Our man in Amsterdam
For nearly 10 years, Amsterdam has been Leesman’s operational bridgehead to mainland Europe, not least because the Dutch have consistently put themselves at the forefront of workplace thinking. But fresh analysis of data suggests that thinking could well have primed the Netherlands to be the one of the best placed nations in Europe to recover from COVID lockdowns.
In 2016, the New York Times ranked Amsterdam as the most viable alternative to London as the European financial hub in a post-Brexit landscape. It cited several enticements: the Dutch population’s strong command of the English language, the vast array of housing options and a cosmopolitan and tolerant attitude, cultivated over centuries as a major global trading centre.
Last year the World Economic Forum ranked the Netherlands the 4th most competitive nation in the world— defined by the set of institutions, policies and factors that determine the level of productivity. The Netherlands also ranked 5th in the world in the UN’s 2019 World Happiness Report, following Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland. The country has consistently found its way in the top 10 since the report’s original publication in 2012.
First coined in 1977 by The Economist, the term ‘Dutch disease’ describes the causal relationship between the increase in the economic development of a specific sector and a decline in other sectors. It was originally used to explain the decline of the manufacturing sector in the Netherlands after the discovery of the large natural gas field in the small Dutch city of Groningen in the 1950s. Loss of jobs took a heavy toll on the economy, though the Dutch have ridden this paradoxical wave ever since, responding with a series of policies and innovative reforms aiding the move to a wealthier and more balanced nation. Along with the other aforementioned domestic successes the Netherlands now has one of the lowest national debt levels relative to their national income.
Of high relevance as of late is the Dutch’s impressive track record when it comes to healthcare, ranking as the best in Europe for seven consecutive years from 2010–2017. And for good reason.
From the numerous infection rooms scattered throughout the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam and state-of-the-art decontaminating facilities in hospitals around the nation, Dutch healthcare will no doubt be one of the first to bounce back when coronavirus cases drop, and numbers become more manageable.
But what about workplace? The Dutch will tell you that their modern approach to work goes back centuries. The early years of the 17th century marked the birth of the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC), leading to almost 200 years of trading dominance. With quasi-governmental powers, it started out as military-commercial enterprise but quickly became what we would now recognise as a corporate entity. It developed inordinate wealth and influence, effectively morphing into a pseudo state or empire in its own right. The VOC’s influence remains tangible to this day, especially in the architecture of the canals, dykes and merchant houses that line the cobbled streets of Amsterdam. But perhaps the greatest legacy left by the VOC is something far less overt—a Dutch willingness to explore unknown territories and thinking.
In the late 1970s a rapid transformation of Groningen’s street furniture saw signs and barriers appear as a means to redirect cars out of the city centre. It was one of the first examples of ‘filtered permeability,’ an urban planning concept that progressively “filters out” vehicles by size and urban impact as you get closer to residential and retail streets. Journey’s which were once straightforward gradually became onerous by car, setting a precedent for other Dutch cities and creating a blueprint for cycle-friendly urban environments around the globe—in many ways what real estate directors and facility managers are about to do to their offices.
The cycleways that now vein through the heart of major Dutch cities mean that reliance on public transport is dramatically lower than elsewhere in Europe. The flat topography helps of course, and it makes Dutch cities some of the greenest in the world.
But most importantly, as social distancing is progressively relaxed, it unencumbers employees from both the risk and anxieties faced by the majority of fellow commuters in other European capital cities. In Amsterdam, more than 70% of all journeys are made by bike.
Then there’s the architecture. Amsterdam features very few tall office buildings. Further afield in Rotterdam, there is a smattering of 40-story offices, but generally speaking Dutch cities lack the skyscrapers seen in the UK and German cities. These taller buildings offer building managers and tenants a huge challenge in the last 100-meter commute logistics for the employees destined for desks in those spaces.
The Netherlands is also recognised as the birthplace of Activity Based Working as we know it. The term was first coined by Erik Veldhoen, a Dutch consultant and author of The Demise of the Office. The concept was first implemented by Interpolis in the 1990’s and interest grew to the extent that “het nieuwe werken,” or new ways of working, is now common parlance. The concept, which empowers employees to seek out the best possible location to support the particular task they are undertaking at that point in their work day, has meant organisations and their middle managers of today have grown up expecting employees to base themselves in various untethered locations. Managing remote employees beyond line of site is nothing new for the Dutch.
Then there’s schooling. Schools are closed on Wednesday afternoons, so Dutch employees and employers are far more used to working compressed or adjusted hours and juggling working day home-based childcare. Pretty useful in the present environment.
Then on to our data. As a country, the Netherlands boasts some impressive stats when it comes to home working. Our pre-lockdown data shows that 63% of employees in the Netherlands experienced home working as part of their roles. That’s 18% higher than the global average and 15% higher than the UK.
Evidence from our Home Working experience survey already shows organisations that have built workplaces with a great employee experience have also successfully enabled and empowered their employees to now work from home.
This all puts the Dutch in a strong position to weather this storm. Our historical data shows that the Netherlands is a nation dedicated to providing environments that allow employees to select spaces most appropriate to the task they are undertaking, be they in the office or elsewhere. And as we move forward, the ability to adapt to entirely new ways of operating within a corporate workplace will be vital.
The Dutch government has estimated in the best-case scenario that the measures around curbing the coronavirus will be in place for three months, which will result in the Dutch economy shrinking 1.2% in 2020 and growing again 3.5% next year. Or in the worst case scenario, if restrictions are in place for 12 months the result will be a 7.6% decline. The UK, or the Bank of England rather, on the other hand, is forecasting a 14% fall, marking the deepest recession for more than three centuries.
As organisations contemplate how to repopulate their workplaces and consider the possibility of having to close them immediately again should the coronavirus stage a comeback, we could all do well to consider some of the workplace and wider societal lessons the Dutch might be willing to trade.