We still speak about the workplace revolution, but revolutions don’t normally last 20 years. Is it all over and we’re simply moving the furniture around?
April 27th, 2021
Gijs Nooteboom is a managing partner with Veldhoen + Company which began the ‘revolution’ with the legendary Interpolis in the mid-1990s – the world’s introduction to activity-based working. He identifies a number of key issues in workplace planning today.
“I think we are still in evolution because this process of moving from traditional towards new ways of working is very slow. You have to distinguish between the physical and the mental space. The physical space may seem to go faster, but it doesn’t mean that we as a workforce have really changed to a new mental model because many organisations are copying and pasting solutions from 20 years ago.”
When it comes to new ways of working, change management is crucial so that staff know from the outset what’s been done, why it’s been done, and how to work effectively in the new workplace. “There are a number of layers to it,” says Nooteboom. Investment in leadership, organisational and team development and individual development is crucial. “You can give people the freedom, but if you just give them freedom – like, ‘Ok, you choose whatever you want and wherever you want to go’, nothing is going to change on Day One. Only the two or three courageous, rare guys or girls think, ‘Oh, that’s nice, I’m going to do that. What are you doing? We ought to be here from 9 to 5. Why are you leaving at 3? Why are you coming at 10?’ ”
Clearly, there’s more to it, reflected in the current emphasis on change management: preparing staff for change and providing ongoing support. But, for Nooteboom, the core issue is leadership.
“If all the leaders went to psychotherapy first, then they could help their teams make changes. It’s too easy for top management to send everyone to change management. But if they don’t change, their people – those who report to them – will have to ask permission. So, changing this whole mindset to really focus on the outcomes rather than presenteeism is a quantum leap.”
So, for change to work, we first need cultural change and that, says Nooteboom, requires trust.
“It goes all the way back to Interpolis where it’s all about trust. If trust is at a low level in an organisation, you will never make the leaps you are dreaming of. And it is a tough road to travel, to build trust in an organisation. It demands a lot from the executives and different management levels to build that level of trust between themselves, and between them, their teams and the team members.
“Once you, as a CEO, talk about trust with your executives, your executives are going to talk about it with their management teams. The management teams are going talk to the team leaders, the team leaders to the team members. It is a model that comes from the top, but only by getting the dialogue going.
“It’s a tough journey because of the level of vulnerability it demands of top management who are not used to reflecting on themselves. If you ask where the future goes, it goes where there is shared power, shared understanding, shared vulnerability and a high level of accountability from the top executives.”
Hybrids are a mix of workplace strategies, often justified by saying that they cater to the diversity of the workforce. But hybrids can be a default position, avoiding the hard work of reflecting critically on the business and its culture.
“There was already hybrid thinking in the 1970s, when you had hot-desking starting up. People who run these programmes are very fearful to make a quantum leap – going from traditional, not via the hybrid model, but immediately to spaces where nobody has an assigned work point, where [you have] no claim on an office, where it is all based on the purpose for you being here.
“Most of the hybrid discussions aren’t valid. Before you choose a hybrid, be very clear on why the hybrid suits you, versus other options. What we see in the marketplace is that many organisations are not as thoughtful as they should be in choosing the workplace that suits them best. They make the choice based on what they have seen and heard, instead of looking inward and deciding, based on their purpose and organisation, what suits them best.
“If you really think about tomorrow, the workforce will be invited to look at how we can improve, renew, invent new processes, adding value to our organisation, instead of doing what we did yesterday but in a different suit.”
So, it’s not a matter of one-size-fits-all or top-down solutions, but an inside-out process which starts with questions like: Who are we and what do we want to become?
“Real change is not about how to use the space, because everybody can learn that, but the transformational bits, which means getting that different operating system in your head. That’s growing your level of maturity, trusting that your people are as willing as you are to deliver the best outcome. And that they are only asking for support to help with that outcome, instead of being continuously directed and controlled. “It’s a continuous evolution of education; asking, ‘Have we really achieved what we were after? Where do we have to improve, what kind of dialogue do we have to organise, nurture and fuel to create this mindset?’ ”
Gijs Nooteboom leads the ANZ branch of Veldhoen + Company, advising leadership teams and project directors on new ways of working.
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