May 20, 2015 in Viewpoint

Finding a balance Jorien Kaper

In this category, we will focus on employees and the contradictions they encountered over the course of their careers in regards to their workplace. We will look at the developments in activity-based working through their eyes.

Anne Wernand
by Anne Wernand
An interview with Jorien Kaper at the ‘Zijlpoort’
An interview with Jorien Kaper at the ‘Zijlpoort’

Jorien Kaper, 42, obtained her degree in Amsterdam in a time when Master’s thesis papers were still typed on typewriters and communication took place either face-to-face or over the telephone. She now works as the head of Economy and Culture at the municipality of Haarlem. Her workplace? The completely renovated ‘Zijlpoort’ post office, where Mapiq has recently been installed, flex work has been fully integrated and no one has a fixed workplace.

The digital age vs. paperwork

Your career roughly began right at the start of digitisation. What was that like?

The computer did, indeed, enter the workplace when I started my first job. The mobile telephone was also becoming a part of our daily lives at that time. The most important development was the advent of the Internet, of course, and this is what has probably influenced my career the most. Today’s generation can’t even imagine a work day without the Internet but for me it was a revelation: suddenly you could approach twelve people at the same time with just one e-mail. That was really great. Still, I have always considered face-to-face contact to be very important. Mobile telephones and e-mails are practical and help speed up the processes, but real human contact during work is still essential in my eyes.

Thanks to these developments, I have seen mountains of paperwork slowly disappear from the desks. This happened quite unconsciously, actually. Years ago, offices were propped full of folders with paperwork. When I was working for Art and Culture North Holland, I remember there being rows and rows of folders that were marked yellow and blue; this was still in the time of the typewriter. The secretaries had their hands full with these. I was then in my late twenties, and even at that time, I remember thinking: ‘this will all change.’

That's an accurate prediction!

My prediction was accurate because this has changed dramatically over the past years. Sure enough, I have hardly any paper at all on my desk. Also because I would have to carry it with me these days. Much has changed over the years.

Is that right? Were you stuck between piles of paper in those years?

Yes, I am a hoarder. I used to keep everything. At that time, the paperwork just kept piling up. Everyone still had their own room and those rooms slowly filled up with piles of paper. At one point, I had to add another table so that we would have more room for the paperwork. This is no longer the case for me, I now throw things away so I can keep my head organised - that feels good!

"Mobile phones and e-mails are very practical and speed up processes, but face to face contact with people remains essential in my point of view."

Jorien Kaper
An interview with Jorien Kaper at the completely renovated 'Zijlpoort'.
The completely renovated ‘Zijlpoort’

Open spaces without a fixed spot vs. historical buildings with your own room

You have worked in many old, historical buildings. Is that a coincidence?

It’s true, my entire career I have worked in beautiful historical buildings. I don’t think that’s a coincidence, I tend to be sensitive to buildings. At my first job, I worked with a small team in a stunning building on Johannes Vermeerstraat in Amsterdam South. Later, I worked for Art and Culture North Holland in Haarlem on the new canal. In both of these buildings, everyone still had their own room. But that’s not the most significant change. When I went to work for the municipality of Delft my work environment suddenly changed to a modern office building situated on an industrial terrain. I really had to get used to that. The colleagues and the work made sure that this worked but otherwise I would have struggled with it. Here too, everyone had their own place. Your really could not just sit down in someone else’s spot, that was just not done.

And now, in the ‘Zijlpoort’, you’re in a historical building but without fixed workplaces. How do you like it?

I think it’s a really beautiful building. Maybe it’s a good compromise; an old post office that has been renovated according to the principles of Activity-Based working. I really enjoy the fact that we do not have fixed workplaces. For me, the list of advantages is far greater than the list of negatives. What people do seem to be saying is that everyone’s more tired all the time. You are constantly available to your colleagues. If I have assignments that require my fullest concentration, I do them at home.

How do your colleagues feel about this?

It is, of course, extremely different from those jobs I had with my own office. Here, there are people who have had their own workplace for thirty years and suddenly they have only an empty desk which may or may not have a phone. This was a really big step. People still tend to get attached to a fixed environment, not particularly a fixed place, but a fixed environment. That still seems to be really important. Even now, I notice that we tend to occupy certain areas like departments. It’s something specific to human nature that they want their own place.

The completely renovated ‘Zijlpoort’.
The completely renovated ‘Zijlpoort’

"The meeting function of an office is important in the future and more attention will be paid to this."

Jorien Kaper

Freedom vs. seclusion

What this the first time that you had to surrender to flex work?

No, definitely not, after the municipality Delft, I joined an economic advice agency. My work suddenly became very mobile. This was in 2007, can you imagine? The Activity-Based working so new after all. For me, this was the biggest transition. Going from a fixed place with the municipality to being all over the place throughout Holland. I no longer had a fixed workplace. They gave me a laptop and mobile phone. At that moment, I genuinely did not understand why we would need office buildings at all!

Sounds like the ultimate freedom to me, what’s the catch?

Because everyone else did still have a fixed workplace, you felt a little like an odd duck. I always had to go to visit others and had to figure out how ‘flex work’ worked. At a certain point, I was really roaming around because there really weren’t any good flex places yet. At that time, I was really a pioneer in flex work.

No flex places? Now you see them popping up everywhere.

Yes, no doubt, I understand very well where the demand comes from. I coincidentally ran into a former colleague who now has my old position and that company now has a flex office, too. I know a lot of people who use Spaces. We really didn’t have those back then!

So, the environment was actually not adapted to fit the more flexible, mobile way of working that was happening then. Was it only the environment that didn’t fully cooperate or were there other elements missing?

Yes, I really liked it but it was also lonely. Lonely is perhaps exaggerated, but I missed the contact with others. You were out on the road all day all by yourself, fourteen telephone calls in one day and you wanted to say, ‘why not come by’, but where? As a result there were lots of restaurant bills and much drinking of coffee. Meeting face to face is very important to me; it just can’t be replaced by a telephone call or an e-mail.

Did you notice a difference between the branches in that time? That one was better adapted to flex work than another?

I noticed big differences in the various parts of Amsterdam. This was 8 years ago. At one point, I had an assignment on Bos en Lommerplein in the New West area. They had a new office building and were introducing the Activity-Based working, so no one had a fixed workplace and I thought it was really cool! For me, as a policy advisor, it was really a like a breath of fresh of air, I suddenly felt more valued, more equal, I no longer worried that I was sitting in someone else’s chair. You ran into each other much easier and the building had a large open cafeteria. I really thought this was a great example.

What is the most important aspect of the workplace of the future?

It’s important that the office is a place to meet others. Having that contact with colleagues. This deserves more attention. You will be less
likely, for example, to send apps to your colleagues than say, your friends. I would sooner call my colleagues instead to say, ‘I’m sitting downstairs, by the way.’ So, that’s a niche that can be explored. In addition, I also think it would be good if there were more places where people could really work in seclusion.

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