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School Trip to the New World of Work

Working differently?

I'm a great believer in what we call our school trips. In other words, that now and then it broadens minds and strengthens the team to get out of the office as a group to do something professionally relevant, but different. Our first school trip was to visit the Flemish Parliament in Brussels, a fascinating cultural, political, artistic and sociological experience. Our second took place this week.

We have been thinking for some time about our office environment, and, not to point too fine a point on it, how inimical it is to the things we value: teamwork, energy, creativity, communication… Evita wrote about this recently and I am sure there are older posts going back some time on this subject and more to come. Suffice it to say that I at least have been sufficiently bothersome on this subject to induce our buildings colleagues to select WebCom as a pilot unit for a project they have launched, known as "travailler autrement" (working differently).

It's a trick, they aver, to reduce us to Dilbert-esque cubicle wage-slaves

Cynical old fonx, not without cause, smell a rat the instant you start talking about "open plan" offices. It's a trick, they aver, to squeeze us into ever smaller spaces, take away our personal domains and generally reduce us to Dilbert-esque cubicle wage-slaves. When you see how the open-plan principle has been implemented in the Parliament hitherto, it is easy to sympathize with this view. Open plan office space currently means cramped, noisy, improvised and, thankfully, only ever for short-term use.

Consequently, the team's first encounter with our colleagues from the buildings service was not an unalloyed meeting of minds. Things were not helped by the fact that, whatever their merits in their own specialist domain, a bit of work needs to go into presentation and communication skills. Such at least were my thoughts as we squinted at minuscule photos projected onto a distant screen and tried to decipher columns of obscure figures in excel tables. Death by Powerpoint, you've read about it. Worse perhaps was the insistence on how much space (and therefore money) can be saved by moving to an open plan office environment. I could have got up and strangled them: this was supposed to be about making our work conditions better, not about saving money at the expense of the mugs who volunteered to be Dilbert.

It is possible to work differently, better, than our current imagination-crushing rows of grey boxes

It was infuriating, because it so misrepresented the potential behind the ideas these genuinely motivated people were working with, but failing so abjectly to transmit. It is possible to work differently, better, than our current imagination-crushing rows of grey boxes. Moreover, it's about so much more than office space. It's also about using technology well, changing working practice, being more flexible, results-orientation rather than time-serving and so on.

Upshot of the first meeting? First, we're in, but only on condition this is done properly, not in some half-baked, sadly predictable manner. A model project, not a pilot project. Yes, you can save money, but our lives have to get better too. Otherwise we'll carry on sitting in our grey rabbit-hutches and yours truly in particular lives a much quieter life. Second, we need to SEE. Take us to a place which does this already. Then we might get it.

Vision of the future?

Whence, a couple of months later, our school trip to Getronics, a Belgian software company in Diegem, near the airport in the outskirts of Brussels, for a two-hour visit. The first hour was spent watching, and discussing, a presentation (now THAT's how you do a presentation! – on a wifi beamer moreover), which pulled together the three components of what Getronics calls the New World of Work: workspace, technology, culture. Workspace, to which I will return, is arguably the least important of the three. 

So what of technology? It means wifi everywhere, the abolition of desktop computers, everyone issued with laptops and headsets, open systems able to connect with people's personal devices, mobility, the ability easily to hold remote meetings, online chat systems replacing email for many purposes, genuinely paperless working, meeting spaces equipped for on-screen presentations, easy teleconferencing facilities, an extranet, and much more. 

Note to our HR people: there's no clocking in or out here, no "flexitime", no pointage

And culture? That's where it gets really tricky, you might think. First, all that technology means that people can work easily from home, or on the road, from a client's premises, or any place with a power outlet and a wifi connection. But "can" is not "will", or even "is permitted". Getronics' answer is to move from requiring people to be in a particular place at a particular time to expecting results of them. Want to avoid the jams and come into the office at 10.00? Fine. Need to be free from 3.00 to 6.00 to fetch the kids from school? Fine. Prefer to work at night? Fine. (Note: WebCom has two or three like this!) Want to work at home today? Fine. As a result, we were told, most people probably work two days a week entirely at home, and come in during the other three. To make this all work, there's another gadget, of course, one which tells all colleagues when you're available, wherever you are, and when you're not. And of course, you have to deliver those results. (Note to our HR people, to avoid any misunderstanding, there's no clocking in or out here, no "flexitime", no pointage…) No-one is checking the time you work, but your managers are checking your results.

And so to the workplace. First thing to say, if all Getronics' employees turn up at the office at the same time, everyone will have a place to work, and the wifi won't crash. However, that is extremely rare. Normally, it's a question of coming into the office (when you need or want to) grab a free desk (any desk), plug in your laptop (to the one or several large screens) and do what you do. The open areas of the building are lined with pristine white tables (such as those on right in picture), mostly equipped with the aforementioned screen and a desktop-style keyboard (some – intended for developers and more "power" users – have several screens). These desks are first come, first served. You can sit anywhere. Just two rules: 1. you clear the desk completely when you leave, 2. don't leave crumbs (you don't eat at the desk). 

I have to say those two rules had me reflecting, somewhat guiltily, on my own desk, swamped by disordered papers mixed with the residue of too many lunchtime sandwiches-at-the-desk… 

But of course the "hot-desking" (as I've heard it called, though it wasn't a term heard at Getronics) is only a small part of the story. Perhaps more indicative of what it's all about were the myriad of differentiated meeting rooms all over the place. These fall essentially into two categories: the (usually) larger ones you need to book (via a very clever Outlook-linked system) for fixed periods, and smaller ones which are just up for grabs. Some of the latter were practically solo meeting rooms, little "I-need-to-concentrate" getaways for individuals (or for one-to-one teleconferencing), others were 4, 6, 8 person spaces, mostly with teleconferencing facilities and a large display screen on the wall for collective works on documents, presentations or whatever else can go on a screen. All these rooms had two things in common: first, you take them for as long as you need them, but when you've finished, you clear out completely; second, they had glass walls (with a couple of exceptions I'll come back to).

Besides all these glass rooms and the desks, what else? "Lounge" areas – these for social moments or, say, eating those desk-unfriendly sandwiches. Lockers, somewhere for employees to stash anything they want to leave in the building. The occasional centralized printer, showers (for cyclists and sporty types – without glass walls), mini-kitchen areas, a small library for chilling, and so on. On the ground floor, a large canteen, a large meeting room and a boardroom.

And, apart form the showers, the two exceptions to the glass-walled transparency? The CEO's office, perhaps? No. The boss goes with everyone else. The first exception was a room set aside for collective work on confidential or highly sensitive projects, where, for whatever reason, it is important to keep things under wraps. The second, which really caught our eye, was the "brainstorming room". This had opaque, but translucent, interior walls with an admittedly rather obvious blue-sky-and-clouds design. On the inside, a deep-pile carpet encouraging lying and sitting on the floor, a scattering of multicoloured plastic stools for not-too-comfortable sitting, a white-board and large sliding wall panels designed to be written on.

Finally , before you object, yes there were other anomalies: a legal service area, surrounded by strikingly out-of-place paper files, and a series of three or four individual offices occupied by the HR department where formal, personal conversations could take place (still with glass walls though).

So what did we make of all this? 

If the work-life balance thing permitted working at home, it clearly didn't involve playing at work

The first impression was of space, very low density occupation, plenty of available desks and vacant meeting rooms. This was very far indeed from the Dilbert cubicle nightmare, indeed it seemed almost excessively roomy, lacking in intimacy, perhaps. Second, a sensation – quite unexpected, but linked of course – of quiet, a general pervasive hush. Also, noticeably, this was not Google: no slides, no beanbags, no toys. If the work-life balance thing permitted working at home, it clearly didn't involve playing at work. But was it a pleasant and attractive environment to work in? For sure.

So, did we see the future?

What we saw at Getronics was so different from the staid and traditional working conditions in the European Parliament, notwithstanding our modest local efforts at subversion thereof, that it seems ludicrous to imagine a transformation on that scale ever occurring there. But, hang on, it was our buildings people who got us into this, it was they who took us to Getronics (though suspiciously cautious about its exact transferability), they who say they have the support of both the IT and HR people, so let's assume for the moment that there is a genuine will to pursue the idea. So, it is possible?

On the physical workplace, you need a budget and a suitable building. Let's assume, again, that the budget is there. After all, remember, amortized over a few years, this working environment costs less than the conventional one, and though we are not a commercial organization, saving money is something our decision-makers want to achieve, right? Besides, this is also a green option, playing to a need to which public institutions have to be seen to respond. On the buildings themselves, it's difficult to say how suitable Parliament's buildings are, but surely it cannot be beyond the wit of a smart architect to do something great somewhere in Parliament's half-million square metres? 

So all you need is a smart architect…

On the IT, sure, the technology exists, and is not even particularly advanced, nor, I am sure, more expensive than our current setup. It is certainly more productive and flexible. (Don't get me started on the time and effort we lose through the lack of wifi, the Mac-inimical technologies, the general disregard for mobility, the PC configuration actively hostile to us doing the things we do, the fact that we are constantly driven to bypass the systems we are given just to do our job… Hmm, rant over.) 

But, in reality, all you need are the will and smart IT people…

Where it really gets interesting is on the culture issue.

The culture of the institution: is it ready to do this? If so (which, as I say, it might be), is it ready to do it properly? Not some pared-down, heavily compromised, half-hearted, false-economy version, but the real thing? I confess I worry. I can feel the process by which we arrive at some half-baked conclusion in my bones, already hear the "buts" from all sides…

 I can feel the process by which we arrive at some half-baked conclusion in my bones

The trust-and-results HR practices on which the model is based is so far removed from the traditional practice of the public sector that the transformation is hard to imagine. A cynic might say that public officials who do not have to fear the loss of their jobs from one day to the next have little incentive to make it work. But that is not, honestly, what I see around me. I see people working – mostly – enthusiastically, for longer hours than they need, sometimes from home in their free time, using their own equipment, getting results… because they are motivated and believe in what they do. And mark this: the Belgian Ministry of Social Security has implemented the "New World of Work". Now there's a school trip we have to do! Don't tell me a Belgian ministry can do this and we can't.

We need to be a cross between a cool web agency and a frantic newsroom

But, finally, what of ourselves? Are we ready – really – to leave our comfort zone, to abandon our secure four grey walls? Is the model right for us? Can we handle the freedom? Is it what we want? 

On the last point, the answer is, actually, not quite. For us, the objective is not entirely the Zen-like calm of Getronics. In our mind's eye, we need to be a cross between a cool web agency and a frantic newsroom. Communication, cross-fertilisation, circulation of ideas, the ability to grab someone quickly, to knuckle down together in a crisis, to yell when a yell is needed, the opportunity to let off steam and to leaven the mood with a hearty dose of gossip and laughter, that's what it's all about. Plus of course giving people space when they need it, enabling small groups to work creatively together as and when they need to. Dare I say it's about what I hope is THE WebCom core value: being a team. So Getronics is close, but maybe we need something just a little rowdier, with a little more soul, a little more edge.

But, to give the presentation man his due, that's exactly what he said: first work out what you want to achieve, then implement it. So, do we?


(All the smaller photos in this post from Getronics' NWOW website. Thanks to them for their great hospitality.)



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