Shoulder responsibilities through Facility Management.

Ellen Faber is playing a key role in the transition to the New Way of Working at Achmea. Until late September, the former facility director was responsible for the complex process of reducing seventy branches to eight key locations, each one optimally designed to anticipate a new way of working.

An interview with Ellen Faber, Director division Direct Distribution

Having recently been appointed managing director of the Direct Distribution Division (responsible for Centraal Beheer Achmea and FBTO), she continues her close involvement in introducing the new work concept. Interview with a board member who has decisive views on how corporations can shoulder their responsibilities through facility management.

Achmea is going through a major period of change when it comes to its facilities.

There’s a lot going on already, and many more things in the pipeline. The merger with Interpolis in late 2005 gave us a shot of fresh blood, inspiring us to analyse the group’s policy in detail. In Achmea’s New Working project, we’re taking the best of “Clear Working” at Interpolis and combining it with the best of Achmea’s various blood groups. Basically, we’re going to work independent of time and place and introduce complementary HR practices and employment terms.

How do the blood groups differ from one another?

They are very similar in their pride, uniqueness, and commitment to their own identity. The difference is that Interpolis had already implemented a solid work concept. The idea that “inside is outside and outside is inside” is inherent there. The older blood groups at Achmea do that more on an ad hoc basis. Centraal Beheer has a history of unusual premises – Herzberger’s building in Apeldoorn is a good example. You can even say that Achmea introduced new ways of working first, but that Interpolis is much more in tune with the new forms of communication in today’s world.

And now the two will support each other.

This is about our organisation’s identity. That’s why we’re generating enthusiasm from the HR angle. It’s not about external facilities, but about a change in culture. It’s true that most of the expertise and impetus to drive innovation is in the facilities. But we have to be careful not to put all the emphasis on the exterior. It starts with identity, HR, communication, and defining management styles and the way we’re going to deal with one another. Then nothing happens for a long time…and then the facilities come in. I myseIf have always been an advocate of integrated thinking. I don’t think in terms of categories and disciplines. I’ve always gone beyond facilities and wanted to find the common ground with HR.

Is it still possible to make a real distinction?

There are still various departments that organise their support by discipline. But in the New Way of Working, everything comes down to identity, and all our departments and units are involved.

How are identity and working concept related?

You can’t separate them. Right now, every department and unit is talking about identity. What makes us a team? What’s special about us? What’s unique about us? Based on the answers, we’ll define our management style and culture. From there, we’ll define the basic principles underlying our way of working, including working any time, anywhere.

Can you be more specific?

I can, but bear in mind that we’re still discussing these ideas. Deciding to make work independent of time and place means that we have to look critically at our buildings and concepts. We need to adopt different management responsibilities and protocols. We have to stop judging people on attendance, but instead look at their output. That’s quite a culture shock in an organisation where the management has always wanted to see the employees at work. We have to facilitate the IT outside the office buildings as well, and the office buildings then become meeting points. Those are, in a few sentences, the sort of ideas that we’ll be putting into practice.

So it will be the encounter, and not the workplace, that’s important?

Exactly. The added value of the encounter is that it inspires, for example. We’ll also look at other ways of organising individual production and customer contacts. You have to admit that it’s crazy for a company to have employees sit in traffic for hours so that they can then sit at their desks at the office. That’s very strange.

And yet that’s many employees’ fate.

If we can devise a policy that brings that situation to an end to some extent, then we’ll have made a useful contribution to solving many problems. We take corporate social responsibility very seriously. It goes right to the heart of our identity. This is what we consider important. This is the message we want to convey to our customers.

We are currently sounding out in our various units to what extent we can work together in this direction. We have to do it together, after all. Fortunately, everyone seems enthusiastic. There’s support for this approach. People would love to be able to work from home one or two days a week. More flexibility in doing housework and chores, no more wasting time in traffic, no more being tied to certain office hours, generating more involvement.

You’re putting a lot of faith in your employees that way.

That’s the change that we’re trying to make as a company. The point is to trust employees to take responsibility for themselves. That calls for a different management approach. So we have to train managers to facilitate employees, and use team meetings to help them shift from thinking in terms of the time clock to thinking about genuine added value.

And the new working environment is another way of expressing that trust?

Many employees see it that way. But design furnishings and art aren’t the final goals, of course. The starting point is to promote efficiency and a logical set-up. The setting can be lovely and atmospheric, but we mustn’t go overboard. We’re a company that earns its money from the margin, from the small change. Customers should never feel that it’s all too expensive.

Are you looking more critically at that now because of the credit crisis?

Yes, we are. That’s why it’s so important to tie in a communication campaign. It allows us to explain the changes from the perspective of functionality and productivity. Having more employees work at home means we can cut down on expensive square metres of office space. But at the same time, we have to invest in meeting places and other types of support.

Is there a business case?

In theory, yes – but we’ve not yet reached the point that we can construct it. There was certainly a business case for concentrating our operations in eight key locations. The administrative centre in Zeist has just become operational. Once our office in Leiden opens late next year, we’ll be finished. That will allow us to be much more efficient in our operations. At this point, we’re already moving toward the new working concept. There’s never a better time for a company to introduce a new culture than when it moves to new premises.

Or when it merges with another organisation.

Achmea has always been a company merger, we keep on merging. But the merger with Interpolis was a big one. It was a challenging time to start talking about a new corporate culture. Combining a group of 10,000 (Achmea) and 5000 (Interpolis) people into a single entity makes it vital to forge a new culture. In fact, it happens by itself. In the beginning, everyone is ill at ease and sceptical, but gradually you get cross-fertilisation and the two groups start to mix. By providing guidance in that process, you can create something solid. We want to combine the best of the two organisations. Our employees will soon have the confidence to take responsibility, the leeway to be enterprising, to take the initiative, to make decisions, with room for manoeuvre in their direct contacts with customers, with more scope and responsibility for their own development. That’s entirely in keeping up with the way things are today. People are hundreds of thousands of times better and more quickly informed than they were ten years ago. And the same goes for customers. We have to anticipate at that, and we’ll achieve higher productivity rates because of it.

The discipline of facility management has changed enormously.

Fifteen years ago, facility managers spent their time putting out fires. They were people who walked around with big bunches of keys. Achmea always gave me the leeway to take an integrated approach to the work. The management board never said: “Ellen, restrict yourself to the facilities”. I was given that freedom, and I took it.

Now you’re a division director and the facilities director comes to your office…

… and his job is to make sure that my division is properly served. Because I want my 2500 employees to have the facilities they need to do their work in a modern and responsible manner. In short, it’s a topic that always has a slot on the agenda. It happens that we’re next to move into the new building in Apeldoorn, and that will give my division the opportunity to start off in the right direction. It will be a wonderful opportunity.

What’s your opinion of Veldhoen + Company?

It’s a pioneering outfit, and it’s not just about conceptualisation, but how to put those concepts into practice. We saw it at Interpolis, and the contact at Achmea was there from the very start. There are consultancies and then there are consultancies. This one has a very inspired staff who believe in what they say. It’s in their genes, it’s not just a theory – it’s real life. You can point out plenty of examples and places where it’s been successful.

Roel Geenen en Activiteitgericht Werken
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+31 6 15 02 57 88 roel@veldhoencompany.com