• Colourful informalities aim to shake up workplace (IT – 4th June 2010)

    With no desks, fixed computers or phone lines in sight, you would be forgiven for thinking Microsoft’s office in Schiphol, Amsterdam, had fallen prey to an overzealous cost-cutter. However this jarringly informal workplace, which looks more like a giant cafe than an office block, is actually the work-life balance theory taken to its extreme.

    According to the company, it works too.

    Showcased to journalists as part of its Office 2010 launch, Microsoft’s Amsterdam base is the manifestation of its “new world of work” policy. This idea – informed by a 2005 Bill Gates essay and 2006 company White Paper – focuses on increased employee freedom as a way of driving up both productivity and satisfaction.

    So – with a move to new offices in early 2008 – the company did away with cubicles, landlines and stationary computers. Employees no longer had their own desk nor did they have set hours to clock in for.

    In short, every standard workplace constraint was removed.

    “There were a lot of habits to break when we started this first,” said Gonnie Been, communications manager at Microsoft Amsterdam. “Most importantly, we had to change the leadership style to one of trust and output . . . It taught people how to let go of control.”

    Instead of desks, employees are now issued with laptops. Workspace within the building is communal, with different styles available for different types of work.

    So, for example, those who are open to chat while working might now sit at a long desk with many other seats. In fact, most features are designed to encourage conversation and – Microsoft hopes – collaboration. Even staff at the inhouse canteen have been told to serve slowly to create queues, forcing people to converse while they wait.

    For those needing to concentrate, however, there are the glass “isolation” booths, which let people know you are off-limits for a while. There is a strict “no camping” policy in place, however, with staff jokingly reminding each other to move on when their two hours are up.

    Overall, employees are given the freedom to completely dictate their day – which might involve an early start, a midday break to collect the children from school, or simply not coming in to the office at all. Employees are trusted to work towards a level of output and not set hours of attendance.

    “It quickly becomes an embarrassing thing within a peer group to betray that trust,” said Been, who claimed that productivity did not even drop while people were adjusting to the change.

    She also said it was hardest for middle-management to change the practices they were so used to and that major readjustment was necessary for all workers.

    “There is a mental dimension to how people are dealing with new ways of working. Some were a little bit afraid about it,” said Dr Eric Van Heck, professor at Rotterdam School of Management in Erasmus University, who worked with Microsoft to study the changeover.

    “‘I don’t have my own office any more’, ‘Does my boss see me all the time now and can I make promotion if he doesn’t?’ – these are elements of peoples’ thinking when they first envision this stuff.”

    However, despite the concerns, Dr Van Heck’s study suggests the move was well-received by staff. Overall workers felt a little more productive and much more flexible afterwards.

    Microsoft’s own figures reflect this with productivity rising, though not dramatically, since 2008.

    Employee satisfaction has increased so much that the company says it now has another problem: staff turnover is too low and it is becoming a challenge to make room for fresh blood.

    However, the shining example set by Microsoft’s Dutch experiment is dulled somewhat by the simple fact that it is way out of the league – and budget – of most companies.

    Besides the huge upfront investment in office refurbishment and staff retraining, a company undertaking this automatically creates other overheads too.

    For example, as Microsoft encourages staff to work from home, it must also offer a subsidy on their phone and broadband bills to compensate them. Even in the friendliest of economic climates, it has not been in the gift of most employers to reinvent the way business is done in such a way.

    However, Dr Van Heck is less cynical: “We are not talking about the world of work but the new worlds of work,” he said.

    “The people dimension is crucial in new working – it is not so much about the technology.”

    For him, creating workplace flexibility is dependent on people’s ability to trust each other and give up the controls they are used to. This is about changing minds and can cost very little, if anything at all: it has little real connection to stylish decor.

    In that case, it is clear why Microsoft chose Amsterdam as its “new world of work” centre. The Netherlands is the country with the highest number of flexible and part-time jobs in the world, while its populace’s relaxed and open-minded temperament is the stuff of legend.

    With that in mind, the success of this cutting-edge office is perhaps not as surprising as it might seem at first.

    The real test of Bill Gates’s theory is whether it would work as well for a traditional business in, say, Athlone as it did for a modern one in Amsterdam.

    This article appeared in The Irish Times on 4th June 2010.