At EUR’s campus, more and more offices are being equipped with flexible workspaces. For instance, in the recently renovated Sanders Building – which houses both the Erasmus School of Law (ESL) and the University Support Centre (USC) – all floors come with open spaces and flexible workspaces where anyone can sit down and work. Several floors of the Mandeville Building, which is home to the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB), now also come with flexible workspaces, subject to a ‘clean-desk policy’.

‘Less hierarchy, greater responsibility for one’s own work, greater delegation of duties and leaving more up to people’s own creativity and focus on solutions.’ These are the words used to sing the praises of flexible working on the website of ‘Werken 2.0’, an online platform that promotes expertise on flexible working. According to these flexible-working aficionados, having a desk of your own with photos of your partner and children on it is an outdated notion. The adage appears to be: what with the opportunities afforded by modern technology, why would we waste money on designated workspaces for everyone?

The early bird gets the worm

ESSB opted for flexible workspaces for some employees. Permanent staff have their own workspaces, but tutors and PhD students have to use what flexible workspaces are available. What this means in practice is: the early bird gets the worm.

Tutors Josine Dekker and Aike Janssen have learned that they must arrive early if they wish to find a spot in the flexible workspace room designated for tutors. “If you turn up late, you will have to take your laptop to a different part of the building,” says Janssen. According to Dekker, who has been a tutor at ESSB for two and a half years, there was enough room to accommodate all the university’s tutors two years ago. “But this year new tutors have been appointed and desks have been removed. There are now only twelve desks for twenty-five tutors. As a result, many tutors stand around chatting in the kitchen during their hours off, due to the lack of workspaces.”

Flexible workspaces in the ESSB part of the Mandeville building at a quiet time. Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

New technologies

Flexible working was invented in the 1990s, when the Scandinavian trend made it to the Netherlands. Thanks to new technologies such as the internet and mobile phones, people were now able to work flexibly, rather than from their own designated desks.

In the Netherlands, the Interpolis insurance company decided to capitalise on these new technologies and to switch to new working methods back in 1996. Interpolis was the first Dutch company to introduce flexible workspaces in its headquarters in Tilburg. Its employees no longer had desks of their own, but were free to sit wherever they wanted. In 2000 the company even switched to ‘remote working’, i.e. working from home on certain days of the week. Since that time, the average Interpolis employee has worked from home two days a week, while working at a flexible workspace in the office on the remaining days of the week.

Bearing responsibility for one’s own work

“In a flexible working system, employees are given much greater responsibility,” says Marco Simmers, a corporate spokesman for Achmea (the umbrella organisation of financial services providers such as Interpolis). “Managers will indicate what kind of output they expect from their employees, and employees will bear the responsibility for meeting these expectations. This new way of working is quite cost-effective and results in a more flexible way of working.”

Interpolis’s new office concept received a great deal of attention in the Dutch and foreign media, and other companies were keen to follow in its footsteps. Meanwhile, Interpolis has taken flexible working a few steps further. Its employees are now completely free to work and schedule work meetings wherever and whenever they want.

Conducive to the conduct of science

While companies have been using flexible workspaces for a while now, universities are only now beginning to see the advantages of working wherever you like and reducing costs.

A flexible workspace is a workspace that can be used by several employees on any given day. The spaces have been designed in such a way as to be all exactly the same and are equipped with computers that all employees can log in to and on which they can access their personal files.

At EUR, ESL, USC and ESSB chose to provide (some of) their employees with flexible workspaces in the renovated Sanders and Mandeville Buildings. In addition to benefits such as requiring less office space and improving collaboration, these spaces are called ‘conducive to the conduct of science’ in the construction bulletin for the renovated Sanders Building.

ESL moved to the Sanders Building in the summer of 2017. In the new building, flexible workspaces can be found in one single open-plan office which comes with a few silent rooms or meeting rooms sectioned off by means of glass. ESL describes its new office concept as follows: “It is an interior that ‘breathes’. Sometimes there will be less room than at other times. This is arranged for the various time slots per section. The open-plan system improves synergy and collaboration between employees.”

The support service providers, too, united in the University Support Centre, share the view that an open-plan office results in a greater degree of collaboration. “We wished to create an environment that inspires people and promotes collaboration. Because people no longer have designated desks, you get to sit next to a different employee every single time. Because the rooms are open plan, you can quickly find each other and discuss things,” USC Director Kees Lansbergen tells us.

Wild goose chase

However, some USC employees do not believe the open-plan rooms result in a great deal of collaboration. Lex Bontjes, a client manager at the Education & Student Affairs Unit, has not really seen this intended benefit in action. “It is true that flexible working results in your meeting people from other departments more often,” he says. “But in actual practice, this doesn’t result in increased levels of collaboration. People hardly ever talk to each other, not least because they don’t want to disturb the other people working in these open-plan rooms.”

Kirstin Feberwee of Studium Generale (whose offices are also in the USC section of the Sanders Building) recognises this problem. “I’m painfully aware of the fact that I’m disturbing my colleagues when I’m talking to someone on the phone. Open-plan rooms are terrible for employees’ focus. In addition, open-plan rooms may get you physically closer to people from other departments, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will do more collaborative work together.”

In reality, it actually results in people being harder to reach, according to Feberwee: “Since they will forget to log in to their flexible workspace’s phone, they will often be unable to be reached, meaning I will often have to go on a wild goose chase all over the building to find them.”

Lansbergen disagrees with the criticisms raised by his colleagues. “We have created separate rooms where people can have meetings. In addition, you can indicate in advance if you wish to have a spot where you must be able to focus. We have chosen to offer a wide range of spaces so as to provide the right facilities for every activity.”

Kirstin Feberwee in the flexible workspace of Studium Generale in the Sandersgebouw. Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

Favourite desk

Christina Wessels is conducting doctoral research on flexible working at EUR. Her study shows that not all intended benefits of flexible working are actually being achieved. One of the promises inherent in flexible working is a constantly changing range of co-workers. However, Wessels discovered during the course of her doctoral research that employees still often seek to create workspaces of their own.

As part of her research, Wessels performed a ‘case study’ featuring a Dutch municipal organisation. One group of its employees continued to work as before, with designated desks, while the other group took up flexible working. The study found that flexible working had neither positive nor negative effects on the employees’ productivity. “One possible reason for this is the fact that the employees who took up flexible working fell back into old habits and began to claim workspaces of their own,” says Wessels.

This story is confirmed by EUR staff using flexible workspaces. “At our place everyone has chosen their own favourite desk, where they will sit every day,” says Feberwee. ESSB tutor Aike Janssen confirms this. “A kind of natural distribution of desks will occur. Tutors who are given a lot of hours will always work at the same desks. As a result, other tutors will have to find a spot in the cafeteria or on another floor.”

“PhD students are particularly prone to claiming desks,” Janssen also says. “They will put framed photos on their desks and put stickers on their computers. They mark their territory. For this reason, trying to find a spot in a PhD student workspace is not really an option for tutors.”

USC Director Kees Lansbergen admits that members of staff have a tendency to claim the same spot over and over again. “No one has a workspace of their own at USC, but you will see staff members picking a favourite spot and claiming it day after day.”

Power structure with totalitarian tendencies

Dion Kooijman, an associate professor at Delft University of Technology’s Faculty of Architecture, has issued critical comments regarding the way in which workspaces are being made increasingly flexible. In 2010 he performed a study of this subject at Delft University of Technology. He calls flexible working a ‘planned type of chaos’ underpinned by a power structure with totalitarian tendencies and compares it with the panopticum of Jeremy Bentham.

The panopticon is an architectural principle described by the English Enlightenment philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1791. The building consists of a tower surrounded by a ring of cells. The panopticon’s shape enables people to monitor, discipline, guard, study, compare and improve people. The panopticon has been constructed in such a way that the watchman at the heart of the structure can see the inmates, although they cannot see him. They just suspect that he is there. There is always a watchman. The inmates are compelled to control their own behaviour because they know they may be watched. They will have the feeling that they are always being watched.

The inside of a prison on Presidio Modelo, Isla de la Juventud, Cuba. Image credit: Friman

“Flexible working is a panopticon of sorts,” says Kooijman. “In flexible work situations, everyone loses their privacy, and employees are observed by people all around them. It is impossible these days to make a phone call without other people being able to hear what you are discussing, and employees adjust their behaviour in hopes of not causing unpleasant situations. Since they feel like they are constantly being watched, they will start behaving in the way in which they are expected to behave. As a result, the differences between employees will blur and individual authenticity will be lost.”

“Inmates in the panopticon anticipate sanctions and repression imposed by the person who sets the rules by conforming to what little order can be found. However, the flexible work system is different from the panopticon in that there is not just one organisation here that sets the rules. Anybody can be a spy here.”

Open communication

A specific expression of this ‘power’ may be observed, with a little imagination, in the ambassadors who ensure that the rules are followed in USC’s flexible workspaces. The USC has appointed ambassadors who check whether staff follow the rules and who steer them in the right direction if necessary.

However, Lansbergen does not recognise the image drawn by Kooijman. “I don’t like the notion of power. Actually, what we seek to achieve is open communication. For instance, we have hung up some whiteboards on which people can write down their ideas. Things are transparent here, and everybody can ‘keep an eye’ on others, but this does not result in any particular type of behaviour. It does not mean that employees immediately jump to conclusions about each other.”