Clear zoning, facilities in the work environment, transunit: anyone venturing into the world of flexible office planning will have to master some basic office terminology first. So: forget about a table with some comfy chairs – it’s actually a rumoerzone (‘hubbub zone’).

And work progress meetings? They’re called stand-ups now. Griping around the water cooler is also a thing of the past. Nowadays, people share their experiences via the ‘opportunities & challenges’ poster – which of course can be found in the ‘hubbub zone’. Lost your bearings? Then it’s time to tag along with us on EM’s flexible office safari.

The employees of the University Support Centre (USC, which includes the HR and Marketing & Communication departments) have been working in the new Sanders Building since mid-March. And according to the University, a new work area also calls for a new way of working: Boundless Working.

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The new building has all sorts of nifty features. Each floor has long tables (including matching computer monitors) that can be used for consultation or to collaborate on a project.

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Looking for a place to have a tête-à-tête? The new chairs in the rumoerzones are perfect for intimate conversation. The USC staff don’t seem very enthusiastic, though. During our safari, we didn’t come across any couples who had retreated to a lounge area.

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One of the new technical features: regulating the local temperature (to a limited degree) from the comfort of your office area. Which means you’re no longer held hostage by that colleague who’s still freezing in the middle of summer. But for the moment it’s more of a placebo button, because we haven’t observed any impact on the temperature (yet).

Excellent and flexible

In a nutshell: a limited number of regular workspaces, lots of flexible work areas and above all a wide range of ‘zones’ that can be used for meetings or to get some work done. Or, as the University’s official brochure touts: “A work environment that helps you to excel, while providing sufficient flexibility to adapt to future changes within the organisation.”

What do these shiny words mean in practice? During our tour of the Sanders Building, we come across several USC staff members sitting in the rumoerzone (an over-sized pantry with lounge chairs and long conference tables). Their initial reaction is favourable: “They’ve done a really good job – everything looks nice,” says a man who has come to grab a cup of coffee with his former office mate.

A few floors up, people also seem positive. “Not having your own workspace takes some getting used to, but I’m sure things will work out,” says one woman. Her sentence peters off into a whisper, though: a few colleagues glare at her when she starts speaking. After fossicking around a bit, we uncover the first annoyances.

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This ‘clear zoning’ looks very useful on paper, but it has proven to have some drawbacks in practice. Due to the atriums, seating areas where you can chew the fat are located only a few metres from the fixed workspaces.

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In high demand: the closed-off ‘fish bowls’ that users can retire to for a consultation meeting. While these aquariums are undoubtedly practical, trendy and stylish, they don’t look very comfortable.

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Boundless Working Don’t: personal effects all over the place. Walls with lockers provide a solution. Boundless Working Do: posters in the common areas, where staff can reflect on calming mood boards and parking signs.

Settling in

“To be honest, I didn’t expect it would take me this long to settle in. It definitely feels different, these flexible workspaces,” concludes a user of a silent zone on the fourth floor. And it turns our many people share this negative experience during the remainder of our safari. “Sometimes you can forget about simply getting your work done,” more than one respondent remarks.

The primary natural enemy of the USC staff is noise. It all sounds very fine on paper: quiet areas where people aren’t allowed to make calls or hold private conversations. But since the building’s open atriums (which look great, though) often don’t feature walls or other barriers between the work areas and the ‘hubbub zones’, in practice these agreements don’t amount to much.

The noise question

“Last week some colleagues two floors up were having a little celebration, and the noise drove me nuts,” says the proud occupant of one of the building’s few fixed workplaces. “So I went over and asked them to keep it down. I could forget about getting any work done.”

The noise question has also led to changing behaviour among the building’s users. For example, anyone hoping to spot a contented Boundless Worker in the wild best get up early. “At a certain point, it’s impossible to get any work done near the lift due to all the noise and people passing by,” two HR staffers say in unison. “That’s why you can already see people coming in a lot earlier than before. The best spots are all ‘first come, first served’.”

And for the time being, the local temperature also presents a problem. “Each work area has a thermostat for regulating the temperature, but this hasn’t proven very useful

Ambassadors of the flexi jungle

Fortunately, they’ve come up with a solution for these teething problems: the Ambassadors. In the words of the University, these staff members “play a pioneering role and help colleagues to make effective use of the work environment”. In addition, they are expected to call staff members who don’t abide by the rules to account. “

Colleagues find it difficult to remind each other of the rules,” says one of these Ambassadors. “We can help in such cases. When people are talking too loudly, for example, or when someone has left behind a mess.” In other words, after two weeks Boundless Working still seems to have a few snags.

The key dangers in the flexi jungle are noise, the temperature and less-than-considerate co-workers. Is there nothing positive to say about this set-up? Of course there is: “Those flexible work areas are perfect. At least we don’t have to tell each other the same story every day.”