Rethinking the Office – Dutch Design (Plus: Pics of My Home Office)

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Interpolis – unconventional but damn effective. (photo: jsigharas)

Through simple redesign of workspaces, Interpolis of Holland increased productivity 20%, and sick leave has dropped from 9% to 2.5%. Last but not least, their new design also brings in 90,000 visitors a year.

How was it done?

How do you create a Results-Only-Work-Environment (ROWE) for yourself or a company — and increase profits — by tweaking your surroundings?

The following is an exclusive excerpt from the new German hit “Morgen komm ich später rein” (Rough idiomatic translation: I’ll be coming in later tomorrow.), translated for you all by author and fellow reader Markus Albers, who also interviewed me for German Vanity Fair. Danke, Markus!

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Thanks to a sophisticated office structure, the headquarters of Interpolis insurance in the Dutch town of Tilburg has freed up 51 percent of their working areas, cut 33 percent of construction and equipment costs, and reduced office usage expenses by 21 percent.

How it works: In the morning employees take their laptop and mobile phone and look for the workplace for the day. Documentation of joint projects and operations that were formerly located on the desk, are now replaced by common electronic folders and virtual databases, accessible for everybody.

The man behind this revolutionary and visionary concept of the 7000 square metre and “Tivoli” project was Gijs Nooteboom of the consulting firm Veldhoen + Company. In an interview, he explains to me why the Interpolis concept represents all future office building, the reasons why we will spend more time working from home and on travel and why offices are basically old-fashioned but still needed:

Mr. Nooteboom, what was the basic idea of your concept for the insurance company Interpolis?

Gijs Nooteboom: We represent the philosophy that every human being anywhere and at any time of day can work. The fact that you can not concentrate on personal jobs, but on activities. And that work can be focused and individual. Sometimes one works together – it can happen virtually or with physical presence. Based on the analysis of these activities, we design work environments. We do this for town halls, schools, hospitals, banks or insurances such as Interpolis.

Individual offices seem to play no role?

Nooteboom: No. Interpolis has open designed work floors and a large meeting floor: The Plaza,which was differently designed by artists. That’s where you can eat, drink coffee and discuss in large or small groups.

And every morning everybody hunts for his desk…

Nooteboom: The employees are released, so to speak, in environments where there is no separate desk, where you work almost paperless without standard office desks but several different ones – suitable for all kinds of activities. Furthermore you don’t have to come into the office daily. If you work individually, you can plan in advance and finish tasks at home, at the customer location, or on the beach.

But one still has to attend at the office every now and then?

Nooteboom: One should attend the Interpolice office – depending on the function – at least two to three days in office due to social cohesion. In contrast to the past, work is not measured on the presence, but output; The performance of the staff expected by the company. This is a fundamental change that requires time and training – amongst workers, but even more in the administration. What are the new tasks of the management ? No longer to check whether someone is there, but to define the output and control it. It takes months to incorporate this culture into a company.

A considerable effort. What are the benefits for the company?

Nooteboom: The company requires 50% less square meters. All cleaning and other maintenance costs will be reduced accordingly. In addition, Interpolis increased 20 percent in productivity through flexibility and sick leave, by nine percent 10 years ago, now dropped to two and a half percent. Thirdly, it is good for image and culture of the company – Interpolis receives 90,000 visitors a year. The office is marketing tool number one.

And what are the benefits for staff?

Nooteboom: The most important thing is freedom of choice: What to do when and where? You can freely decide on work time and place more or less, depending on the function. Secondly, it is now festive to come into the office. It is an open and transparent work space designed for meetings and exchange, much more so than in a standard office with long corridors and closed spaces.

How important is modern technology?

Nooteboom: It has to be state-of-the-art. In future virtual collaboration will be even easier and more intuitive than it is now. During the telephone call one will be able to see the image of each other, exchange data, show presentations and work together on documents. Therefore there will be less business travel than today.

Is the 9-to-5 working day a model of the past?

Nooteboom: It won’t be over that quickly, one reason beeing the schools which convey this rhythm, but in ten to 20 years a very large proportion of the working environments will be differently organized. One reason beeing globalization: If you are in contact with Asia or the United States one has to work either early in the morning or late evening.

Will we still need offices in the future?

Nooteboom: The concept of the office is basically old-fashioned, but we still need it. It will be used almost solely for meetings in the future. More and more companies will let their employees work from the home or while traveling.

Are we talking about a fad or a real trend?

Nooteboom: We are working on these concepts for companies and administrations for more than 15 years and the growth is enormous. Lately also because of environmental issues and sustainability. Dutch companies are increasingly aware that one should be in a traffic jam, if it is not required. Buildings should not be bigger than necessary but rather extremely functional.

My Home Office/Non-Office


My home “office” – more like a Zen garden with a desktop than an office. The framed quote is from world-famous cook Bobby Flay: “Take risks and you’ll get the payoffs. Learn from your mistakes until you succeed. It’s that simple.”


The three-association desktop: a gift from the CIA, a gift from a Japanese monk, and a quote to put into practice like religion.

I design a workplace like I design any space: by association and positive constraints.

First, I want positive emotional associations with each object within my visual field. Limiting associations is often better than careful selection. The greenhouse you see is essentially a private rain forest with automatic ion generators and timed water systems. It is entirely self-contained with eight sun roofs and no openings. This is the morning oxygenation chamber where I have breakfast. I love it.

Second, I limit misbehavior by limiting options. Notice that I have no shelves. This discourages accumulating papers and encourages both elimination and immediate digital note-taking. When in doubt, I take a digital photograph of documents (I prefer this to a scanner, which consumes real estate).

Don’t want to eat too much chocolate? Don’t put it in your house.

Don’t want to send too much e-mail? Force yourself to stand at an elevated desk vs. sitting in a comfortable Aeron chair. Don’t want to spend a lot of time filing? Eliminate a place to put the documents.

Constraints — a precursor to simplicity — aren’t always a bad thing. In fact, they’re often better than increasing options.

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112 comments on “Rethinking the Office – Dutch Design (Plus: Pics of My Home Office)

  1. I recently set up a new office. I am amazed how much more productive the staff has become. I decided to purchase new office furniture including new desks, conference tables, and files. With this modular configuration I purchased I can reconfigure the office every few months. This periodic change seems to help improve the office productivity and creativity.

  2. Great advice as always, Tim. Office design is incredibly important and as pointed out here can have a very big impact on productivity, staff retention, and creativity. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Really like the little courtyard space outside your office. It looks like a little oasis – definitely going to be stealing that idea from you! Thanks for the tips. :)

  4. Great article. I recently read a book about pursuing one’s passions in order to unleash your full potential, both on a personal level and a professional one. The main theme of the book was to make sure that your work environment fulfilled three main requirements (for a successful and happy work life): autonomy, challenge, and purpose. I made a career transition several months ago and a big part of my decision to switch companies revolved around these three essential concepts. Although the monotony of the contemporary 9-5 work culture has a tendency to creep up on you, I feel that it’s important to reevaluate your personal and professional goals every once in a while, which is why reading articles such as this is most important to those who aspire to rid themselves of the cubicle and venture into a work environment that is not bound by office dividers. One novel idea that I brought to my company is the concept of “Tea Time”. Our team sets aside approximately 20 minutes a day to brewing tea (go Teavana!) and just takes a break from the long work day. It helps to alleviate the stress associated with the day’s business affairs and enables everyone to open up and socialize on a more personal level. We are planning on moving to a bigger facility within the next couple months, and I hope to bring as much positive change into the work environment as I can, one innovation at a time.

  5. It’s amazing how offices are becoming designed more and more like rooms in a house, with more and more colour being used, rich and bold wallpapers instead of bland white walls and the space is much more open and used so much more efficiently.

  6. In today’s business world the key factors that are shaping our office spaces are Sustainability, Mobility and Flexibility. Work places that are sympathetic to office workers in the twenty first century are still few and far between, however perceptions are changing from businesses who no longer see offices as a liability, but rather a key branding tool.

  7. Hi Tim,

    Quick question.
    What is your own system for filtering through readers’ comments on your blog posts?

    … i.e. how do you choose which to read?
    (I guess the speed reading helps a lot!)

    Le gach dea ghui,
    Niall

  8. Great article! I think the nature and context of the company is a very important variable. If the business you are working for is very creative and innovative, a more wacky office might inspire creativity among staff.

    I also think the office design can start building relationships with staff and endorse the brand values throughout the company. Compared to a very dull and enclosed office environment might neglect staff and encourage negativity towards the company.

    Thanks for the read!

    Jimmy Jones | Office King