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Open offices: companies test out shared workspace

Normally closed to outsiders... Fifty big companies in Holland will allow their employees to work in each other's offices in a six-month trial of shared corporate workspace. Coworking spaces and government departments will also participate in this trial.

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The growth of the “shared economy” has been changing the way individuals transact, through a boom in shared cars, holiday apartments, and – yes – workspaces. Now a pilot project in The Netherlands will test the ability of the corporate sector to engage in resource sharing. Fifty big Dutch companies will open their offices to each others’ employees. Coworking spaces and government departments will also participate. The experiment may spark a shift in Big Business’s approach to workspace.

February 1 will be an unusual day in many offices in The Netherlands. Workers arriving at their company headquarters may find themselves working alongside unfamiliar employees; not new co-workers, but new coworkers.

It’s part of a pilot project called Werken Onderweg, or Work On The Way, an experiment into how open big businesses can be with their workspaces. For six months, employees from the participating companies can drop into any of the other corporate offices to do their work. Outside freelancers will also be allowed to take part. It’s hoped the pilot will allow individuals to travel less and work closer to home.

Participating companies include KPN, the biggest Dutch telephone company, engineering multinationals DHV and Arcadis, research group TNO, the insurer Achmea, infrastructure groups Strukton, Imtech/Peek and more. Several government departments have also agreed to take part. And most interestingly for Deskmag readers, many coworking spaces are also participating by allowing these corporate visitors to drop in at no cost. More than 75000 employees will have the opportunity to work in a location that suits them.

The concept was devised by Rene Savelsbergh, an independent “concept developer” who worked hard to convince big companies and bureaucracies to open their doors. His starting point was the “new way of working”, the fresh Dutch approach to corporate workspace that has been in existence for many years now.

“Once people start to work in a new way, they will work in different places. Companies have to facilitate that,” Savelsbergh said. “Now, companies only use their offices for their own employees. We have to teach companies to be more hospitable.”

The biggest objection to sharing workspace is usually security. As anyone who has entered a company office knows, they are tightly regulated, with visitor passes and sign-in stations, closed internet systems, and a generally tense attitude to outsiders. Yet Savelsbergh explains that companies don’t need to open their entire building and its secrets to the outside world; they can set aside a certain area to be used by visiting workers.

“In these large companies, there are already locations where you can offer these kinds of services. They usually have a guest lounge, waiting areas, or a canteen just outside the reception area where you don’t need to log in. And certain companies participating in this project have such areas behind the reception, but they are open to participating. Once people are more open to it, there will be a change in how people manage their mobility.”

If successful, Werken Onderweg may be extended beyond its six month trial period, and expanded to include mid-sized companies and regional government departments. But it may also help change the way corporations approach infrastructure. Already, Savelsbergh points to examples of how companies are pooling their resources to open joint offices.

Coworking spaces have the opportunity to be involved in these kinds of corporate experiments with sharing. Like the Dutch coworking spaces, they could take part in space-sharing programs. And they could apply their community-building skills to corporate settings (see our previous story on coworking space founders as expert community managers).

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