During the California gold rush, prospectors would literally “stake their claim” by putting four stakes in the ground to mark their territory before they dug for hidden treasure, and other prospectors would respect the claim as off-limits as long as the spot wasn’t abandoned.
Under Siemens Financial Services’ new office concept, called the New Way of Working, or NewWow, outside of a few C-level employees, none of the unit’s 215 workers in the New Jersey office have traditional desks, offices or cubicles. Each day they come to work and can sit wherever they like. But unlike those forty-niners seeking their pot of gold in the Old West, Siemens’ workers cannot stake their claim forever — there’s no saving seats.
Workers at the financial branch of the engineering giant get a locker to store their things, and employees are able to use their laptops to access Voice Over Internet Protocol technology to make phone calls from wherever they’re sitting.
The NewWow office concept is part of a larger workforce strategy to promote collaboration that started at the company’s headquarters in Munich and has been rolling out in other Siemens locations over the past couple of years. Besides allowing employees to move about the cabin that is their new office, workers can telecommute for added flexibility.
The idea of open work spaces is not new, according to a Harvard Business Review article. In 1987 Scandinavian Airlines redesigned its headquarters to promote informal interactions, but with little success. According to the story, there are an equal number of studies showing open floor plans promote interaction as there are reports that find the opposite to be true.
Besides the new office concept, Siemens is in a state of transition right now. New CEO Joe Kaeser, who took over in August, said the company would be eliminating 15,000 positions worldwide, or about 4 percent of its workforce. Meanwhile, the company’s stock has jumped nearly 17 percent in the past three months.
“Whatever Works” recently caught up with Mitch Douglass, Siemens Financial’s vice president of human resources business partner, to talk about the NewWow office construct and strategy and to see if the company struck gold.
Whatever Works: Tell me a little bit about the New Way of Working program and why you decided to bring it to Siemens.
Mitch Douglass: It started over in our Munich headquarters. And it really is the opportunity to kind of work mobility and collaboration together — getting away from the old office construct into something that’s a lot more open, which should encourage, and actually I’ve seen it, people getting together more about issues and ideas.
WW: So the employees come in one day and you tell them, ‘You’re not going to have your own space, but you get to sit wherever you want.’ What do they say about that?
Douglass: I won’t tell you that right from the beginning did everybody go, ‘Wow. This is the greatest thing that ever happened in the world.’ There were some employees that, you know, they’d been in offices or in a construct kind of a workplace for a long time. And, yeah, there was resistance, but the things that we tried to do is be really frank and open about what we were moving to well ahead of schedule. … So it’s not a flip of the switch and everybody was thinking, ‘This is wonderful.’ It takes a little bit of time.
WW: Where do workers store their stuff, like their files?
Douglass: Let’s start with files and move from there. One of the things we did a few months ago before we transitioned off of this floor while they were constructing it, was a lot of things were put into electronic files. People have talked about doing that for a long time. I look at my own HR department. I had a whole file room filled with current employee and past employee files, a bunch of data. But you know what, some of it we looked at from time to time. So we were able to get all of the files of termed employees off to an outside vendor for storage. Everything else was scanned.
Each one of us has a locker, and in there we can put things like any files that we might need that we’re working on. Some people have bags in there, and they put their stapler and their pens or any of the resources that they need. Even down to some people put in a picture frame or a coffee mug, and then they lock their stuff up overnight and bring it out the next day.
WW: So is there a first-come, first-served rule?
Douglass: I will tell you that in the beginning we had to make sure that we were clear with everybody that there is no reservation. So because, let’s say, I get in early and my colleague, we’re good friends. If my colleague doesn’t get in, I can’t put a little sticker on the dashboard or put my stuff over there to say, ‘No, no, no. Sorry. Mary’s coming in in an hour. That’s Mary’s.’
WW: So how has this affected collaboration?
Douglass: I’m just going to look right outside the conference room that I’m at. There’s probably four, five people that are standing near or sitting near someone else that rolled up a chair. And they’re talking about things. I know in the ‘neighborhood’ that I work in — and I sit with HR and legal — we have far more conversations and we will come over and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Did you think about this or did you try it this way?’ I will tell you that I have seen a lot more interaction with people.
WW: Do you have any examples or anecdotes about collaboration?
Douglass: I think that what I would tell you in an experience perspective is that it was funny watching people manage through the change. The things they thought were going to be huge issues aren’t issues, whether it’s about, ‘I’m concerned if I get in late that day, I’m not going to have somewhere to sit. You’re going to make me work out of my car.’ …
So the pre-conceptions people had about either noise or not being able to find a seat or it’s too cold and it’s not going to be very personal because you’re not going to see pictures, all of the sudden those pre-conceptions kind of got pushed to the side real quick. And, yes, there’s a little bit more noise than before, but it’s a good activity. So I would say, if anything, the pre-conceptions didn’t last long.
WW: So tell me a little bit about the telecommuting aspect of this. If the goal is collaboration, isn’t telecommuting counterintuitive?
Douglass: Moving to this open construct was not around making more people work from home than before. It was more about giving people opportunities to work from a different location or work from here, whatever would work best. We don’t have a vast number of people working from home on a regular basis. It’s just another option for people.
WW: What advice would you give to a company considering a similar workplace?
Douglass: I would tell them that the biggest key with all of this is when they start to discuss it and start their planning, communicate and involve employees. The more that they can get used to the idea, and the more that they can ask questions, allows you to plan better and maybe make a couple of changes or accommodations or tweaks, so that ultimately when you move people into this new construct, it’s not a dramatic change.
James Tehrani is Workforce’s assistant managing editor. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Tehrani on Twitter at @WorkforceJames and like his blog on Facebook at "Whatever Works" blog.