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Pioneering in ABW: An interview with Harry Timmerman, Secretary-director of the Province of Overijssel

11 June 2015

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The Province of Overijssel is the first Dutch province to work according to the principles of Activity Based Working. Since mid-2007, its thousand employees share approximately seven hundred flexible workspaces. “Right before the Millennium, we were on the verge of a huge reorganisation,” says Harry Timmerman, secretary-director of the Province of Overijssel.

We tended to focus on our own offices

“We wanted to be more transparent, to introduce project-based working, and to be more flexible and focused on results. There were reasons for that. Our ICT was obsolete and our offices were underutilised. Flexible working practices had been introduced. Our public servants did not feel very committed to the organisation – they tended to focus on their own offices. That was detrimental to communication and teamwork. And all this while the Province wanted to be more transparent to outsiders in order to make its commitment more tangible and visible. In part, that was related to the debate about the provincial tier of government and its purpose. After all, government’s image depends largely on its quality of service. We were an average province but now we’re one of the best, both externally and internally.”

The Provincial Government Building were quite dated

The reorganisation began in late 1998. The provincial government buildings were quite dated by then, and an extension had become necessary. The Province decided to renovate while retaining Duintjer’s architectural design. It also decided to introduce an innovative office concept that complemented its own aims.

“Our building was in a state of disrepair. Flexible working practices meant that many of the offices were empty. Computerisation made it increasingly expensive to keep them up. We had to renovate. So we decided to see whether we could link our reorganisation goals to our physical goals. We started to think about the concept in 1999. We quickly decided to introduce a flexible concept, but the problem was: how do we ensure that the physical circumstances support our work? I had an open mind for innovation. And I saw that Veldhoen + Company had been the most successful at developing that idea. We deliberately chose a partner with proven experience. One that helped us make the right decisions as we entered the process. We were given a lot of time for that and we took it, mainly to let the New Way of Working sink in and to examine a lot of different examples of it. It was clear from the start that we’d have to introduce the concept throughout the entire organisation, however. That did away with the idea that management was doing all the thinking and that the rest wouldn’t be involved. It’s already made a difference in terms of acceptance.”

Camping out helps to improvise

“During the renovation, we had to move to other premises for almost two years. We had to ‘camp out’, and people were torn from their old familiar environment. That actually helped, because we began to improvise. The entire organisation was reshuffled; everyone had to switch places. That too turned out to be a very powerful tool for changing the culture. There’s nothing more effective than forcing people to walk a different route. It means that they can’t turn reality to their advantage any more. There’s always a group that has trouble accepting new things, of course. It’s best not to fight them. Try to understand their feelings without letting that undermine the concept. Stick to your principles, and make sure that people aren’t able to withdraw from the process. Don’t let your attention flag, because people do tend to fall back into old habits. For all these reasons: if at all possible, adjust the physical circumstances. It’s an especially powerful tool.”

Making the working environment more appealing

“The New Way of Working is very profitable. If we’d given everyone his or her own office, our costs would have been 20% higher. Instead, we invested that money in ICT and in making the working environment more appealing. That has a direct impact on people’s behaviour. Veldhoen shared their expertise with us and showed us how to overcome problems. Their basic principles are straightforward and they keep an eye on the results. They are a trusted partner that ensures that their concept becomes your way of working. They made sure that all the changes were tailored to suit Overijssel.”
“We are proud, and we’d like others to benefit from what we’ve developed. We want to share, and we’re not afraid to show how proud we are. It’s nice for the employees to feel pride amongst themselves, but pride is also something that an organisation should radiate. That gives it extra charm. It’s a fantastic way of showing that we’re a modern, open, transparent organisation.”

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