Balancing act: Amsterdam strives for workplace equilibrium

The latest WORKTECH conference in Amsterdam focused on how to strike a balance between rapid innovation and human-centric elements of work

Faced with the challenge of rapid change, Dutch organisations are trying to find a balance between apparent dichotomies in the workplace. This was a key theme of the latest WORKTECH Amsterdam conference, held on the 22 May 2024 at the innovative business hotel Zoku in the heart of Amsterdam.

Too often the benchmarks of a successful workplace centre around hard metrics such as productivity, efficiency and function, with less focus on elements such as creativity, culture and wellbeing. Workplace designer and curator Kelly Robinson, a keynote speaker at the event, reflected on how organisations should create balance between seemingly opposite business objectives such as creativity and productivity, data and intuition, and nature and AI. These are all important objectives of many organisations but can seem conflicting or opposing at times. Kelly argues that these elements are more powerful when balanced with each other.

The conference highlighted four key dichotomies of the workplace that are impacting the Dutch workplace today, and how organisations can create a balance between business progression and human needs.

Balancing effectiveness with experience

At its foundation a workplace must be functional. Workers must have effective spaces to get their work done, whether that’s to collaborate with their team, make connections, or focus on individual tasks. But, effective spaces is just one half of the equation, according to Gensler’s latest global workplace survey data.

Philip Tidd, Principal at Gensler, told the conference that effectiveness and experience must work in tandem to create high-performing workplaces. While ‘workplace effectiveness’ focuses on the functional and physical elements of the workplace, ‘workplace experience’ focuses on how people feel in the space. The research used a proprietary scoring system to benchmark workplace effectiveness alongside workplace experience.

The results find that in almost every country, with the exception of India, workplace experience lags behind effectiveness. European countries such as Germany, UK and France score lower than other countries in the Middle East and Asia for both effectiveness and experience. The gap between the two scores in European workplaces is also more significant, suggesting that there is still work to be done to balance the scales to create workplaces that offer a great experience alongside functional workspace.

Balancing AI with human interaction

Generative AI and automated processes are set to transform the way we work and design workplaces. These new tools can act as a powerful companion to expedite work and workplace processes. Yet, they can also have unintended consequences for team dynamics, as new research from the KIN Center for Digital Innovation in Amsterdam finds.

Researchers Ella Hafermalz and Jana Retowsky shared the findings of their latest research on the impact of ChatGPT on team dynamics and knowledge work. The research finds that employees are turning to ChatGPT instead of their colleagues to ask questions about work or to get help. In recognising this, there are three key areas Hafermalz and Retowsky believe ChatGPT is impacting work most significantly: broken knowledge ties, limited oversight of knowledge quality, and barriers to learning.

The research suggests that leaders should not ban the tool, but instead engage with it to fully understand its capabilities and limitations. Leaders can then work with their team to understand how Gen AI tools can best be leveraged to support team dynamics, rather than inhibit them.

Balancing real estate with business growth

As many organisations adopt hybrid working, they are re-evaluating their real estate needs to accommodate a more flexible workforce. This is a complex task as employee work patterns are more unpredictable than they’ve ever been, making it difficult to plan for peak occupancy. In tandem organisations are recovering from a post-pandemic slump and growing their businesses. Balancing head count growth with real estate need has never been more difficult in the era of hybrid working.

Belinda Norman-Walker, former director of real estate and workplace at Uber and current tech sector lead for CBRE, discussed Uber’s real estate strategy when moving to its new European headquarters in Tripilis Park in Amsterdam. As Uber grew its European workforce 25 per cent year-on-year, it required a bigger workplace of around 50,000 square metres in Amsterdam. It had several requirements for its new space: it must consolidate all employees in one location within Amsterdam, it needed to be well connected to transport, sufficient for headcount growth for the next four to five years, and it needed to accommodate a space for a passenger drone landing on the roof.

To combat some of the challenges, Uber manages its workplace around three pillars: purpose – engage with employees to clarify the purpose of the office; choice – communicate different space types employees can use in the office; and tech – enable all meeting rooms with Zoom technology and place monitors on every desk.

Balancing physical with cultural workplaces

The physical and cultural aspects of workplace transformation are often disconnected in communicating the messages and values of an organisation. A panel discussion between Nicolaas Waaning – Global Head of Corporate Real Estate Management at ING Bank, Merette Niehof – Director of Global Facilities at Liberty Global, Hord Wbi – Change Manager of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Rabobank, and Ella Hafermaltz – Associate Professor at KIN Center for Digital Innovation, explored the tension between the role of physical space and change management when it comes to accommodating different employee needs.

Hord Wbi of Rabobank has applied award-winning diversity and inclusion strategies in the workplace and argued that workplace leaders need to understand the function of the workplace from different employee perspectives. The panel discussed the use of technology, space and policy as a tool to create more equitable spaces for people rather than using them as a weapon to homogenise the workplace.

Amsterdam stands at the forefront of reimagining the workplace, seeking to harmonise the complex interplay between these various dichotomies. By focusing on these key areas, Dutch organisations aim to create work environments that are not only innovative and productive but also human-centric, ensuring that progress does not come at the expense of the essential human elements of work.

As Amsterdam navigates these changes, it sets an inspiring example for global workplaces striving to strike a similar balance.

Kasia Maynard, WORKTECH Academy’s Head of Editorial and Research, chaired WORKTECH Amsterdam 2024.
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