wageningen in the town centre to the fourth floor of Radix. This means the more than 50 consultants no longer have a desk of their own. Every day they have to unpack their laptops and choose one of the 40 ‘flex-desks’. Besides these work stations, the group has the use of several meeting rooms and break-out rooms where they can hold meetings, talk on Skype or work in peace. The 25 CDI support staff members do have their own rooms and desks, however. It is a ‘lite’ version of the flexible office in which the kind of work you do determines whether you get a fixed or a flexible work station.

We’ve got to make a go of it. If there are problems, we’ll just have to solve them. And grumbling is for in the pub

The CDI did not deliberately set out to have a flexible workplace, says director Co Verdaas. He was eager to move onto the campus – ‘It is easier here to run into people who are important for our network.’ And the only affordable option he was offered was a part of Radix where there were few separate rooms. But Verdaas is not worried about it. ‘I am looking forward to it and I am going to sit in the open area myself. This is our place now, and we’ve got to make a go of it. If there are problems, we’ll just have to solve them. And grumbling is for in the pub.’

It does not look likely that the flexible office will be introduced across the board. The ICT department of Facilities and Services will bring it in after their move, and a few chair groups in the Animal Sciences group are thinking of adopting it. But that is about as far as it goes – there will not be a single new building on the campus which is entirely given over to the flexible office concept. Instead, Van Klaveren and De Haas are now aiming to introduce it by adapting existing buildings. And here the high prices per square metre on campus and the need to use space efficiently are strong arguments in its favour. One working group is looking at the Leeuwenborch, which is bursting at the seams thanks to the growth in student numbers. Extension is not an option, but perhaps an ‘open and transparent workplace’ with fewer work stations could provide a solution. ‘In a flexible office you can fit more people into fewer square metres, and that’s a fact,’ says Van Klaveren. ‘In the old situation everyone has a big desk and a sitting area. It doesn’t have to be like that.’

In 20 years’ time everyone will be bringing their own devices to work and staff will be all over the place, thinks De Haas. In fact, that situation is already in sight. ‘I don’t have a fixed work station,’ says Hans Bothe, head of communications at ASG and IMARES. He travels up and down between Lelystad, Den Helder, IJmuiden and Wageningen. Fewer and fewer people are tied to one fixed work station. The ASG plans to create flexible stations for staff who work both in Lelystad and in Wageningen. Bothe: ‘Meanwhile, there are more and more places where you can log in, and hold meetings over the phone or a video conference. A lot of people are already working the new way without realizing it.’

Photo: Rob Ramaker