Thoughts on the New World of Work (Het Nieuwe Werken) and Agile Software Development

Today, I participated in a meet up by Agile Holland (http://www.meetup.com/agileholland) organized at our NowOnline Utrecht office. The meet up focused on the ‘New World of Work’ (or ‘Het nieuwe werken’, as it is known in Dutch) and its role in Agile software development and involved an informative presentation by consultant Jeroen Rensel (www.rensel.nl). In this blog, I would like to summarive what we talked about and to add some of my own thoughts. This blog, as such, represents my opinions only (so if I got something wrong, blame me). A note on the image accompanying this post: I found this when searching for 'Het nieuwe werken', and I think it's a marvelous but completely ridiculous idea that you can work from the beach. But how knows. Might have to give that a try :)

A Definition of the New World of Work

The ‘New World of Work’ is a concept on how to most effectively and efficiently organize work in modern organizations, utilizing modern technology wherever possible. The concept is often attributed to Microsoft (see https://www.microsoft.com/mscorp/execmail/2005/05-19newworldofwork.mspx), but it has been around for a bit longer. Microsoft, especially in the Netherlands, has actively championed the term ‘Het Nieuwe Werken’, and is considered to be one of the first large organizations to successfully migrate. Many other Dutch organizations soon followed, including the Dutch Armed Forces, the Rabobank, Cap Gemini and many others.

There is no clearly delineated definition of the ‘New World of Work’, but the primary goal is to improve and align business and human processes within organizations to increase autonomy, responsibility and self-management and to decrease authoritarian management and hierarchy. In turn, this should ultimately improve employee satisfaction, decrease costs, improve process efficiency and make organizations more adaptable and flexible to change.

What does it entail?

In a sense, the ‘New World of Work’ is a broad set of interventions to achieve these goals, including:

  • Improve collaboration: Teams collaborate using webcams, Skype, IRC, Google Hangouts or whatever platform suits their needs;
  • Flex offices: Employees do not have their own desk or office. They are actively encouraged to find the office that best suits their needs for the moment. Many ‘New World of Work’ organizations have different types of flex offices to accommodate these needs, from concentration rooms where people are asked to remain silent to highly informal ‘living room’-like offices;
  • Working from home: Employees determine when and where they work. There are usually no strict start and end times. If someone prefers to work from home, they do so. This usually involves using webcams, Skype or other means to collaborate with the team;
  • Using technology: More a means than an end, but the ‘New World of Work’ promotes the use of modern technology (smart phones, Microsoft Surface tables, beamers, intranets, wiki, etc.) to optimize work;
  • Facilitating management: Management should be focused on facilitating the employees in how they organize and optimize their work, rather than telling employees what to do and when to do it;

Why is it important?

The ‘New World of Work’ was conceptualized in response to the changing, more dynamic environment of modern organizations:

  • Increasing individualism: Our society is becoming more and more individualized. People are less prone to follow orders, but prefer to control their own work. Employees are also less loyal to their employers and are less afraid to switch jobs;
  • Different needs by younger generations: Younger generations have grown up with modern media at their fingertips. Social media has become a part of their lives and they have a different ways of finding, processing and using information. Organizations have to adapt to the needs of these generations, or they will lose out on many younger employees that prefer other organizations;
  • Emerging technologies: Emerging technologies enabled different ways of working together. Just a few years back, webcams where a novelty. Today, many teams use webcams to collaborate. Modern platforms, such a Google, (Docs, Drive, Mail, etc.) Microsoft 365, etc. are making new ways of working together possible;
  • Need for increased flexibility: Large organizations are more and more susceptible to being outmaneuvered by smaller competitors in terms of time-to-market, responsiveness to change and innovation. This requires that large organizations learn to optimize their processes;

The benefits of the ‘New world of work’

Although there is little actual scientific research on the benefits on the ‘New World of Work’, organizations often list the following (anecdotal) benefits:

  • Decreasing costs: Flex offices are often championed as a way to reduce costs on housing. If more people are working from home, this means that less equipment and fewer offices are needed. This should not be a goal in itself, however. Reducing offices should be a natural results of the 'new world of work';
  • Increased productivity: By increasing autonomy and improving the efficiency of business processes, employees are more productive;
  • Increased employee satisfaction: Employees are more involved with their work, rate their own satisfaction higher, are less prone to burnout and are – in general – more happy with their work;
  • Increased attractiveness to younger employees: Younger employees favor organizations that are more flexible, less hierarchical and more open to new initiatives. As such, ‘New World of Work’ organizations find it easier to attract younger employees and actively advertise that they work like this;

Some examples from the field

  • Microsoft Benelux has many different kinds of meeting spaces. It is possible to meet up anywhere in their Schiphol office. Locating a colleague only requires knowing the color of the wall where they are sitting, as the walls are distinctly painted. But it also possible to meet in one of the living-room like offices (with coaches and reading lamps) or a more formal meeting room;
  • The Dutch Armed Forces recently acquired a new headquarters in Utrecht. Upon checking in, employees take their special luggage bag and fill it up with whatever they need for the day from their own cabinet. They then proceed to one of the many flex offices in the building. People are actively motivated to work from home, using a highly encrypted connection;
  • Valve, a US-based gaming company, equips employees with mobile desks to allow them to move around (desk and all) the building. If a team needs to collaborate, desks are moved together. If not, desks are moved apart based on need. They only have to plug in the power cable in one of the many sockets and they’re operational;
  • Some departments of theDutch government use large multi-colored walls of lockers to allow employees to store their personal belongings. At Microsoft, they’ve done a similar thing. All the lockers can be drawn on with crayons. Some lockers are for teams, some for individuals;
  • The Dutch bank Rabobank recently opened their new headquarters, also in Utrecht. Their ‘Rabo Campus’ contains many different types of offices, including informal team rooms, relaxation rooms, well-equipped coffee corners;
  • Cap Gemini (and many other organizations) use large Plaza-like meeting locations to welcome guests, customers and employees and to act as a social hub for work. These plazas often have their own coffee and gift shops and allow employees to meet with customers in more informal manner;
  • For NowOnline, the company I work for, we recently migrated from Microsoft Exchange to Google for Business (Microsoft 365 is a good alternative). We did this to improve our agility, by allowing customers to collaborate with us using Google Docs. Gmail is superior to Outlook in terms of functionality and collaboration and Google+ and Google Talk are actively used by teams to communicate. This greatly reduced our network administration tasks and IT costs. More about this in a future blog, as we are also working on eliminating all complexities in our IT infrastructure (Active Directory, etc.);

And where does Agile fit in?

A large part of the the discussions during the meet up focused on how this all aligns with Agile software development. There are a lot of similarities. Both focus on empowering teams and individual employees to organize their own work. Both focus on decreasing authorization and directive management in favor of more democratic, facilitating management. A difference is that Agile is more focused on (software development) teams, while the ‘New World of Work’ applies to many types of work.

I would argue that being Agile requires that you adopt the ‘New World of Work’ in your organization. As a matter of fact, being really Agile should naturally move your organization and your teams in that direction. Empowering employees, working from home, flex offices, using modern technologies and a more facilitating management style are natural and logical consequences of Agile organizations.

Another heavily debated topic was how to best organize work if people are allowed to work from home. Can teams really work effectively when some of their members work from home regularly?  Agilists often prefer face-to-face communication in front of a whiteboard and consider other forms of communication to be sub-optimal. Although there is truth in that statement, the most Agile response would be to ‘take it to the team’. What do they prefer? If this works for them, why not let them give it a try? Management should facilitate this process and provide the team with the tools they need, such as webcams, headsets or a well-equipped meeting room. My own experience is that teams prefer to work face-to-face anyways, so they will do their best to be at the office. But it’s better to give them the autonomy to make that decision for themselves.

Is the ‘New World of Work’ possible with every kind of job? Most likely not. By its nature, it is more suited for office-based work. For physical work, different approaches would be required to achieve the same goals. It also requires employees that are up to the challenge. Increased autonomy and responsibility is certainly desirable, but not by all employees. Some people just want to do their job and know exactly what is expected from them and what they have to do. The ‘New World of Work’ is probably more suited for highly-skilled work than for low-skilled jobs.

Does it require too much trust in employees? It requires a lot of trust, yes. But if employees work from home, they are usually more productive (at least, that’s what studies show). Employees that don’t work well in general, will also slack when they work at home. By making the contribution of everyone visible, which automatically happens in Agile teams (‘what did you do yesterday’, during a stand-up), slacking members can be identified and confronted by the team.

Finally, the core of Agile and the ‘New World of Work’ lies in management. Both approaches require a facilitating style of management. Instead of telling everyone what to do, and tightly controlling everything, management is focused on allowing employees and teams to organize their own work. This might seem simple, but it’s the hardest thing to change in any organization. It also requires deep changes in an organization’s culture, values and norms. Having a larger office (or an office at all) as a sign of status does not help. Neither does an attitude that says that you only work well if you stick around from 9 AM to 5.30 PM, or that overwork is by definition a good thing and should be rewarded. The role of management is to set the standard, change the culture and give an example.

Conclusion

The ‘New World of Work’ (het ‘Nieuwe Werken’) is a concept championed by Microsoft, amongst others. It is an approach that focuses on empowering employees to improve and organize their work, in part by using modern technologies. Although not truly ‘new’, it closely mirrors what Agile approaches try to achieve; employees (or teams) are empowered, management becomes more facilitating and modern tools are used to improve collaboration. In both cases, management has to set the standard and show by example. That’s where the challenge truly lies.

Christiaan Verwijs
Christiaan Verwijs

Scrum Master, Trainer, Developer & founder of Agilistic