Once the pandemic is over, how will we combine working from home with our desks on campus? Each department can come up with its own solution, according to WUR’s new Working Environment Concept, but we will definitely be sharing desks with colleagues more.
Only last year, WUR had plans to build thousands of square metres of extra office space on campus to accommodate the rapid growth in students and staff. But then the coronavirus hit, emptying the campus for over a year. We worked and studied from home, seemingly without end. But once we have got a grip on Covid — by September 2021, say — we can return to campus.
Surveys last year showed that most members of staff would like to carry on working from home one or two days a week. Based on those results, WUR has drawn up two memorandums under the title Working@WUR. The Remote Working project group wrote a memorandum on working from home. The basic principle is that working from home is not a right or a duty but it is an option. And the Strategic Accommodation Plan project group drew up a Working Environment Concept. That includes elements for setting up office space on campus if staff are going to be working from home more. These memorandums will be discussed by the WUR Council in the next two months.
The first memorandum concludes that being forced to work from home during the coronavirus crisis has given us a good understanding of the pros and cons of remote working. The number of WUR staff expecting to work from home more grew during the pandemic from 25 per cent (March 2020) to 45 per cent (July 2020). Most home workers (60 per cent) expect to work one or two days a week from home in the future. WUR wants to key into this development with ‘a flexible mix of physical working and meeting areas on campus and a robust IT infrastructure that is accessible at all times from all places’.
Working from home is not a right or a duty but it is an option
This does require a change in the mindset of directors and managers who like to see what their employees are up to. During the pandemic, they have had trust their employees to continue carrying out their tasks. Which they did: employees’ productivity actually rose during the pandemic! A new management approach is required with fewer ‘operational processes’ (such as progress checks and approvals), says the project group.
The Remote Working project group sketches a picture of the future in 2025 in which employees ‘work on global issues in labs, in the field, at home, on the road, on campus, at conferences and at partner organizations’. In other words, all over the place. The project group is currently assuming 15 per cent of time will be spent working from home on average. That is a conservative estimate but there are WUR employees who have to work entirely on campus, for example because they need to be in the lab or don’t have a place to work at home.
WUR will help staff to work autonomously: they will get the scope and be trusted to make their own choices about their work. In this model, the campus becomes a hub where staff meet their colleagues, discuss matters and attend social gatherings. The campus should be designed so that staff feel they are part of the organization and that they are appreciated and acknowledged by their colleagues.
That is precisely what has been lacking during the pandemic. 94 per cent of WUR staff say working remotely is perfectly doable and they like having more control over their working hours. The biggest disadvantage of working from home, they say, is the lack of direct contact with your co-workers. Informal contact in particular has suffered. Employees no longer know what other people are doing in their work and they no longer chat about their private lives. The project group notes that this has affected employee engagement. People may also feel less appreciated because others no longer see what they have achieved.
Over the past year, a lot of WUR employees have taken part in workshops where they shared ideas about how to combine working from home and on campus and what facilities they need for that. That has led to a new Working Environment Concept. The basic assumption is that staff will share workstations on campus, but can be sure there will always be a workstation available. The employees will share working areas within a department of 60 to 100 people and make their own agreements about how to jointly use the working areas in that department.
WUR wants ‘a flexible mix of working and meeting areas on campus and a robust IT infrastructure’
There will be zones with a department-specific mix of working areas, such as desks, focus rooms and rooms for small meetings (up to six people). Departments can also request ‘living rooms’ for spontaneous, informal discussions. ‘Crumple zones’ will be introduced on the perimeter of these zones, with facilities for large meetings that the department can book, as well as extra working areas for if the department grows further.
Each department will therefore first make agreements with its staff on when and how often they want to work from home, and then see what mix of working and meeting areas is needed on campus. As inspiration for this process, the project group used 10 ‘personas’: fictitious employees with different jobs and requirements.
One of them is Heleen, the professor, who manages 40 employees. She is on the road a lot but when she is on campus, she wants her own office with a table for four people so that she can have meetings with staff and everyone knows where to find her. What will her work look like? In the Working Environment Concept, she will have to book her office for ‘her days’, so that the room can be used by other people when she is working elsewhere. On other days, she can use the meeting room or living room for informal meetings. So Heleen will have to share her office and tell her colleagues when she will be there. To do that, she can use the new room booking app.
Another persona is Matthijs, an analyst at Wageningen Livestock Research. He works a lot in the labs and animal housing, and when he is not there he wants to be able to concentrate on his work in the office he shares with colleagues. He also needs to be accessible and available because colleagues come to him a lot with questions. How could he achieve this? According to the Working Environment Concept, Matthijs could share the focus area with his co-workers and liaise with them about when he will be in the lab and when in the focus room.
Does everyone have to share their desk? No. Desiree the secretary has her own desk. That is because Desiree plays a key role in the department, she has fixed tasks, people come to her with questions and she is nearly always in the office. So she gets her own room together with her fellow secretaries.
But researcher Tim will not be on campus much, even after the pandemic. He does a lot of desk research on water systems and spends time on site and at conferences. It is easy for him to share a workstation on campus and when he is there, it is mainly for the contact with colleagues. He doesn’t need a focus space.
Many lecturers are somewhere in between these examples. They might be teaching a lot in one period and only occasionally in the office to prepare their lessons while in another period they have time for research and supervising student and PhD theses. How can they arrange a workstation when they also work one or two days a week from home? The Working Environment Concept suggests lecturers can work in two rooms. They can reserve a focus-room place for tasks that require concentration and they use a meeting room or living room for supervisor chats. By timetabling this in half-days, they tell students and colleagues when they are available and when they do not want to be disturbed.
The concept is intended to get discussions going about blended working. It helps that with our Covid experience, we are now all experts on why we want to work on campus or from home.
Blended working, focus rooms, desk sharing, always on call, an app to book a workstation… what do you think of this? How would you prefer to work post-Covid? Let us know, and we will report on this in subsequent issues of Resource. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or post them on our website (where you can also find this article): resource-online.nl