Can you see a crisis that disrupts a society for a year and a half as a transformation too? Particularly, for example, in the way we look at work. On this subject, corporate anthropologist Jitske Kramer wrote Werk heeft het gebouw verlaten (Work Has Left the Building). In this book, the founder of Human Dimensions explores the impact of collective culture shock, like Covid, on our working lives. In the bestseller, she takes a closer look at remote leadership and the hybrid work culture. Subjects that are also frequent topics of discussion in an organization like APG. “We are tribal creatures, and so we want a place of our own, a territory of our own. So, in a sense, the idea of a flex space is unnatural.”
In your presentation, you asked APG employees if they see this time as a crisis or a transformation. The vast majority appeared to see it as a transformation. Is APG an exception in this?
“No, in the majority of organizations about 90% of employees now say there will be at least some degree of transformation. Last summer I also asked my audience that question and at that time almost everyone answered ‘crisis’. But during the second lockdown, the perception arose that the corona crisis could last a long time. And with it the realization that we could learn things from it.”
Transformation means that things change. That brings uncertainty and tension. What does that require of an organization?
“Transformation is a great word; it is the ‘everything different show’. You might think that you can sit back and watch something transform, but that’s not how it works. On the contrary, transformation means you will have to roll up your sleeves. You have to adopt a different value system. If we say ‘autonomy of own time is important to us’, then we need to act accordingly. Then you work at home more often, and in a different rhythm, and you may no longer need your car. In such a transformation, other behaviors and skills start to be important to us. That means a lot of experimentation and trial and error.”
At APG, some of the employees will soon be working in a completely renovated office, which is already equipped for hybrid working. That means no fixed workstations. Everyone will have to get used to that. Is that an advantage or a disadvantage?
“I think it’s an advantage. It is something that is new to all of us, so we can start creating and discovering. Construction had already started before the corona crisis so you will find out later if the plan you had for the building still fits the current times. Or whether, in addition to the changes conceived during Covid, other changes are needed. If you go back to an office that is still set up the way it was, it would no longer suffice. Before you know it, the space would force us back into our old behavior. But if the physical environment is completely new and in line with what we think is important now, that helps tremendously.”
Rituals and routines provide stability and rhythm. How do you create new routines in a new environment?
“That’s a very good question. We are tribal creatures, and so we want a place of our own, a territory of our own. So, in a sense, the idea of a flex space is unnatural. When open-plan offices came along suddenly the whole social cohesion was gone. To indicate where they were sitting, some people surreptitiously put a picture frame on their desk. To make a mark, as it were, and to indicate that that was their team's spot. As an employer, you do need to recognize that territorial need. On the other hand, it’s also a trade-off. As an employee you can also think: I am giving up my regular desk, but I am also getting more freedom because I can work from home more. And it helps enormously if people already exhibit the desired behavior. You need each other to create new routines.”
During the lockdown, working from home was necessary to control the pandemic. Now employees may feel that hybrid working is imposed by the manager. How do you get those employees on board anyway?
“How do people change cultures? Through interaction, and because we copy behavior from each other. From our direct coworkers, but also from our managers. Collaborating requires connection at a human level. If you want to implement a change, as a manager, you have to set a good example yourself. Do you want your employees to work partly at home and partly in the office? Then as a manager you have to do that too. We are now in the phase of getting used to hybrid working. That requires discipline and perseverance. And sharing success stories. Because for years we went to the office every day, and we’ve only been working from home for a year and a half. There is a good chance we could fall back into our old behavior of going to the office every day. Unless we really say, ‘We want this to be different.’”
How do you bring about such a change?
“It helps that, as a society, we are in a vibe. APG is not the only organization dealing with hybrid working. What matters is the story we are going to live together. We now have the opportunity to redesign work and life. And if we combine that with sustainability and reducing CO2 emissions, for example by reducing traffic, then we can bring about a substantial change. Or are we thinking, ‘We’ll just go back to our old ways?’ I can currently see signs going either way. For example, during the lockdown, we thought the blue sky without the pollution from airplanes was so beautiful. But now many people are flying to a European city for a weekend again. There is nothing wrong with that, but if you love that blue sky so much, you also have to change your behavior. Doing things substantially differently means substantial changes in behavior.”
This touches on what you write in your book about the new normal, which you feel should be more inclusive and more sustainable.
"Yes, more inclusive on all levels. Such as hearing all voices, including those of introverts. They have flourished while working from home. Are we now going to force them back into the straightjacket? The idealist in me says: “Where can we make things better for people? And because everything is still up in the air, we now really have the opportunity to make things better. I hope we seize that opportunity. Although I don’t think we are now enthusiastically going to work and live completely differently. We will pick up a number of old habits and routines. I am now also driving to Mechelen to do a physical master class for a whole day. You could also do that online, you could say. But I think there is more to be gained from the master class when I am actually there. Thus, we each have reasons to go back to our old habits anyway. I just hope we can break with some of them.”
So, work has left the building, but not completely...
“It’s definitely coming back in, and that’s a good thing too. The fact that we suddenly started working from home was because of a dangerous pandemic that disrupted our entire society. But work will certainly return to the office because there are many kinds of work that require our physical presence. But to what extent and in what ways it will come back in is something we will determine together.”
Photo: Nathan Reinds