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.

Posted on: September 30, 2008.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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

  1. Cool. Even though I don’t see as big a shift (yet) at my company, more and more of my friends are being given the flexibility to work when they choose, and now where they choose as well – as long as the work gets done.

    I find it especially interesting how he points out that they have to adjust their schedules not just for the US, but also Asia as well. The way my lives (and my friends) are structured, it seems the whole world runs on the times of a few key cities: London, New York and Tokyo.

    Like

  2. Tim,

    I was scared to death to leave my office staff all by themselves, but after reading your book I took the leap. This article is more poignant that you’d believe. While working side by side my multiple assistants, I ended up editing every word they said to customers, as well as various other micromanaging time killers.

    The 4HWW forced me to realize that I needed space to produce activities that make the register ring and abandon the non-productive “busy work”. The improved Feng Shui of our office has increased productivity and allows me to focus on growth and strategy, not what my assistants are doing.

    In an ocean of scams and myths, you are a beacon of truth. My business is wildly successful and provides an incredible lifestyle for me. You’re principles have helped me cut 80 crazy hours a week down to just a couple hours a day. I can honestly say that with just 4 hours a week, I could live comfortably. I’m realizing that I do love my work however as I find myself coming back to it frequently.

    Thanks!
    Josh

    Like

  3. Tim,

    Thanks much for this refresher on minimalism and getting things done. This post touched on many of the points in the book (that I need to re-read), that I have so quickly forgotten or fail to practice.

    And cool looking patio BTW.

    Later.

    Like

  4. Very nice Tim, thanks. I know how to make my life more paperless, but I’m still fighting with the paper sent to me. Processing your email effectively is one thing, but doing the same with paperwork is another, and I still can’t get that to work the way I want it.

    The idea of being able to work anywhere is great, and I always try to keep my set-up as simple as possible with that reason in mind.

    Like

    • it is true that alot of unwanted paperwork can be overwhelming, try what tim said, take a picture of it on your phone and label it, that way its always easily accessible and defeats having to search through piles to find one page… surely if its not important enough to take a picture of it, its not important enough to keep? throw it away/recycle it/feed it to the dog?

      peace.

      Like

  5. You have been cranking out the inspiration lately… not in volume, but in quality. It seems all of the recent articles have really given me (or someone I am close to) some great ideas. Thanks.

    Like

  6. Tim,

    You’ve hit it on the head. The less on my desk, the more I get done. Anytime I’m feeling stuck on a project, I get everything off my desk and start with a piece of paper, a pen, and let the magic happen. Great post.

    Like

  7. I now practice a concept from the recommended book, The Magic of Thinking Big, by instead of ‘preparing to get stuff done’, (read wasting time cleaning up the desk) I take my arm up and sweep everything off to the side, grab a pen and some paper and start writing.

    It looks like you’re one step ahead…

    Like

  8. After spending the last week trying to imagine my new workspace, along comes this blog entry and solves my problem. So, I’d like to use *your* office to re-launch my company. I think it could work! While you’re running around, can I use it??

    :0))

    Like

  9. This is very cool, of course, but quite a few services can’t use a model like this, it seems — such as a medical office.

    Where it can be done, though, it ought. Makes for a more free world in tangible, if less fundamental ways.

    Like

  10. Inspirational! I’m counting the days that remain before I outsource my business overseas. After reading the 4HWW this summer, I decided to take on the challenge of accepting a little bit of unknown by investing my spare time in web design for my dream website- while studying full time at McGill. It’s really hard to do both and excel at both, but I’m loving it! This is where I feel the “4-Hour” part of your book is really becoming alive!

    If it isn’t voluntary, just cut it out and focus on your strengths.

    Thanks for the inspirational post Tim!

    Dan

    Like

  11. Your “anonymous” quote on your desk (“Do one thing every day that scares you”), is actually from Eleanor Roosevelt.

    Thanks for the interesting post (and book).

    ~ Justin

    Like

  12. Tim, I wanted to add. I’ve started using outsourcing for all my research work as per your suggestion. As a sample, I’ve bought back 45 hours of office time a month for a $125.00 investment. We bill between $175-$300 hour so the ROI is outstanding.

    Best,

    Chris.

    Like

  13. Can the posts get better? Yes, as I am a fanatic of your blog not in weird way. It is great to gather such interesting info they offer. I am on my way to Germany here in about a week so I am definitely going to Denmark and check it out. What I thought most interesting in this post was the last paragraph. Changing one’s work are seems like something we should all experiment with.

    Cheers from Tejas,

    Jose C.F.

    Like

  14. Perfect timing Tim. We are moving our agency into a new office this month. We are going for a minimalist environment with little storage, open plan work stations, couches, cafe setting etc. All info to be stored digitally or online. Also implementing non-interruption systems for staff and adopting the one task – no interruption approach you advocate.

    Will be a great experiment.

    Cheers, Craig

    Like

  15. Beautiful. Just beautiful. Is that table Scandinavian? Tim, I wrote about you in my book. I’ll send you a

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    The table is plain old Northern California. Thanks, Jill!

    All the best,

    Tim

    Like