How the Dutch pioneered agile working, wellbeing and smart buildings

Many of the challenges we face in selecting the right office design models became apparent during the 1960s as the world adjusted to the first signs of the technological revolution. At the same time, people across Europe were pressing for changes in the way organisations and the economy worked.

The advent of formal workers’ rights in countries like German and the Netherlands coupled with greater awareness of issues such as ergonomics, acoustic comfort, collaborative work daylight and the importance of personal space ushered in a new way of thinking about the design of offices.

The Dutch phrase for all of this het nieuwe werken and can be translated as a new way of working and they have been one the pioneers of this for half a century, establishing the core principles of agile working, smart buildings, sustainable design and wellbeing that define the way we view the workplace.

One of the most striking examples of a new generation of workplaces arose in the city of Apeldoorn in 1968.  The financial services firm Centraal Beheer commissioned Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger to create a new headquarters for its staff as ‘a place where 1,000 people can feel at home. The employees must have the feeling of being part of a community without being lost in the crowd.’

The solution was to create a new kind of office that would encourage people to move around the building to meet each other and find the best space for their current needs. We would now call this agile or activity-based working but fifty years ago it was just an idea that made sense and didn’t need a specific name.

The building was divided into 56 modular nine metre cubes which served as the workspaces for up to ten people. These were linked by a series of communal walkways and atria as well as a central street. The building was lit with lampposts and as much natural light as possible. Teams were limited to ten because this is the optimal size of a team for decision making. Each module was also designed to create the best acoustic environment and people were encouraged and empowered to personalise their space.

The principles are strikingly modern, especially for a period in which people did not have access to mobile technology and our own knowledge of the ways in which office design can affect people’s wellbeing.