Hot Desking at the One

Hot Desking at the One

Agora #87

For some the office was the quiet place away from family where they could concentrate, for others, their home office was an isolation.

Last year the Commission moved several services into the brand new office building called “The One”. Located on Brussels’s Rue de la Loi, near the Schuman Train Station and the Maelbeek Metro Station, the building is architecturally interesting with its use of black and white panels in a variety of sizes. Within the building, the office space has been arranged in accordance with the new buildings policy of the Office for Infrastructure and Logistics in Brussels (OIB). Their aim? To reduce the Commission’s office space by 50% through the introduction of hotdesking and increased teleworking.

During the Coronavirus pandemic, while the Belgian authorities imposed teleworking, this must have seemed like a no-brainer. As the coronavirus rules are eased and we are encouraged to reconnect with colleagues in physical meetings, it is a good time to ask how this new way of working is experienced by those who work there.

In March 2021 staff from the Commission’s IT service, DIGIT, were the first to occupy the building, followed in June by staff from DG HR, and then by Interpretation (SCIC) and the Selection Office EPSO. In September 2021 staff were “invited” to return several days a week to the office.

I went in search of colleagues from these services to gather their impressions of the new working conditions and rules in The One.

1. How was moving to The One Building presented to you?

Marie : The move was announced as compulsory. We had to leave the existing building, due to the termination of the lease. In addition, we were told that we were moving to hot-desking, due to the willingness of the staff to work partly from home, a measure appreciated under COVID. The One on Rue de la Loi 107 was not discussed in the Commission’s Joint Committee on Prevention (CPPT). This was an obligation. No risk analysis beforehand; the file will be presented to the CPPT 100 days after the resumption of full employment.

Ana : The move to The One building was announced to the staff at the end of February/beginning of March 2021 by the Director. After the announcement, messages followed to prepare the move itself. Pictures were also published on the EPSO intranet. The move took place in July 2021.

Sam : It was presented in regular Town Hall meetings hosted by the Director General where staff could ask questions and comment live (on Teams). The lease contract on two buildings occupied by DG HR on Rue Montoyer and Rue de la Science (MO34 and SC11) was due to expire. In line with the European Green Deal and ‘Greening the Commission’ project, all Commission offices will move to a greener and more energy efficient environment aiming for carbon neutrality by 2030. The One was designed as a ‘green’ building.

2. How did you imagine it would be like to work in the building before you moved in and what were your first impressions when you arrived?

Marie : I had the chance to participate in the OIB visits. During this visit, I could see that the format was imposed by the OIB without consultation with the staff. Everything was uniform, without any consideration of the specific needs of each unit. These needs were subsequently addressed, but not completely. This lack of consideration for the needs of the staff is now leading to stress. It was a copy/paste of the OIB open spaces of seven or eight years ago. The spaces were not adapted to the needs of a real hybrid working environment. A stereotype that does not make room for people (the question arises of an inadequate occupancy forecast).

Ana : I was concerned about having to work in The One, as I felt that the open-plan system did not provide the best conditions for work that requires precision, care and attention. Furthermore, in terms of confidentiality and discretion, it did not seem ideal either. In practice, I cannot say that I really moved into The One because of the COVID situation. However, I did go to work in the building on two occasions and went there on other occasions to drop off documents.

In terms of layout, the space is what I expected to see: new furniture in a large space. The open spaces are long and not very wide with movable partitions. It is not really ideal for working. Of course, it is possible to take a “silent room” if you want to work in peace and quiet or if you have a virtual meeting scheduled. However, in the open space, work is disrupted by colleagues talking on the phone or talking to each other or by colleagues passing by (you have to arrive early to get a good spot!). During my visits, I came across two or three colleagues who were working on site. Obviously, as there were not many people there, the atmosphere was calm. However, it was enough for a colleague to talk on the phone to require putting the headphones back on (absolutely must be used in open spaces!) to reduce the noise. It should be noted that most people tend to speak louder when they use the headset. When the occupation becomes more regular, it will be very difficult to concentrate.

Sam : Staff were able to do a ‘virtual’ visit of The One online. I have worked in open plan offices for many years in the private sector (before joining the Commission) so I had a good idea based on this experience. My first impressions were positive. The One is bright, clean and well designed. All furniture and appliances are new and cleaned regularly. The meeting rooms have state of art technology, allowing for efficient hybrid meetings. The cafeteria offers a panoramic view of Brussels.

3. How do you integrate newcomers to your team in The One building?

Marie : This question is not applicable. The integration was done remotely during the whole COVID period. Newcomers will have to work in a hybrid mode like the rest of us.

Sam : So far, my team has not yet integrated a newcomer.

4. How does working in The One building compare with your previous office?

Marie : I was lucky enough to occupy an open space that we had designed with the OIB. The spaces corresponded to the team’s activity. The furniture was adapted to the great flexibility.

Ana : As far as working in The One is concerned, from what I have seen there is no comparison! I think that as soon as the offices are regularly occupied, the impact of this new way of working will be visible. EPSO’s permanent panel members have been allocated offices in the Van Maerlant building VM 18, which allows us to work in good conditions and not worry about returning to the office regularly.

Sam : I prefer The One to MO34 and SC11, both of which I found old-fashioned.

5. Which aspects of the new office are an advantage you think could be replicated elsewhere?

Marie : The concepts of spaces according to the type of activity, provided that there is genuine teamwork.

Ana : This type of office arrangement works well for certain types of services where the exchange and sharing of experience/information is essential. It already exists elsewhere and, I think, it works well.

Sam : Heads of Unit do not have their own office, so managers appear more accessible to their staff and engaging with them is less formal than before. Talking to colleagues in your direct team is easier as we are all within the same ‘pod’ (before we were in our own offices). The preparation for the move in DG HR was well done with regular consultation meetings, and troubleshooting.

6. What works less well?

Marie : The difficulties of managing the spaces that will undoubtedly take place (on the DG HR website there is already an announcement that the meeting rooms will be used as buffers in the event of too many people), the common spaces (showers, common changing rooms, access to the bicycle parking areas) do not comply with the texts on health and safety at work; the lifting tables are insufficient in number. It seems that there was no occupational physician to give an opinion and advice on the layout.

Ana : On the other hand, the open space does not work well for functions where an individual has to do meticulous work while being careful to be discreet and keep files confidential. It can be very stressful and error prone.

Sam : The lifts are slow so it takes more or less 10 minutes to reach higher floors from the ground floor. As we bring our own laptop to the desk in the mornings, logging on takes a bit longer than in the previous building. Staff in other teams/pods are careful to not disturb others or to make noise, so people speak in quiet voices out of respect. With time, we should become more comfortable with each other.

7. Does the new office encourage you to come to the office or to telework?

Marie : Unfortunately, this is not the way to look at things.

Ana : It is obvious that if I did not have the opportunity to work at the Van Maerlant, I would avoid coming back to the office as much as possible.

Sam : In general, I have a preference for teleworking but I like going to the new office to see colleagues and to work on team projects together. Lunch at the Berlaymont canteen (opposite) has become a regular occurrence.

8. Do you have anything to add?

Sam : I would give the following advice to staff who are apprehensive about moving to a dynamic office: do not overthink it. It is normal to be nervous in the beginning but the fact that everyone in the DG is moving gives staff (and management) the opportunity to make it a collective success. Do not be afraid to voice your concerns but at the same time, try to see it as an opportunity to work differently and more collaboratively.

Over the past two years of coronavirus rules, we have adapted to teleworking. For some the office was the quiet place away from family where they could concentrate, for others, their home office was the quiet, not always welcome, isolation. With the end of the coronavirus rules in sight and the myriad of changes in our working practices and expectations, one thing is clear: any change to working conditions need to be thoroughly discussed and prepared well in advance with staff to find the best solutions for them and their team. Staff involvement and ownership is key to a successful change.

With several horizontal services come together in The One and the new building being heralded the example of the way forward for the Commission I am reminded of Heraclitus tenth fragment, “The one is made up of all things, and all things issue from the one” (ἐκ πάντων ἓν καὶ ἐξ ἑνὸς πάντα).

Frances McFadden


Frances is an AST who has worked in various areas of the Council of European Union since she joined in 2000, including External Relations, Training and IT. She is currently the Chair of the Staff Committee.