Buildings practically empty on Fridays

Employees working from home ever more often; Humanities taking action

Hybride werken. Foto: 123rf, AI generated,: bewerking: DUB
Photo: 123rf, AI generated, illustration: DUB

Joining a yoga session or a city walk. Scientists from Media & Culture could choose from a range of social activities as part of Refresh Week, held last month. These activities were accompanied by substantive sessions about business conduct and human resources. There was a meeting about the latest developments in education and research to boot.

The event, combining fun and serious meetings, aimed to get employees to interact with each other again. A clear need, according to operations director Sigrid Wagemaker. Support staff, PhDs, managers, professors... Everyone was there. “We’ve received many positive reviews. We’ll be organizing a similar week after the summer break. It will be called Restart Week.”

Field of tension
According to Director Miranda Jansen, the board of the Faculty of Humanities not only welcomes this type of initiative but also encourages it. People have been working from home more often since Covid, but that clearly has a downside. If people no longer meet each other, the cooperation and sense of community get compromised, Jansen explains. New employees do not develop a "sense of home."

Social safety is put under pressure too. “Always communicating through WhatsApp or email is bound to have its downsides. The intention of a message is always clearer when you see someone’s facial expression.”

At the same time, the faculty director understands that there are many advantages to the changing work culture as well. The latest UU employee monitor shows that many UU employees appreciate the improved work/life balance that stems from remote work. It’s partly responsible for a decrease in work pressure.

Jansen: “There’s a field of tension. At home, you can concentrate better and work more efficiently. You also spend less time on your commute, which frees up time to arrange personal matters. Besides, people just like their freedom. As an employer, we want to give them enough room to do that, but, at the same time, you are employed somewhere. The university also likes to see people working together.”

Housing plan
In addition, keeping the building's occupation at a minimum will undoubtedly lead to a debate about their necessity. Measurements of the occupation of UU's buildings in the city centre, made shortly before and shortly after summer, show that many spaces are hardly used at all. Jasen doesn’t want to divulge exact figures but they aren’t exactly pretty.

“There are quite a few people on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but on other days – especially on Fridays – it’s a lot less. There also seems to be a reinforcing effect: if you go to the office and nobody is there, next time you’ll stay home as well.” 

The faculty is working on a new housing plan together with the university real estate board. The question is how many workplaces the Faculty of Humanities will need in the future and, perhaps even more importantly, what type of workplaces they should be.

Uninviting buildings
For this reason, the faculty board asked some young employees to carry out research. These employees are following a talent course for support staff.

The study reveals that employees mostly come to work to meet each other, consult with each other and work together. However, they complain about the buildings being uninviting: they are old and mouldy, and the coffee isn’t top-notch either. 

Those who work from home mostly do so to concentrate better, have video calls, and avoid long commutes. Many employees are afraid of not finding a suitable spot for the work they have to do that day.

Partly due to these findings, a common room has been set up at Janskerkhof 12. There is also a "project space" at Drift 15, which can be reserved by groups of colleagues for one or two days to hold meetings or have a brainstorming session.

No more receptionists
Toine Minnaert is the president of the staff section within the council of the Faculty of Humanities. He shares Jansen’s concerns. He and other council members dedicate some extra time to the concept of a "Liveable Campus" this year. “This certainly includes the promotion of meetings and mutual contact.”

According to Minneart, improvement plans should not result from fearmongering about housing. “It should not be like: we need to come to the office more often because, otherwise, we’ll have to move out of the building. It’s much more important to make the university so attractive that people will love coming to work.”

The council member stresses that the current buildings are not exactly inviting. Almost all reception desks and regular receptionists have disappeared. Many buildings are only accessible with a campus card. “Employees don’t feel like they’re missing out on something if they’re not there.”

The ever-increasing separation between office buildings and buildings used for educational activities also contributed to that sentiment. "Back in the day, the building used to be the heart of the programme, where you ran into everyone. Today, it's not like that at all. Students have nothing to do in the buildings where employees are, not to mention they have to go through a lot of trouble to enter a building.”

Attractive workplaces
Minnaert applauds initiatives like Refresh Week, organised by his own department. “If people do something fun together in the afternoon, chances are they’ll be at the office the next morning as well, similarly to how people stick around when there’s a work meeting in the morning. It’s a fact that formal meetings stimulate informal meetings and vice-versa.”

Minnaert adds it’s of the utmost importance that the faculty ensures there are suitable spaces and places for various work activities. He considers the project space at Drift a good start.

“But a working day contains much more than just meetings. Currently, people often share a room and workplaces. Not exactly suitable places for having a meeting with a student or colleague, not even through Teams. Concentration is a problem there as well. If you have a proper workspace at home, you will soon prefer that."

“It already helps if the furniture can be flexibly adjusted and you can plug in your laptop everywhere, like in my department on Muntstraat. But we could also think of workspaces to have Teams meetings. We now have a special booth for that, but just one workspace like that is not enough.”

According to Jansen, the faculty is  aiming for "a beautiful mixture of different spaces." At the same time, she points to the fact that the faculty has to deal with old buildings that are difficult to adjust. “In the upcoming months, we will see how we can start stimulating people to come to their workplace more often and which type of building would be best suitable for that.”

To close or not to close the Administration building
The Faculty of Humanities certainly isn’t the only part of the university that’s struggling to find a balance between the positive effects of working remotely and its potentially negative effects on employees' sense of community and the occupation of UU's buildings.

According to the collective labour agreement (cao), employees do not have the right to work from home nor the obligation to do so. They can choose to work part of their hours from home in consultation with their superior.

The cao also provides a work-from-home allowance, whose standard is 60 percent at the office and 40 percent from home. But there is an opportunity to deviate from that. In practice, it appears that this often happens.

Empty spaces are also common at the University Administrative Office, especially on Wednesdays and Fridays. For this reason, joint activities are also organized there. For example, every quarter there is "soup and sandwiches" for all employees.

Late last year, management announced that every employee is expected to come to the office for at least half of their working hours on average. The policy framework previously stated that employees must come to their workplace at least one day a week. The idea is to "stimulate a close community, in which we care for one another, and provide space for development, meetings, cooperation, knowledge sharing, and open conversations."

According to the administrative office, there are no exact figures on the occupancy of the Administration building. The Spring 2023 Employee Monitor found that 85 percent of employees work "hybrid. Those employees work 46 percent of their work time at home and 54 percent at the university.

Those percentages are nearing the new guidelines, but there seem to be significant differences between individuals, which led to questions about what an ideal occupation would be. The new 50/50 rule should provide more uniformity in that sense.

Hybrid working could also have repercussions for the administrative office's housing situation. The university is considering partially closing the Administration Building on Fridays. The 2022 survey shows that only 6 percent of employees come to Utrecht Science Park on Fridays. 

That plan is currently being discussed with concerned parties, including UMC Utrecht, which is also accommodated in that building. UU acknowledges that such a decision would be at odds with asking employees to come to the building more often.

No obligation
Humanities Director Miranda Jansen does not expect her faculty to explicitly ask employees to spend a fixed percentage of their working hours inside a university building. 

"That doesn't quite fit with our culture, we won't tell our scholars where they work best. Besides, many teachers are often not in the office but in the lecture hall."

Specific arrangements can be made for each department concerning support staff that have to be present sometimes because of their specific tasks.

Toine Minnaert also thinks that an "obligation" would antagonise many people. "Although there are certainly also many employees who would think it's normal," he said.

"But it would be good if more employees were aware of it. They should realise that their presence is appreciated and that they have something to gain from being here as well."