Work, reimagined – could this be the new world of business?

10 Jun 2010

Mere metres from the runways at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, a fairly typical glassfronted building hides a very untypical working environment. Inside, there are no cubicles, desks or workstations. No phone handsets or bulky PC towers clutter up the space, and there are no cables in sight.

Gone are the endless rows of open-plan cubicles. Instead there are benches and tables of varying heights, along with chairs and couches that give the impression of a modernist home. The entire building is equipped with wireless internet access. Every employee’s ‘desk’ effectively consists of a smartphone and a laptop.

Trappings of status and hierarchy are hard to find. If the place still feels quiet, that’s because up to one-third of the employees are working elsewhere: at customer sites, on the move or simply at home to avoid the morning traffic jams. Each staff member is responsible for their own time. To ensure transparency, employees’ calendars are accessible to everyone in the organisation.

It is the headquarters of Microsoft in the Netherlands. The company calls its approach ‘the new world of business’ and the concept involves a change not just in how employees work but also how managers operate.

Trust replaces control

General manager Theo Rinsema sums it up as a move from control to trust, and to measuring staff by output and productivity rather than by counting hours. Sick leave and stress-induced burnouts are also reduced, says Gonnie Been, the communications manager responsible for co-ordinating the change process within Microsoft Netherlands.

There are 1,050 employees at the Amsterdam operation, but the physical space is deceptive. The new office is actually smaller than the one the company occupied before – down from 16 sq m per employee to 11.5 sq m. Rinsema believes the number can be reduced further to 9.5sq m.

Office space might be in plentiful supply around Ireland these days, but physically moving to new premises isn’t an essential part of the project.

“You can use a move to a new office to support a change process but it’s not necessary,” says Been.

The Netherlands is a good test environment as adoption of broadband is estimated at around 80pc and the country has a high number of people with flexible work situations.

“There are a small number of countries in the world like this and the Netherlands continues to set that pace,” comments Stephen Elop, president ofMicrosoft’s business division.

For Microsoft to adopt a more flexible approach to working is the logical conclusion to the way its software works. Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010 have collaboration features suited to this way of working and documents created with the software are accessible from anywhere over the internet.

The experiment begs many questions. When work follows you everywhere, how do you leave it behind? What happens to the sense of satisfaction at leaving the office after a job well done?

If workers end up clocking up more time than before then the change will have failed, says Been. What’s more, it runs counter to the culture of presenteeism found in many Irish organisations. It requires a change in the employee’s mindset, where received wisdom is that the surest shortcut to a career cul-de-sac is being seen to be the first to leave the office.

Eye on productivity

Richard Moore, head of Microsoft Ireland’s information worker division, contends that it is surely better to work when and where it suits the individual employee so they are more productive.

“If you give the trust and are seen to give it, you get almost disproportionately rewarded,” he says.

Elop refers to the new generation arriving in the workforce “who expect to communicate in a different way”.

That ties in to features like Outlook’s social connector, which brings communication history and social network feeds directly into the email software. While Office and SharePoint have functions to make an upgrade worth considering, in reality most organisations already have the necessary technological building blocks to allow flexible working on a more widespread basis.

As technology product launches go, this was an unusually soft sell. But to many organisations that have worked the same way for years, getting them to fight inertia and change their culture to embrace concepts like openness, flexibility and trust may prove to be a much harder sell.

Photo: The new office design of Microsoft Netherlands’ headquarters has done away with your typical workstations, instead opting for an open-plan milieu that embraces the way Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010 suit the more mobile-oriented worker

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic