What does 'Smart Working' (SW) mean for organizations and what opportunities does it bring? This is a question that specifically interests Jan de Leede in his work as a lecturer for the UT and as the owner of advice bureau ModernWorkx. Though he does see signs of progress within the University, he also has some comments.
Could you briefly explain the meaning of the concept 'Smart Working'?
Smart Working is all about flexibility in time, location and organization. It demands that both employees and employers have a different approach to time. Apart from the physical dimension and the ICT dimension, there is also what we refer to as the 'mental dimension'. This is about the attitudes it provokes in organizations, staff and management. What guidance from superiors is required and what competences do employees need to deal with it successfully? These are the questions that are asked and the accents that I place.
How it the UT doing in this field?
There are locations where SW has clearly been introduced, such as the HR department in Spiegel. And the Ravelijn building also has potential for realizing the principles of SW. But up till now this has only been partially successful. It is a transparent building with workstations, meeting rooms and lecture theatres, but still no real decision has been made to opt for flexible workstations. Everyone still has their own, permanent space. I work at the UT 1.5 days a week and I often have to make use of someone else's room! It makes me wonder: why not create more open work spaces? As far as I am concerned, staff and students could work together in a single location.
Do you have an idea about why this still hasn't happened?
This is to do with the mental dimension that I mentioned earlier. I suspect that what lies behind it is an implicit resistance on the part of managers and staff who are opposed to new forms of collaboration. Everyone has their own room, which makes life easier for them. But sharing work locations and realizing flexspaces can also provide important advantages for individualists in a university environment.
What are these advantages?
To start with: sharing knowledge. In addition, you make an employee's output the central focus and you place less emphasis on such input aspects as physical presence on the work-floor and time schedules. You give managers and employees more freedom to choose the right working environment for the task or activity they are working on. This means you no longer automatically go to your own workplace, but you can choose to go to a silence room or to work at home. Or you opt instead for a public space because you know that you sometimes have questions which someone will soon be able to help you with. In fact, you become much more aware of the work you are doing. This is what I regard as the main strength of this concept.
You already referred to the importance of the manager - of good leadership. Could you elaborate further on this?
SW means you spend less time with colleagues at the office, because people no longer work in a permanent location and can choose to do their work in different locations. This makes it more difficult for managers to supervise on the basis of attendance, because you just see one another less frequently. Something else is required instead. The standard answer to this is management by results, the output that I mentioned earlier. But this is slightly too simplistic, because implementing SW demands more of a manager. Guidance based on trust and guidance based on social cohesion are also important. You could easily lose track of staff because they can choose where they want to work.
Doesn't this mean people run the risk of never seeing one another again?
There will indeed be less personal contact than in the past, but there is a greater awareness when it does take place. To my mind, this too is an important advantage. This is why I always say that guidance based on vision is even more important with SW. Managers must be capable of delegating, and of letting their staff know, per week or per month, what is expected of them. They should then be given the freedom to get on with their work.
This will require a complete turnabout.
That is correct. I spent eight years working for TNO Arbeid in Hoofddorp, and I gained a lot of experience with SW there. Our office was too small to accommodate every employee, so necessity forced us to regularly work from home or at clients' premises. The fact that you weren't always at the office meant you had to record your hours and take care of acquisition: the output-indicators I mentioned earlier. This made team discussions sacrosanct. In principle you always had to attend these. It you weren't there, then you might not see one another for a month and in the end this would take its toll on the relationship. Which would also inevitably have substantive consequences. It is imperative that these moments of contact are retained and their importance should be emphasized.
To what extent does the same apply to an educational institution such as the UT?
In principle, people have always had a lot of freedom in places where scientific research is carried out. Although there is no explicit policy, in many cases employees already have the opportunity of working from home. Researchers also often work for third parties. This means it is already more individualistic than within a standard organization. Though my belief in that individualistic principle is waning, because science really is a team effort.
Could you paint me a picture of your ideal situation, how do you envisage the perfect implementation of SW in an organization?
I like to cite the example of Microsoft's office at Schiphol. It is a wonderful design and really focuses on creating the right working environment for the right tasks. No-one has their own workplace there. People work together in groups and there are spaces for discussions. If you need to spend time alone, then you withdraw into a silence room or a so-called concentration room. The Microsoft building is perfectly designed for working independently of time and location.
How does the UT fit in with this ideal?
It is important to repeat that for now the people involved will not really see much change with SW. It is about changing the way in which we work together. SW will only really make a breakthrough at the UT after we change our behaviour, aided by the continual advances in technological developments and the arrival of new facilities. But in the end it all starts with the management.