‘Smart work’ could be key to green growth

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A nationwide network of 'Smart Work Centres' has sprung up in the Netherlands over the last three years, enabling people to work in a more flexible manner and bringing benefits to employees, employers and the environment.

What if there was a way for people to work more efficiently, avoid traffic jams, achieve a better life-work balance, save energy and reduce CO2 emissions, while also helping businesses to cut their costs?

The Dutch believe that the concept of 'smart work' could be the answer. By making better use of the possibilities offered by the Internet, they are developing new ways of working and showing the way to a more sustainable future.

One of the most practical manifestations of this new approach is the network of 'Smart Work Centres' that has been spreading across the Netherlands since the first pilot scheme was launched in the spring of 2008.

The very first 'Smart Work Centre' was opened in Almere, a rapidly-growing new town with some 186,000 inhabitants. Many of them work for companies and employers in and around Amsterdam, which means a journey of between 30 and 40 kilometres each way.

Although there are direct trains between Almere and Amsterdam, many commuters prefer to travel by car, leading to horrendous traffic jams at peak times, and average journey times of more than an hour in each direction.

Many people started to ask themselves: what is the point of having people spend hours sitting in traffic jams, just so they can go and sit in front of a computer the whole day? They also started to look for better and more efficient ways for people to organise their work.

An alternative to telework

One solution often put forward is the idea of 'telecommuting' – which in most cases means that people stay at home, working on their computer, and communicate with their colleagues via email and telephone.

But many managers are not comfortable with the idea of letting their employees stay at home all day, and many workers find it difficult to concentrate on their work when they are surrounded by distractions like housework, daytime television or pet animals.

So policymakers started looking for a 'third way' that would combine the advantages of staying at home with the benefits of going to work – like a good working environment and contact with other people.

Local politicians and urban planning experts from Almere and Amsterdam got together with private companies and other employers to set up a 'Smart Work Center' (SWC) that people who live in Almere could easily reach by bus or bicycle.

The SWC gives people a choice, so instead of making the stressful and time-consuming journey into Amsterdam every morning, they can go to a place much closer to home where they can concentrate on their tasks, meet other people, drink coffee and do nearly all of the things they would normally do at their place of work.

This innovative way of working has proven to be incredibly popular with professionals and so-called 'knowledge workers'. The practice has spread rapidly and there are now more than 100 'Smart Work Centres' throughout the Netherlands, with new ones being opened almost every month.

Most of the people who use 'Smart Work Centres' do not use them every day. They might use the centre only one or two days each week, and on the other days they might go to their usual workplace, or attend meetings with clients or colleagues. In some cases they might use the centre for half a day – or just a couple of hours.

Private sector buying into 'smart work' concept

While public authorities, and especially local governments, played a leading role in launching the idea of 'Smart Work Centres' in the beginning, most of the money for running the centres is provided by private companies and other employers.

Companies that would like to offer their employees the opportunity to use 'Smart Work Centres' can join a foundation, which gives them the right to reserve desks on different days at different locations.

Most of the SWCs also have meeting rooms, with all the necessary facilities including wireless Internet. These rooms can be hired for use by all kinds of companies and organisations – not only members of the Smartwork Foundation.

Hans Tijl is director of the urban planning service in the city of Amsterdam. He was invited to present the 'Smart Work Centre' concept to members of the Global Cities Dialogue at their spring summit, which took place in Cologne last week (22 February).

Tijl admits that the SWC represents a significant cultural shift, especially for managers who are used to seeing their employees every day. "They think they are in control when they see their employees sitting every day behind a desk," he says.

"So it's not always easy for management, but they have to adapt, because there are a lot of young people who have grown up with digital technologies and they expect to have the possibility to work in a more flexible way."

The 'Smart Work Centre' concept fits into a wider trend of modern management based on objectives and results, in which people are encouraged to take more responsibility for their own work, instead of being judged on the basis of how many hours they are "at work".

According to Tijl, Amsterdam is aiming to become a connected and digital city where people can work wherever and whenever they want. He says that many young people are actively choosing to work for companies that encourage smart working practices.

For policymakers in the Netherlands, the 'Smart Work Centre' concept is seen as just one of many different ideas that are being tried out, all with the aim of saving energy and reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Benefits for employees and bosses

But 'Smart Work Centres' also bring benefits to individuals, who can have a more flexible working week and a better life-work balance, as well as employers, who can save money by reducing the amount of office space they provide for their staff.

"In Amsterdam, one of the things we have learned is that in the past we planned too much office space," says Tijl. He believes that digital technologies will inevitably lead to people adopting more flexible approaches to where and when they work.

Tijl thinks that 'Smart Work Centres' would also work in other countries if they were adapted to fit in with different national cultures. For example, most countries don't have as many people using bicycles as Holland does, so their centres would have to be easy to reach by public transport.

But it seems that the Dutch have no doubts about the benefits of smart working practices for the environment and for the economy – by making it possible to reduce CO2 emissions and achieve 'green growth' – as well as for individuals and society in general.

As Tijl explains: "If people can be more productive in a different environment – either at home or in a Smart Work Centre, then maybe they can do the same amount of work in less time, which gives them more time for other things."

Back in July 1997, the European Commission adopted a set of policy recommendations on the social dimension of the Information Society, including commitments to promote tele-work in Europe.

In July 2002, the European social partners sealed an agreement on tele-work, the first ever of its kind. The deal introduced the same common basic protections for tele-workers to those which are guaranteed to traditional office workers.

The application of the agreement was considered a success by European trade unions themselves. In a 2006 report, they underlined the positive aspects of the implementation of the tele-work deal across the EU (EURACTIV 11/10/06).

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