Made-to-measure: how the Dutch design for workplace efficiency

From data-driven decisions to the science of personality, WORKTECH Amsterdam’s 2019 conference demonstrated that the Dutch workplace is both art and science. Luke Bailey reports on the latest trends in the Netherlands

Named after the two contrasting Amsterdam landmarks that it is sandwiched so neatly in-between – the Olympic Stadium and seminal smart building The Edge Olympic Amsterdam – the host venue for WORKTECH19 Amsterdam, Edge Olympic, is a profound outlier from the traditional Amsterdam houses, hostels and hotels that line the surrounding canals with their extravagant ornamental façades.

The juxtaposition of the ultra-modern Edge Olympic with these narrow, tall, quintessentially Dutch buildings serves as a metaphor for how the role of design weighs into the conversation about workplace productivity, efficiency and wellbeing. And at WORKTECH Amsterdam on 15 November 2019, the discussion was all about how culture, design and technology influences the way we work.

Cultural backdrop

A panel of Dutch innovation pioneers, chaired by Gensler’s Philip Tidd, started by dissecting the dichotomy of efficiency and exploring the evolution of workplace design in the Netherlands. The panel noted that the absence of efficiency in building design spawns from the free and experimental culture of the country; this does not limit the success of the workplace as, despite being more risk-taking and diverse, Dutch decisions are made to be tested, measured and adapted.

‘Dutch decisions are made to be tested, measured and adapted…’

The debate focused on the influence of the wider culture in the Netherlands, suggesting that an open, liberal and trusting political context has led the Dutch workplace to become more socially democratic, especially in comparison to the more hierarchical UK and US. As such, a human-centric approach is not a new revelation in the country, it is simply expected that everybody has a say in the decision-making process.

Design to measure

The conference venue, Edge Olympic, is the poster-boy to demonstrate principles of social democracy, constant measurement and adaptation. Alexa Lightner of socio-metric specialist Humanyze, outlined how the company’s social analytics platform moves beyond the more typical analysis of things like energy use and occupancy levels to monitor metrics such as team cohesion, cross-floor collaboration and time spent on e-mails pre- and post-move, for a more comprehensive overview of the effects on team performance. CEO of workplace strategist Measuremen, Vincent le Noble, shared this sentiment, describing how a data-informed approach to strategy forges the justification for human-centric workplaces.

To the envy of the room, and Microsoft showcased their own recent office developments, illustrating the best application of these Dutch workplace principles and how they synthesise with emerging smart office technology.

Having received complaints for the noisy and cramped open office environment at their Amsterdam headquarters, created a set of different workplace concepts and enlisted their team of data scientists to evaluate the successes of each, using a variety of sensors, surveys and participant interviews. During the process, they uncovered a number of new findings, such as the variation in noise level being far more distracting than the actual volume. The evidence-based approach led the team to instead create a final design that was a hybrid of the three different spatial typologies, maximising the benefits of each and providing better choice in work setting.

‘Poor indoor air quality can be as inebriating as up to two glasses of wine…’

Microsoft embraced an entirely new working ethos – ‘Work Smarter, Not Harder’ – for the redevelopment of its Amsterdam Schiphol office, The Outlook. The facility utilises the newest iteration of the Microsoft Exchange platform to limit the time spent in formal meetings, while all meeting rooms are monitored for intensity of use and its influence on internal air quality. This is clearly a powerful tool when considering that poor indoor air quality can be as inebriating as up to two glasses of wine – not a particularly useful trait for your Monday morning meeting.

Embracing smart

The backbone of the Microsoft’s Amsterdam redevelopment was the deployment of some 1,200 sensors from Dutch provider bGrid, whose MD Wouter Kok starred on a panel discussion chaired by UnWork’s Philip Ross. The panel, including fellow smart office leaders from the likes of Mapiq, Vecos and Ahrend, centred the debate around the power of data in the smart structure. They discussed the importance of The Edge Olympic and the lessons learned from the trail-blazing project, suggesting that the collaborative approach between suppliers was a genuine first and that the pitfalls came about not through lack of data available, but the lack of understanding in how to use it.

Philip Ross expanded the technological discussion further in his own talk, The Sentient Workplace. Ross argued that sentience in the workplace will become commonplace, particularly with the introduction of Gen Z. In our personal lives we are becoming more accustomed to pervasive computing and the use of ambient intelligence, we expect our technology to know who we are and what we want; allowing major corporations to track and store our personal data is deemed a small price to pay for this luxury. Ross suggests that the adoption of advanced biometrics, cutting-edge collaboration tools and the fusion of the digital and physical realm via the digital twin are set to elevate the workplace to a new level of tech-enabled user-centricity, much more akin to our experience as consumers.

Network of Tribes

Providing an intuitive idea into how we should frame the office to better empower the workforce was Dr Ella Hafermalz, from the KIN Centre for Digital Innovations. In many organisations, the office is treated as a cost to be minimised or as an enclosure to strategically manage people. This approach leaves the flexible worker to feel like a saving or an escapee, disenfranchised from the rest of the team. Instead, she argues, the workplace should be seen as a network to connect a flexible and engaged workforce, trusted to work where they think best, but with a permanent hub to come together as and when needed.

Business anthropologist Jitske Kramer doubled-down on this idea of connectivity by drawing on her experience of African tribespeople. Jitske identified that tribes are only as strong as their mutual relationships and that this is reflected in the business world. In applying her research to the world of work, Jitske proposed that all meetings should fall into one of two categories: the bullet point meeting, a transactional process where we organise and reorganise what was already organised; or the campfire, where there is no itinerary and individuals are given the time and space to express their feelings in an open discussion.

Science of personality

Elizabeth Nelson of Learn Adapt Build provided a cautionary tale of the health effects of burnout, a medical condition caused by excessive work-related stress that, although unrecognised in the US, can become completely debilitating and very difficult to overcome. Touching on her own troublesome experience at a large American advertising agency, Elizabeth delved deep into the shoulds and should nots around work-life balance and the ways in which employers can help their staff. Ideas ranged from the more typical biophilia and circadian lighting to the somewhat more extravagant – sex in the sleep pods.

Eve Edelstein rounded off the day with some fascinating insight into the neuroscience of personality and performance. Using advanced brain scanning, neuroscience has been able to show how the built environment influences our brain and alters how we perceive our surroundings. Our personality traits – introversion or extraversion – dictate how we respond to different workplace conditions such as noise, light and social interaction. The evidence is clear in its rebuttal of a one-size-fits-all approach, and as such, echoes clearly just why the socially democratic, made-to-measure Dutch approach is quite so successful.

Luke Bailey is an analyst at UnWork.
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