Open-access content 6th October 2008
by David Arminas
06 October 2008
Chances are one in ten of you have. That's because people need walls. Walls protect people from people, and nowhere more so than in an office. So the 120 delegates attending the first WorkTech conference in Amsterdam have been warned.
Any organisation that breaks down walls to create grandiose open-plan offices, impose more desk-sharing and actively encourage flexible working should seriously think about its goals, delegates were told.
But according to Piet van Schijndel from Rabobank Nederland, the Dutch bank's cultural change plan, RaboUnplugged, means no fixed work stations and more working at home, at clients' offices or any Rabo branch.
The new 100,000 sq m Utrecht HQ for 8,000 people will completely embrace this brave new world when completed in 2010.
"Trust is the essential idea of RaboUnplugged," van Schijndel said. "You give it to employees and they will return it."
Trials at a Rabobank company, Interpolis, showed 30 per cent reduction in office space and 20 per cent increase in productivity. "It should also attract people who are independent and entrepreneurial," van Schijndel concluded.
However Philip Vanhoutte, managing director, Emea of headset manufacturer Plantronics, sounded the first cautionary note of the day. Beware making your new office a geek's paradise, he said. You may trust your employees to try to do right, but do they actually know how?
Are employees wasting time trying to stay afloat in an ever-rising sea of e-mails? Because people are no longer in the same place at the same time, Vanhoutte warned that there is a danger of a "death-by-meetings" culture creeping into the workplace, as so little communication happens outside of formal meetings.
"The more I work virtually, the more I need to meet people face to face to build up that trust and receive vital energy," he added.
Guy Holden, vice president of Johnson Controls Global Workplace Solutions, went further. The more technology we use, the more important the office becomes, he said.
"The workplace remains a connector for the organisation," Holden told delegates. "It must embody leadership and inspiration."
Holden's research of 1,800 employees world-wide showed that while 81 per cent wanted to work in a mobile fashion, 63 per cent wanted to have their own desk at work. Flexible working is here to stay, he acknowledged, although he admitted that he personally dislikes working from home.
But if most people are far removed from their immediate boss, there could be leadership issues with not enough one-on-one contact to stimulate it. "What leadership culture will the next generation bring us?" Holden asked.
Holden's question is all the more disturbing if one of the main goals of leadership is to increase productivity.
The average CEO will invest in office infrastructure to increase productivity, said Wim Pullen, director of Centre for People and Buildings, a non-profit research organisation in Delft, Netherlands.
But few organisations have accurately defined and then measured productivity to understand the effect of a 'workplace without walls', said Pullen. Many claims of increased productivity are, in fact, not based on credible research to substantiate it.
James Woudhuysen, professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University in Leicester, agreed. In his true iconoclastic style, he asks whether it is a good thing for technological innovation in the workplace to blur the lines between work and home life. "We should stop kidding ourselves. Work is not play."
Productivity comes from intellectual struggle and not instant messaging.
Nonetheless, more and more office walls will likely come down in the next decade even if only to save space and money. Technology will increasingly give employees greater freedom. Knowing when and how to let the reigns of power go are difficult, according to one banking delegate speaking over a coffee.
"Yes, trusting employees is fine. But control is better."