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Orange revolution: How the Dutch do FM

The Netherlands is having no trouble luring an influx of young people into facilities management with innovations such as activity-based working and a service-led focus boosting its profile. Sara Bean finds out what it is that sets the Dutch art of FM apart.


5 May 2016 | By Sara Bean

The built environment appears to be going Dutch at the moment, with the British Council of Offices (BCO) 2016 Annual Conference taking place in Holland in May, following Amsterdam’s hosting of the Smart Workspace Design earlier this month where The Edge, the world’s greenest and smartest building, is based.

The reasons for this interest is because the Dutch are widely acknowledged as leading the way in the adoption of more productive and innovative ways of working, in particular activity-based working (ABW) and they also take a refreshing approach to facilities management. 

FM is taken seriously in Holland, where it is perceived as an important and popular discipline – whether you’re working within the private and public sector, as an in-house FM or as part of a services supplier. 

Ron van der Weerd is the chairman of EuroFM and programme manager of ZP7 Real Estate reconstruction at Hanze University of Applied Sciences in Groningen, and was until recently the dean of the School of Facility Management at Hanze University.

He says: “FM is in a very advantageous position here in Holland because the profession is really mature and pretty well recognised, and that has to do with two key aspects. One is our educational system, which plays an important role, and secondly, we depend more here on a service economy than a production economy.”

“We also have a lack of space in Holland, which is trying to accommodate a pretty large population of 17 million people; so you always have to be very efficient and organised and use space as best you can with the least waste, so all of our culture is about being efficient and effective.” 

Figures from the Dutch FM association, Facilities Management Netherlands (FMN), show 260,000 people are involved in the facilities business in the Netherlands with the total market including real estate worth ¤77.2 billion. This contains both real estate – at ¤39.9 billion – as well as FM services at ¤37.2 billion. From that, about ¤22 billion is outsourced, with a 40/60 split between in-house and outsourced FM. 

Learning and training

Recent changes in Dutch labour laws limit employers from imposing temporary contracts to encourage the use of fixed contracts, and that regulation, along with the government’s expectation that employers are responsible for the competence of their staff, means there is a strong emphasis on education and training. In fact, over the past few years the Dutch have developed quite a reputation for producing a highly qualified new generation of FM practitioners. 

“A bachelor degree-level education has already been here for 40 years”, says Wil Gooskens, programme manager at NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences. “Every year we have 1,700 people who started their education in FM and there are at least 20,000 to 30,000 practitioners, on a comparative level 6 to the UK system.”

All this education doesn’t necessarily mean that the average Dutch FM is very young. Like those working in FM in the UK, the median age is around 40 and at the top end of the spectrum the more senior FMs are around 60. Holland has an ageing population and recently increased its retirement age to 67. 

But the Dutch don’t have any problem attracting younger people into FM, many of whom enter the sector from the age of 18 or 19 when they’re choosing their professional education. 

Says Ron van der Weerd: “Something that I have noticed in my international experiences is that a lot of countries trail behind in attracting young people into FM. This requires some leadership [from the profession] to go into schools to present yourself as a very attractive profession, with the emphasis on the management aspects of facilities management.”

The Edge in Amsterdam is described at "the world's greenest and smartest building" (Credit: Horizon Photoworks, Interior Architect - Fokkema & Partners)

Work placements

The Dutch are also active in getting work placements and organising fact-finding trips for students, including trips to the UK, which is viewed as “one of the frontrunners in FM,” says George Maas, a partner at leading consultancy and project management firm Hospitality Group. 

He has taken parties of student FMs to the capital as “we think of the UK as the country where FM is most well organised.”

“Where the UK is well ahead of us is with innovative models, in particular PFI, which we have in our country as well – but in the UK you’re onto the next generation,” he says. “However, we have chosen a different way of evolving FM in Holland with the belief that in the future we’ll have to deal more with hospitality and almost all the corporates now organise FM into more of a hospitality function than facilities management.”

“This service-led focus means that while the average age of a facilities manager in the Netherlands is still between 45 and 55, and 70 per cent of this generation at a senior level are male – when we look at the students coming into the discipline, 60 per cent are female.”

In the most recent FM World Salary Survey for the UK the ratio of male/female respondents was 66/34. 

Dutch FM trends

Rather like their UK counterparts, the Dutch are also engaged in debate on the relationship between service providers and clients and how they can work better together. Innovation is a key trend in Dutch FM, with a lot of effort going into how the market and service providers need to become more mature and offer ‘added value’, but the Dutch have resisted being pushed too far down the commodity route.

“When I speak to counterparts in the Netherlands they are surprised by how FM is approached here,” says Phil Ratcliffe, managing director of Procore. “In the UK over the last few years there’s been a rise in the whole concept of the workplace – with a lot of formally FM companies rebadging as ‘workplace companies’, but when you ask ‘how do you buy those services’, procurement again drives it down to the commodity experience. 

“In practice, this means that when you buy in FM here you go into a detailed analysis on costs right down to how much the engineers’ mobile phones will cost.” 

Procore has formed a close collaboration with Delft University in the Netherlands, where the real estate and FM course is run by Tanja Zuijderwijk.

Says Ratcliffe: “Our impressions are that FM does seem to be more of a discipline of choice for students in the Netherlands – of course there are students here, but when we employ people from the Netherlands we find we’re getting high-quality, engaged young professionals.”

Zuijderwijk says the Dutch have even come up with a word that describes a way of making people welcome. “Hostmanship is designed to induce end users to come to your building and it plays a key role for Dutch FM. 

“In Holland, we not only have service level agreements but experience level agreements – meaning we’re not just fulfilling our client’s needs but surprising them, and if you do that you’ve exceeded their expectations and their return is guaranteed.”

As in the UK, in Holland the integration of support services is another trend that larger corporates are talking about, with IT, HR and FM working together within the business. As part of their course work Zuijderwijk’s students focus on ways to increase cooperation with HR managers, and how they can work together to facilitate people.

The Edge in Amsterdam is described at "the world's greenest and smartest building" (Credit: Horizon Photoworks, Interior Architect - Fokkema & Partners)

Going ABW

The Netherlands leads the world in its adoption of activity-based working (ABW), as pioneered by Dutch firm Veldhoen, which supports workers by supplying a variety of office environments that support different activities.

David Sheehan, managing partner for Veldhoen in the UK, says ABW is a forward-thinking idea that the UK has been slow to pick up on. He first came across the idea when looking to find a partner who’d create the modern way of working he was seeking for Sainsbury’s new head offices. 

The UK, he says, often looks too much towards the US rather than the continent for ways of working, and concentrates too much on property costs, rather than focusing on productivity and efficiency. ABW as an aid to productivity is borne out by Leesman Index research, which shows that its functionality and effectiveness score is consistently higher for workplaces that have implemented ABW.

But why are the Dutch so advanced in their thinking? Sheehan says it’s down to a cultural difference.

“The Dutch are very practical, level-headed, pragmatic people who analyse very objectively and come up with ways of solving problems and maximising opportunities without some of the hang-ups of the past.”

“The other thing the Dutch consider is ‘discretionary motivation’ – what makes somebody want to do something above and beyond their normal 9 to 5? It’s about connection, being treated like an adult and having power about what you want to achieve and objectives of output and input; those are all things that thrive in ABW.” 

ABW is making great inroads into the Dutch market; the top four financial institutions, ING, Rabobank, ABN Amro, and SNS Bank have all embraced it. And a Future of Work project at Essent has resulted in a change management programme that introduced new ways of working – approached from a people aspect, rather than estates or IT. 

As Dutch architect Ron Bakker of PLP, behind the design of the Edge, explains it: “The Edge is an early example of how things can develop across the built environment. It’s not one big invention, but the coming together of lots of little things and it reflects the unique working culture that we have here.”  

An ovation for innovation

Below are some more examples of best practice by people and firms working in the Dutch FM sector.

1. Lisa Hut won the FMN Bachelor of the Year award in 2012 for her study of the physical environment of a 3rd workplace, and has gone on to join Measuremen, based in Amsterdam, which collects data on the use of the workplace, the work activities and employee experience. This data helps organisations to create the ideal working environment for every employee. 

2. Ronald Vos, who won the EuroFM bachelor award for his graduation internship has been working to improve the Cleaning Cost Calculator used by Eurest Services. This calculates the required cleaning hours of the various office locations in the Netherlands. Owing to multiple office design changes and the lack of a clear data management plan, the data had become outdated, resulting in inaccurate budget and cost monitoring of the cleaning process. Vos worked on identifying flaws, restoring cleaning calculation data and guaranteeing a well-operating cost calculation system.

3. Martin Vos, a PhD student with a BA in FM, is currently working at the consultancy department of Netherlands Railways (NS) and has been involved in experiments with scents and ambient lighting to find out what settings enhance customer satisfaction.

(Illustration: Neil Webb)

The Dutch and the art of space management

FM correspondent Andrew Brown argues that Dutch attitudes to space management can also be seen in the way its national football team plays

The Dutch (and to an extent, their north European neighbours in Scandinavia) are regarded as leaders in ideas on how to improve employee engagement, productivity, wellbeing and basically putting people ahead of the capital asset. What you might not know is that this is rooted in Dutch culture. There is a distinct Dutch way of doing things. 

Organisations like Veldhoen adhere to the concept of activity based working (ABW) with a philosophy about workplace and how to improve an organisation’s performance. It all hinges on ABW. They won’t bother working with you unless you buy into their way of doing things.

This is a very Dutch attitude and a principled approach that flows through many aspects of Dutch life including, as a prime example, football. Total Football, to be precise.

The biggest and most successful exponent of the total football philosophy (tactics don’t even cover the concept) was Johan Cruyff. He died just before Easter and in every obituary were the words legend, genius and influence.

He changed football forever. His approach was one based upon questioning received wisdom (again a Dutch attitude). He was an original disruptive thinker (something FM in the UK is crying out for right now). 

You can read almost anywhere on the internet about total football and Cruyff’s influence, but his determination to be creative and his challenge of authority inspired, astonished and delighted contemporaries.

Together with Rinus Michels, he re-imagined football as a swirling spatial contest: whoever managed and controlled limited space on the field would win. David Winner, author of the book Brilliant Orange, argues that in this Cruyff and Michels drew on wider Dutch culture: for centuries the people of the Netherlands had been finding ways to think about, exploit and control space in their crowded sea-threatened land. It is present in Dutch design, architecture and land management. It’s present in workplace and FM.

Can you see the connection? I’d argue there are lessons here for ‘professionals’ in workplace and FM. We need to rethink what is happening in the UK support services sector just as Cruyff and his colleagues did in the 70s and 80s with regard to Dutch and world football.

FM can learn from workplace. Workplace can learn from football. But whatever happens, with or without ABW, it needs leadership. It also needs rules and a rigid system to allow the freedom of such a swirling spatial contest to succeed.

Because even as players swap positions and roles (think about that in a workplace scenario for a minute) the system fails without the genius and leadership of someone like a Cruyff in its midst. Let’s go Dutch.