A Look at the Changing Landscape of Dutch Workplaces
Conversations with Three Successful Coworking Spaces in the Netherlands
Recently, one of AKKA’s architecture projects — Impact Hub Amsterdam — was featured in a book entitled “Workplaces Today”, by Juriaan van Meel. The book is an exploration of the different types of workplaces and offices we encounter today, worldwide. At the very opening of the book, features a photograph from 1969, showing Austrian architect Hans Hollein sitting crossed legs on the floor inside an inflated plastic tube connected to an electric fan and equipped with a drawing board and a telephone. This was his vision of a mobile office or what he also called a ‘transportable studio in a suitcase’. Meant as an art installation, this concept demonstrated Hollein’s visionary idea of how new emerging technology would soon allow people to work anywhere and anytime. In 1995, the movie The Net illustrates another prediction. In a particular scene, the bad guy approaches the character played by Sandra Bullock who is sitting typing on her laptop at the beach. He says “is that business or pleasure?”, she answers “is there a difference?”.
Work has changed. Most offices haven’t. And yet there is a — more or less loud, depending on the location in the world — rumbling of a revolution in the world of offices and workplaces. As part of my continuous research around the Future of Work, this month I explore the booming scene of coworking spaces in The Netherlands by focusing on three very different and yet complementary spaces: A Lab, Tribes and Bouncespace. Together, they are an example of how different approaches coexisting in one country, make this small nation one of the most innovative, creative and buzzing in the world.
There are an estimated 1.7 billion mobile workers in the world, 1.3 million of them are in the Netherlands. In fact, the Netherlands has always been at the cutting edge of new concepts of working. Already in the 1990s, the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure had actively started promoting the concept of telework — i.e. working from home — with the objective of reducing traffic congestion.
Chances are you have heard of coworking, flex working, teleworking or others of the many concepts of shared offices. Coworking spaces have been given many names and been confused with many models that are in fact different. Business accelerators, incubators and executive suites for example do not fit into the coworking model unless they also embody the community, social and collaborative dynamics. So what is coworking really? Coworking is a certain dynamic of work that concerns independent activities taking place in a shared environment. Contrary to traditional offices, people working in coworking spaces are not employed by the same organisation and usually work on different independent projects, even though the possibilities of collaborations are welcome. The reason people share such working environments is usually operational, aspirational or both. For freelancers, independent contractors or frequent travellers, their work in relative isolation can become an unpleasant reality. They also lack the technical and operational infrastructure that offices offer. Aspirational reasons come from the fact that more and more often, people who share a common space are driven by common values and the synergies that can emerge from such proximities. Another growing aspect of coworking spaces, beyond the space itself is the community component. While some ‘real estate centric’ coworking spaces are driven by selling desks first and foremost, a growing number of others do not even start with a physical space but indeed by building a community of people first.
A very clear example of a community-driven coworking space is Tribes. With five locations in The Netherlands and one in Belgium; Tribes is planning on nine more locations to be opened this year alone. The Tribes model is defined as ‘inspiring workspaces for business nomads’. Indeed, inspired by nomadic tribes, these places are a pied-à-terre for the digital travelling nomads of today. Here you are invited to choose your way of working, whether a flexible workspace, an office, a meeting room or simply a business address.
Every one of the Tribes location is inspired by a tribe from the world, such as the Secoya, the Sami or the Maasai. The Tribes office located in The Hague for example is built on the Maori tribe and is infused by the Maori traditions, culture, customs and artefacts. Here it is not about creating an office or working environment, but rather creating a place where people want to connect. “We moved from being in offices with no computers to having computers with no offices” says Eduard Schaepman, Chief and Founder at Tribes. As the name already emphasises, the most important aspect of Tribes is the community. As Schaepman summarises it: “It is about people, connections and communication”. He goes on to explain “we keep the sizes of our various communities under 300 people each. This ensures the dynamics among the members of the community are optimal. Research has shown that most people can remember 150 names and no more than 300 faces”.
While some spaces like Tribes focus on connecting people and enriching the dynamics within communities, other spaces focus on a different angle. A Lab for example is conceived as a ‘living lab, combining the strength of Amsterdam’s creative scene, technological prowess and free thinking spirit into a hothouse for bleeding edge experimentation’. Lucas Hendricks, director of A Lab explains: “Beyond the knowledge economy, I believe we are in the age of the network economy”. Suddenly Hendricks points to the empty chair next to him and says “In every meeting, you should have at least one extra empty chair. You always need to think, who will be sitting here tomorrow? You always need an extra space”. Indeed, this is a very powerful practice to remind us that any decisions that need to be made are not about the specific people in the room, but indeed about the larger community and future players. “Beyond connecting”, Hendricks says, “A Lab is dedicated to catalyzing”. More than a space to network with like-minded people, more than a place where you can get coaching and expert advice, the A Lab environment is geared towards catalyzing your idea or business directly. It is focused on people and entrepreneurs operating at the intersection of the creative and tech industries. “We are not at the cutting edge, but rather at the bleeding edge” says Hendricks. Here, to become a member you are asked “what is your experiment?”. “Above all, says Hendricks, A Lab is about creating experiences”.
A third and yet very different coworking space in Amsterdam is Bouncespace. According to founder Jorn van Lieshout, Bouncespace is not about doing work but rather about the holistic lifestyle of a new generation of entrepreneurs. Conceived from the perspective of “a day in the life”, the space is tightly connected — physically and socially — to a cafe, a barber, a gym…etc. I ask Jorn “If your space was one of the team members running Bouncespace, what would its job description be?”. His answer is three-fold, “the space needs to attract the right people, curate them and retain them. It is a tool of natural selection of the people who fit or not with the mentality of the community”. The aspect of a tight community of like-minded people is of course very important, except here, it is not so much about the like-mindedness vis-a-vis the nature of work or impact created, but rather a like-mindedness about how work is done, in what context and within what lifestyle. “After having moved to an extreme of online lives”, says van Lieshout, “people are now longing for an offline existence, a physical point of reference, a meeting centre which can balance their life’s dynamics.”
What is already very obvious from no-more than three coworking spaces in no more than one country is that, there isn’t one definition of coworking place or even workplace these days. In his book Workplaces Today, van Meel presents ten categories of workplaces: Home Offices, Public Spaces, Co-work Offices, Play Offices, Flex Offices, Studios, Modernist Offices, Process Offices, Cell Offices and Recycled Offices. Furthermore, he illustrates each category with three case studies, themselves as rich and diversified as the examples above. Even though the movement of coworking is a global one, the dynamics of coworking spaces remain very local and very contextual.
Since the first coworking space in the US, studies have shown that the number of spaces and seats have doubled each year. This growth can be attributed to three main reasons: a rise of the self-employed and micro businesses, technology, and a generational change. Not only is this younger generation driven by the digital age and all that technology has to offer, millennials seek flexibility and favour collaborative work cultures. By 2025, this generation will constitute no less than 75% of the workforce. So what is the future of workplaces? Mike Jackson, founder of WebStart Bristol, a tech start-up incubator, predicts a new type of coworking spaces “not aimed at startups who can only afford the bare basics in cheaper locations but top quality spaces in prime locations aimed at start ups and corporates who want the advantages of co-working on flexible terms”. Coworking spaces are not anymore a secondary alternative when startups cannot afford ‘better’, they are a first choice in their own right. Furthermore, as traditional offices and established corporates witness the benefits of flexible collaborative coworking environments, the future of workplaces is very likely to witness major refurbishments.
In order to attract and retain the new generation of talent, in order to do business in today’s world, traditional office settings need to be redesigned to foster different interactions.
This article is originally published in the Gulf Times Magazine.