A sneak peek of UU's new way of working: ‘Give each other time to get used to it’

Marije Werelds and Leon van Helden in their department's "living room". Photo: DUB

“We'll take you straight to the new department.” Marije Werelds and Leon van Helden lead me to the first floor of the Androclus building, which hosts the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. Werelds serves as Domain Manager at the IT, Housing & Safety Department, and van Helden is the newly-appointed Project Manager for Activity-based Working. “You will not meet many people today”, warns Werelds, “many are off on Wednesday afternoon or are still working from home”. To be expected, after all UU is still working according to the rules to contain Covid-19.

Activity-based working is on the rise. Veterinary Medicine started implementing it on a small scale late last year. But they're far from being the only ones. UU's Corporate Offices are preparing to work in a way that's not dependent on a fixed location from this summer onwards, while the Faculty of Social Sciences is taking the first steps to abolish designated working spaces in the Groenman and Langeveld buildings, according to a message on the Intranet accessible through Solis-ID. For Social Sciences, the change is being prompted by the increased amount of employees, which makes it impossible for each person to have their own desk. The faculty is also accommodating the wish, manifested by many employees, to continue working from home after the Covid-19 pandemic. In approximately five years, both the Faculty of Social Sciences and the Corporate Offices are going to move to the Van Unnik building, which is currently being renovated.

Gradually, the entire university will have to adapt to this, because the 2019 Strategic Housing Plan states that UU must reduce the number of square metres it occupies in order to reduce housing costs and CO2 emissions. As a result, this new way of working will be introduced in the buildings the university plans to build or rebuild, which is the case of Veterinary Medicine.

That faculty is getting a new building that will replace three outdated buildings. All staff and students working at the Martinus G. de Bruin building have to move already. This also applies to Werelds’ department, which is moving to the Androclus building, where the Education & Student Affairs department already resides. The fifty or so people concerned have therefore switched to the new way of working.

“We'll have fewer square metres in the new building, so we want to switch to activity-based working,” says Werelds. The idea is to gain some experience in the temporary accommodation. “The lessons we learn here will be brought along to the new building.” They will also help determine the best set up for the new accommodation, and what the organisation needs to enable everyone to do their work properly, according to the new guidelines. 

The living room
On the first floor of the Androclus building, a closed door at the edge of the study area leads to the new workplaces. The rooms have two or four desks each. Some of them are the so-called "focus workplaces": similarly to the silent wagons in a train, these spaces allow no phone calls or conversations. Most of the meeting rooms are rather small, and some are equipped with a large screen and a camera that automatically zooms in on the person speaking. These spaces are meant for hybrid meetings, of which many more colleagues can participate from home if need be. Last but not least, there are the project rooms, where people can work together. They are distinguished by high tables and barstools.

“And this is our living room,” says Leon van Helden. He appreciates the informally-furnished open space featuring a couch, comfortable chairs and a table. “Not right now of course, but there are usually people sitting here. They can also have informal meetings here, just to have a chat. We have an agreement that there will be a coffee break in this room around 10:00 am and 3:00 pm for those who feel like it. People can also gather here around lunchtime. Some can stay and eat here, while others will go for a walk. Even though we still work from home often, we're seeing that it works.”

The coffee breaks  were introduced as an answer to the question "how will I find my colleagues?". Van Helden: “If you are really looking for someone, you can try coming here during coffee breaks”. The fact that the living room can also be used as a place to have lunch derives from the agreement that employees are not allowed to eat at their desks. “At a certain point, it was clear that we had to make agreements with each other in order to clarify what we do and do not want. A working group was designated to address this and came up with an A4 sheet containing twenty agreements. Every few months, we will evaluate them and adjust them if necessary.”

Personal belongings
So you are not allowed to eat a sandwich at your desk. “Maybe an apple or a cookie,” laughs Werelds. They've also agreed on how long employees can keep a desk 'occupied'. “We have agreed that we can only make reservations for meeting rooms. All other spaces are first come, first served. If you want to do desk work, you have to find a free desk. Then, if you need to leave that desk for a meeting, you have two hours to return to the same spot. All you have to do is leave some stuff behind so that people can see that the space is occupied.”

"Employees will not be allowed to keep personal belongings in the working spaces as there will be a locker for that. At the moment, we have enough lockers for all employees,” says Werelds. Van Helden shows me his storage space. The locker, measuring about 50 by 50 centimetres, contains a green basket with a lid, where he stores a pen and some random belongings. Not very impressive. “I just started working here, but I do almost everything online. As you can see, I do carry a notepad with me, but that's also digital. Personally, I prefer to take notes with a pen.” Both Werelds and Van Helden have a laptop, which they kept on a desk while doing this interview. “There's nobody here now, so that's possible,” says Werelds. Moreover, the rooms can be locked. “Everyone has a master key now, so anyone who has access to this department can go into any room.”

 Van Helden's locker

Many questions
The project being carried out by Veterinary Medicine is relatively small-scale. After the summer, all of the six hundred or so employees of the university's Corporate Offices will be working the same way. In the Administration Building, we are talking about 12 times as many people and many more groups, which makes the initiative much more extensive and far-reaching there. Werelds: “We are now dealing with fifty people and we are in a convenient space, occupying only part of the floor. The idea is to add a third group later on.”

The pioneers of Veterinary Medicine can relate to the queries of the employees of the University Corporate Offices about the new working method. “We asked the same questions. What do you do with your stuff? How do I find a free desk? Where do I leave my motorbike suit if it doesn't fit in a locker? How do we find each other? What do I do if I am working in a focus area and the colleague who is sitting there with me makes a phone call? We have tried to find an answer to all these questions, but how it all works in practice remains to be seen, to be honest, because the project came to a standstill when we all had to work from home due to the pandemic. Now, the colleagues are gradually returning to the office”, explains Werelds.

Office etiquette
If you are working at a desk and need to go to the toilet, you can usually leave your stuff behind safely, because there will be other colleagues in the same room. If not, you can just lock the door. But belongings such as your wallet are better left in a locker. Every room has a coat rack for coats, raincoats and motorbike suits. If a colleague disturbs you because he or she is talking on the phone in a focus workstation, a "work etiquette" document will tell you how to best address this and other issues. Werelds: “We pay a lot of attention to holding each other accountable for our behaviour. If you receive a phone call, you can ask the colleagues in the room whether it bothers them. The idea is that they give an honest answer. You can also just leave the room, of course, because you don't want your colleagues to overhear your conversation. There always seems to be a free space somewhere.”

There will be training sessions to teach employees how to kindly point out that a colleague is being annoying, in addition to the A4 sheet with work rules. But there's always the chance you might run into someone who doesn't care about the rules or about the fact that they're disturbing people. “There will always be someone who prefers to keep things the same, who misses their own room and desk, and therefore may not react so nicely when a colleague addresses them on their behaviour. We haven't experienced it yet, but of course we have to find an answer to that too,” says Van Helden.

A meeting room

The same workplace
Give each other time to get used to it. That's the message the duo has for the employees about to start working this way. “When working at a flexplace, first you have to put your desk at the right height and adjust your office chair. We have learned how important it is to have exactly the same equipment everywhere, so that you can adjust your desk and chair on autopilot and your laptop goes into a docking station the same way everywhere. We don't have that luxury yet, but we are striving for it.”

There has to be some room for exceptions, of course. Some colleagues will need an adapted chair, while others only function when there is silence around them. “We have special chairs in a few rooms. The colleagues concerned know where they are. There is also an extra desk chair in the same room if someone else wants to work there. We don't want anyone to have to go through the corridors looking for a chair. So far, this system has worked. As for the colleagues who work better in a low-stimulus environment, they can always sit in a place where they can concentrate. We don't make reservations, but so far we've found that they can always find such a place.”

Many people have the tendency of looking for the same spot or the same room to work in. “We are already noticing this trend and there is nothing wrong with that”, says Werelds, “as long as you bear in mind that the day may come when someone else is sitting at your favourite desk. You have to get used to the new place, to the other possibly unknown people who might come and sit in 'your' room. But we think it will be fine. My hope is that walls will be torn down between our two departments. That, for example, the IT people and the people from Student Affairs who work with Blackboard, find each other and thus improve Blackboard. That's, in fact, one of the goals of this new way of working: to stimulate more cooperation beyond the borders of one's own group.”

Full backpack
According to van Helden, it takes some time for employees to learn how to organise themselves differently in order not to carry everything they think they need around in a backpack all day long. “I have taught myself to organise my working day differently. For example, I now only read my e-mail in the morning and at the end of the day. In between, I usually have meetings for which I take notes in my notebook, so I take that with me everywhere. I don't know if this is true for everyone, but everyone can think about it. I like to cluster the same activities at a certain time of the day or week.”

What's remarkable about the new way of working is that employees can also work from home. They will be free to only go to work after the rush hour or stay at home if they need the peace and quiet to concentrate. But working from home can also lead some people to work too much. Like the director of the University Corporate Offices, Werelds has also been asked whether employees should come to the office at all if they can do all their work from home without an issue. “To be honest, I have yet to come up with a good answer to that. Personally, I don't think it's good if someone works from home full-time. We are more and more a network organisation, which means you can only achieve good results in collaboration with others. That's difficult to do if you only work digitally. We've all noticed, for instance, that brainstorming goes much better when done face to face.”

Room for improvement
Are Werelds and Van Helden sold? Is this new way of working going to become the norm? They do not think so. Many people will have to get used to it and an evaluation is scheduled for a few weeks after the University goes back to full swing in September. “There is always room for improvement and we must learn together how to work well in this new way”, says Van Helden.

After the evaluation, it will become clear where there is still room for improvement, adds Werelds. “What we have already discovered is that the rooms are a bit grey and impersonal. Everyone had to take their personal belongings home, of course. That is why we held a photo competition among the employees, asking them to take a picture of an animal. We will then print the best ones in large format and hang them on the wall. That way we invest in the ambience together.”

The Faculty of Veterinary Medicine has published two vlogs on the Intranet following two employees as they acclimatize to the new way of working and draw attention to the new rules. Watching them is only possible through a Solis-ID.