The emergence of the New Way of Working

It may seem that the way we work hardly changes from day to day, but over time the change is enormous. It is hard to imagine how organizations could operate in the past without computers, because today, people go home when the network goes down. In the nineties, changes were mostly IT-driven, based on the new technological possibilities. Around the millennium a shift started to emerge. The Internet bubble busted, which seemed to be a serious set-back for the expectations of a high-tech future. While the expectations were possibly too high at the time, they were not completely in vain. Developing Internet protocols was labor-intensive, and it would take another seven years before the first iPhone, with app-based software, was released. Still, an awareness began to emerge that the way we worked needed to change radically. This time, the change was not driven by IT but from an organizational and, interestingly, architectural point of view. Pioneers in the field realized that, with the way our work was changing, our offices needed to change as well. Offices should become inspirational places of interaction rather than dull facilities aimed at performing concentrated work. IT would merely be the enabler of change. The Internet would not be the goal but the medium.

In the Netherlands the awareness and change already started in the mid-nineties. In 1995 the Dutch architect Erik Veldhoen was asked by Interpolis, a Dutch insurance company, to design their new head office building. Inspired by modern offices in Scandinavia of Ericsson and Digital, where status symbols for the executive board had been completely eliminated, Veldhoen suggests to completely abandon the traditional office layout (Veldhoen,1995). Instead of the management residing on the top floor in their own luxury offices, he designs an open office with the executive board visible on the first floor, sitting amongst their employees. In the new head office there would be no more fixed offices or workplaces, but concentration- and communication workplaces, room for leisure and catering, wireless telephones and -networks and paperless working with all documents digitally available. The completely digital environment enabled employees to work at any desk, but also at home or elsewhere (see impressions from Interpolis’ new office design in header, photography by Jonathan Igharas, and image below by Morley Von Sternberg).

Interpolis - Morley Von Sternberg

Because this new concept also almost halved the number of workplaces and square footage needed, Interpolis did not need to build a twin tower but only a single office tower; a direct saving of 55 million euro. Instead of employees leaving the company, because they had no more personal workspace, Interpolis became an attractive employer. The new work environment, at that time called ‘flexible working’, propelled the desired entrepreneurship. By 2001 the revenue of Interpolis had tripled and the company had moved from the 11th to the 4th place on the ranking of insurance companies in the Netherlands. Customer satisfaction rose from 6.1 in 1996 to 7.4 in 2000 and 8.4 in 2008 (on a scale of 10). Between 2006 and 2010 Interpolis was chosen five times in a row as the Netherlands’ favorite and most trustworthy insurance company. The Interpolis case did not remain unnoticed; over one hundred thousand visitors from the Netherlands and abroad came to the office, and in the following years new initiatives proved the ‘new work’ concepts were universally applicable (Pous & Wielen, 2010).

bill gatesIn 2005, inspired by the book ‘The World is Flat’ (Friedman, 2005), Bill Gates launches a vision on the future of work and the role of software technology. The executive briefing is called ‘The New World of Work’ (Gates, 2005). Gate argues that over the past decades software has been used to build bridges between disconnected information islands, but access to information is no longer the main problem. The new challenge is how to make sense of all this information that tends to overload the modern information worker. In the New World of Work, information-worker software should help the information worker adapt and thrive in an ever-changing work environment. In his view the future of work and work spaces is not only a major challenge for the world’s largest software company but for almost any organization and any employee in the world. Following the executive briefing, Microsoft (USA) releases a white-paper titled: ‘Digital Workstyle: The New World of Work (Microsoft, 2005). It states: ‘Empowering people to work more efficiently and effectively in the ‘digital work style’ of the New World of Work should be at the center of any organization’s strategy as it addresses the coming era of rapid change and increasing global integration.’ The Dutch version of the paper is called ‘Digitale werkstijl: het nieuwe werken’, or: ‘Digital Workstyle: The New Way of Working’, marking the beginning of the term the New Way of Working (MicrosoftNL, 2005). The new Microsoft head office of Microsoft Netherlands, which opened in 2007, was designed based on the radical redesign principles that were first implemented a decade ago. The largest and most popular space in the building is the grand café, the first room after entering the building, with lounge seats where people can meet in an informal setting (see impressions of the new office of Microsoft).

Microsoft Office impressions

Microsoft also radically changed the way of working. Employees had to define their own results and discuss their objectives and contribution to the organization with their superiors. The managers had to transform to coaches, supporting their employees in reaching their goals. Office working hours were completely abandoned. Instead of ending up with an empty office, the office attendance increased, as employees realized they needed to network to reach their goals. The office became the central meeting place, a community of colleagues and clients. Again, over one hundred thousand visitors came to the Microsoft office, and a special team was directed to organize tours and explain the concepts of the New Way of Working. To obtain scientific metrics Microsoft asked Erasmus University to perform research before and after the move to the new office. In 1994 employees rated their work-life balance with a 5.4 (on a scale of 10), in 2008 this had changed to 8.3 (Van Heck et al., 2011). For three years in a row (2009-2011) Microsoft Netherlands won the ‘Great Places to Work’ award. Though Microsoft does not publish any internal financial data, the Facility Manager mentions savings of around 500.000 euro per year on internal moves and another 500.000 euro on telephone and travel costs for an 800-staff organization (Lonkhuyzen, 2009; Bijl, 2011).

The result was that many companies and governmental organizations decided to implement the New Way of Working. An example worth mentioning is Rabobank’s Unplugged project. In 2007 Rabobank, a triple-A rated bank with 60.000 employees, decided to build their new head office completely in line with the concepts of the New Way of Working. The preparations were thorough; they first renovated an empty office completely in the style of the new head office to allow departments to get used to the new working environment, before actually moving to the new head office (Bijl, 2011). The ‘Rabo Unplugged’ project introduced result contracts with employees describing the output of their work. As the employees needed to get used to this phenomenon and had to learn to stand up for themselves, trainings were organized. The first results showed an increase of employee satisfaction of between 20 and 30%, and a significant and structural saving on accommodation facilities (Bijl, 2011).

On the basis of a macro-economic survey, PricewaterhouseCoopers concluded the Dutch Gross Domestic Product (GDP) could grow by 1% because of the New Way of Working related increased labor productivity (PwC, 2011). The Dutch government began to establish legislation to regulate the new flexible labor conditions (GovernmentNL, 2011). The effect of New Way of Working in organizations did not remain unnoticed in the rest of the Dutch society. The term ‘The New Way of …’ became a popular way of promoting innovation in any area. For example: a project to innovate the way children learn at school (with tablets) is called ‘The New Way of Learning’ (Het Nieuwe Leren).

References

Bijl, D. W. (2011). Journey towards the New Way of Working – creating sustainable performance and joy at work. Par CC. ISBN 9789490528003.

Friedman, T. L. (2005). The World is Flat – A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York. ISBN 0-374-29288-1.

Gates, B. (2005). The New World of Work. Microsoft Executive Briefing.

Lonkhuyzen, P. van (2009). Microsoft looks boundaries of ‘new work’- Microsoft zoekt grenzen ‘nieuw werken’ – Rinsema wil méér. MT Management. November 2009.

PwC. (2011). A macro-economic survey for the effects of The New Way of Working – Een verkennning van macro-economische effecten van Het Nieuwe Werken. PricewaterhouseCoopers Accountants.

GovernmentNL. Rijksoverheid, Government of the Netherlands. (2011). The New Way of Working and labour legislation – Het nieuwe werken en de arbeidsrechtelijke regelgeving.

Microsoft. (2005). Digital Workstyle: The New World of Work. A Microsoft White Paper.

MicrosoftNL. (2005). Digital Workstyle: The New Way of Working. Digitale werkstijl: het nieuwe werken. Een Microsoft white paper.

Van Heck, E., van Baalen, P., van der Meulen, N., & van Oosterhout, M. (2011). Sustainable Work Innovation – Measuring the impact of the New Way of Working at Microsoft Netherlands. Rotterdam School of Management. Erasmus University.

Veldhoen, E. (1995). Offices don’t exist anymore – Kantoren bestaan niet meer. 010 Publishers. ISBN 9064502722.

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