Branded as the leaders in activity-based working, Veldhoen + Company are committed to creating a better world of work, consulting with any organization looking to transform their vision and purpose through culture, work environment and connection. Founding activity-based working in 1989 in the Netherlands, the company has since expanded with offices in six countries as the philosophy, along with the open office layout, have received more attention.
We talked with Martijn Joosten, managing partner of Veldhoen + Company in Australia, to understand what goes into helping companies create activity-based working environments and what the future of work looks like to him.
Curious to hear from more of the Veldhoen + Company team? We followed up with Luc Kamperman, managing partner based in NYC to dive deep into activity-based work and open office misconceptions.
Danielle: Within the last 10 years, the open office layout and activity-based work have gained lots of attention in U.S. press. Meanwhile, you’ve been working on this for over 20 years. How’d you get started?
Martijn: In the early 1990s, inspired by the power of emerging technology and a growing frustration about the limitations of existing ways of working, Erik Veldhoen conceived of the idea that an office could be designed around activities rather than teams and roles. He went on to write a book called, “The Art of Working,” in which he developed the philosophy further and outlined the potential that activity-based working had to act as a lever to realize strategic aims.
After a range of smaller projects, Veldhoen + Company’s first very large opportunity to apply this philosophy was in 1995 with Interpolis, an insurance company in the Netherlands. The project began with the leaders of Interpolis identifying what their company aspired to achieve in the future. One of the most important things for them as an insurance company was the retention of both customers and employees and at the heart of this issue was the need for more trust, so, enabling trust became the central concept for the design of their office.
For instance, the layout created spaces where managers were more visible; a range of activities were supported by fit-for-purpose settings and employees had the freedom to choose where and when they worked. The cafeteria worked on an honesty payment system and the brand tagline “Crystal Clear” became the mantra in every decision that they made.
Originally Interpolis were planning to merge their business from four different locations into one two-tower building. Veldhoen + Company felt that separate towers would quite literally be creating two silos within the organization, negatively impacting the culture. Instead, they suggested Interpolis arrange the workplace around activities and by doing so, they were able to fit everyone comfortably in one building. And that’s how it all started. This project was built over 20 years ago and still works well today.
D: As leaders in activity-based work consultancy, what’s your main focus?
M: It’s not a one size fits all. For us, activity-based working is still the philosophy more than anything. We help a client to holistically change their way of working by first identifying their strategic aim and the activities that their employees currently undertake, along with the activities they'll need to undertake in the future to realize the aim. We work to that rather than pulling out a one-size-fits-all design blueprint. As we expand, and as time goes on, we become aware of the misconceptions around activity-based working. Different countries are in a different stages in terms of adopting new ways of working, but our biggest competitor is constant: the perception of activity-based working.
Often people think it’s the same thing as having an open office plan, and what they’ve seen in the press and online tells them that they don’t work. But what many are missing is not all activity-based working is equal. For Veldhoen + Company, developing an activity-based office is about deliberately and inclusively developing a strategic concept as the basis of the design; it’s about a change management process; it’s about evolving company culture and making a work style that is unique to that organization.
Not many companies pay enough attention to the change management aspect. They invest in only changing the physical space and then afterward complain that there are issues and it’s not working. Changing a way of working and company culture is more involved than just changing the physical space. That’s just one part of the whole journey.
So, I imagine with a lot of bad experiences and bad press, companies are hesitant to try activity-based working as we expand to more countries. We focus on doing it right so that true potentials of activity-based working can be realized.
D: When people come to you with the perception that activity-based working and the open office are one and the same, what's your response?
M: I usually start with the example of focus work. We see that focus work is an important activity to employees in the whole palette of activities. If you don’t cater well for focus work within the open office, you’re not setting employees up for success and they will have a bad experience. Companies blindly design different spaces based on what they think will work for their employees, throw them in an open office and expect them to work. Instead, you need to design around type and quantities of activities that are specifically important to that organization and its employees, and provide the appropriate settings and technology. If focus work is an important one, which most likely it is, you need to ask yourself, how are we supporting this type of activity?
For example, we work with universities. You can imagine there’s a lot more focus space in a university than, say, in a bank where a majority of employees are salespeople. It’s not one size fits all in that sense. The two organization’s needs will be different. I can’t stress that enough.
Often in an open space, you can do process work very well: you can take calls, there might be some meeting rooms and fancy-looking spaces for open collaboration, but employees still can’t concentrate. As a result, people either aren’t productive or they opt to work from home. And for those employees who have no choice but to come into the office, hiding behind their headphones feels like the only option to escape the chaos, creating a virtual cubicle for themselves.
Based on the graph above, we recommend organizations either do it well (activity-based working, flexible with high choice) or don’t do it at all and keep the traditional environment with enclosed offices.
Invest money in proper implementation and change the culture that comes with it. If you get it wrong you can easily create an open plan office or a flex office where people will not feel supported. Sure, that’s not ideal either but it may be better than a slippery slope with an underdeveloped open plan office where people are unsupported, disturbed and often neither productive nor engaged.
D: Can activity-based working be implemented in any type of office layout (i.e. open vs. closed)?
M: Activity-based working principles can be implemented everywhere. The more complex people’s roles are, the more activities that people do in a day or week, the more benefit people will have from an activity-based working environment. The level of enclosure will be defined by the activities that people do.
Does every meeting need to take place in an enclosed environment? How is focus work best supported? Usually personal offices that are owned by individuals are not part of our concepts. However, the functionality of an office is offered to support focus work, but these settings are not owned by individuals.
This allows everybody in the organization to use these settings when they need to do high focus work where they would like to close the door. So, it’s not the setting, the closed office, itself that’s the issue, it’s the fact that they are not used as a shared space, they are under-utilized, and the walls effectively create a disconnect between managers and teams. Even if a manager has an “open door policy,” that barrier still exists.
So, one answer to your question is: ‘yes’ activity-based working can be implemented in any type of office, but we also stand firm to the belief that not every company is ready for activity-based working. It’s not just a new office layout, but it will transform the way you work, the way you lead people and the organizational culture. We’re not selling it as an easy road. We know it’s challenging and demands hard work. If you’re not up for it, you should not do it. But if you do, the bigger price can be huge!
Curious how to get started with activity-based working at your company?
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D: You mentioned activity-based working isn’t one-size-fits-all, but do you find that most companies come to you with similar issues they’re looking to solve?
M: The success of any activity-based work style transformation is that there is a clear case for change and that everybody understands why they’re changing the way they work and what they’re trying to achieve from it. It’s this ‘why’ mindset that is most important because it aligns the business strategy with how people work and behave in the organization. It takes a lot of effort to break habits, and liberate people from traditional ways of working, not “owning” anything anymore, but instead have a lot of choice and freedom to work from anywhere, anytime and with whoever you need to work.
We often see that people connect more with others in and activity-based working environment, it increases cross team collaboration, but teams can find it more difficult to connect as they are not sitting next to each other all the time. To maintain team connection, a leader and the team need to agree on a way to continue this connection. Finding a balance between maintaining a sense of team and having the freedom to do your best work and building relationships outside of your team is the answer to this question.
What I also see is that organizations want more collaboration but have no clue how to get there. For many, collaboration means having a meeting around a table. Doing something more creative like running a workshop or brainstorm, that requires a specific setting, skills and tools. As organizations struggle to remain competitive and need to innovate more, the ability and capability to collaborate in different ways is a common theme.
D: A common complaint about activity-based working and shared spaces is the loss of individuality. How do you combat or steer people away from that mindset?
M: We usually try to unpack that a little bit more with people. Activity-based work doesn’t mean you can’t bring your family photos with you to work, it’s just that you can’t leave them overnight on the table. If you’re okay with moving some around, great. If not, there are digital solutions for that type of thing.
We invite companies to consider how they can personalize space on a team-level rather than an individual-level. Since there’s more sharing involved, we might suggest they think about creating a neighborhood and personalize team storage areas, for example. Activity-based offices do not need to be impersonal, on the contrary I would say.
Nowadays, it’s becoming harder to afford space. Real estate in many cities is so high. As I mentioned before, it’s important to explain to all employees what’s in it for them in the change to activity-based working, being completely transparent along the way. Sometimes it’s just status or insecurity; people link their identity to their office or to their desk. And, yes, there will always be people that adopt activity-based working behaviors very fast and people that never do. The shift to the activity-based working model is a journey.
D: What does a typical project look like for you? Where do you start?
M: We start by analyzing how a space is currently used and what type of activities people typically do, as well as checking in on leaders to discover future aspirations, aligned with their business strategy.
Often, people start with activity-based working principles to save on space and costs or because it’s the modern way of working, without thinking about the company culture implications and opportunities. It should really start with what you want to achieve. So that’s where we start with our projects. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with a company’s office design, especially if they’ve tried activity-based working in the past. The issue arises because they just haven’t built a story around the practice or haven’t supported the behavioral change. So, we go in to help them build that story and link it all together. But it takes more effort to repair something than do it well from scratch.
Most of the time, realizing the opportunities afforded by activity-based working relies on changing leadership style, behavior and culture, more so than just changing the physical space and we at Veldhoen + Company also get more energy from that part of the project because that’s our mission - we’re there to help companies create a better world of work. We are not there to design offices.
D: What inspires you to continue to help companies implement activity-based working?
M: For me, it’s being empowered to make the right choices as an individual and being in a two-way trusting relationship with your company. That makes everybody more productive. I think there’s a lot of people that go to work every day that just show up, they do their assigned work but nothing more. A lot of people are disengaged. If you actually give people freedom, choice and the support, they’re able to balance their work and life better, they’re more engaged and are overall more happy, healthy and more productive.
It’s a liberating experience for them and to play a role in that transformation is hugely rewarding.