Workplace as an HR intervention

Thursday last week I was visiting a consultant in her office in a mid-sized provincial town. The office was in a 1930’s villa. Very classy. She proudly showed me around. Big rooms with high ceilings. A meeting room with a big oak wood table and Eames chairs to receive the clients. Modern art on the walls. A kitchen to make coffee, and where the staff could meet for lunch.

I took the train to Amsterdam, for a workshop in B-Amsterdam. B-Amsterdam is a workplace environment in the old IBM headquarters on the west side of Amsterdam. The building has been empty for a long time. Some adventurous entrepreneurs, with the owner of the building, are creating an innovative multi-user work environment. “We bring entrepreneurship within everyone’s reach by providing the right spaces, toolsets and social environment“. If you enter the building, it is buzzing environment. It looks as if everyone who brings a hammer, nails and wood can build their own office. Start-ups have offices, self-employed professionals can find a desk to work on, there is a university for entrepreneurs and there is always training going on with title’s as “disruptive health management“. Some big corporates have also brought in wood and glass to build a meeting place, as they want to be where the action is.
Two extremes: the nice quiet villa, and the somewhat rough open work environment of B-Amsterdam.

Workplace design is an important HR intervention

In the drawing below I tried to outline the evolution of workplaces as I have experienced it.


                                   Figure 1: Evolution of workplace during the last decades

A. The villa

An office that gives you status. You can receive customers and they will be impressed. In The Netherlands this is a favorite for boutique consultancies and executive search firms. In terms of spontaneously meeting different people, this is a difficult environment.

B. The traditional office

Many big and small rooms. Corner office for the big bosses. The juniors are sharing a room. Type B is slowly disappearing. It is too expensive and not flexible enough.

C. Open space

B transformed into C. Open space is the norm in C. Many organizations have not handled the transformation well. They tore down the walls, put in some fancy desks and sofas and hoped it would work. At least the average square meters per employee came down. There are many variants of C. Often the employees are driven out of the office. “We only want you to come to the office if you have to meet other people”. Working from home became accepted. Many organizations are still in the middle of trying to get the best out of C. Telephone booths are installed, so that people who phone do not disturb the others. Some bosses create new closed offices, as “they have so many important meetings”. HR and Legal also claim seclusion, and so on.
What you also see appearing: a nice Starbucks type of café on the ground floor, where employees can drink their morning coffee, and have meetings with clients and suppliers.

D. The nice office

In some ways D is a step back. Some companies have come to the conclusion that collaboration is not enhanced if many people work from home. It is very difficult to replace physical proximity with video conferencing, Skyping or WebExing. In D they create a nice office. A more homely office. Breakfast is served and also a nice lunch. There is a fitness room and a recreational area. There are various nice meeting rooms, and also little cells where you can concentrate. Maybe even a room with a bed where you can take a little nap. The companies who use concept D want their people to be in the office, and to feel at home in the office. Example: look at the pictures of the various Google offices around the world.

E. A collaborative open environment

D has limitations. Often it is still one company in one office. The environment inside the office is very nice, but it is still a closed community. Big walls and security are there to keep others out. Guests are allowed, but not everywhere, and they have to wear a badge, clearly showing: ‘Watch out, stranger on board!”.
Concept E is an open environment. Everybody is welcome. No borders, transparency is the norm. E is an environment that stimulates what is called “casual collisions”. More and more organisations realise that innovations are not developed by the innovation department. Innovations occur when people with a different background, different experience and different skill sets coincidentally meet and inspire each other. A company like Zappos, with their HQ in down town Las Vegas, is somewhere between D and E. They have their own HQ, but this is an open environment with many connections to people outside. B-Amsterdam, as described above, is moving more into full E.

Very interesting developments are ahead. Improving innovation and collaboration is high on the agenda of many organisations. The way the workplaces are designed can be a good accelerator. I think many people have to come out of their closed offices, and they will flourish more in open, diverse and collaborative environments.


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