In this fascinating conversation, you'll hear that when the Belgian Federal Ministry of Social Security has implemented their Novo change programme, to transition to the new world of work the number of people who previously worked part-time and then requested shifting into full time has been very impressive. This is just one snippet from a very inspiring conversation we recorded with Gerrit Van de Mosselaer.
What follows here are snippets from our conversation with Gerrit - edited for length and clarity - make sure you listen to the entire conversation for the great insight! To connect with and follow the work of Gerrit, check out his Twitter profile.
Agnes Uhereczky: Today’s discussion is with Gerrit Van de Mosselaer, and the topic of our conversation is the new world of work. We touch upon especially how this is possible, and how it was implemented in the Belgian public service. Gerrit, I would like to ask you to start with explaining to listeners the concept that you and your colleagues branded Novo and how this workplace and change programme started at the Federal Public Service - Social Security in Belgium.
Gerrit Van de Mosselaer: I'm lucky to have been able to witness this new way of working in our administration. To explain it in detail would be a very long story. I'll try to be as short as possible because we started back in 2003 and 2004 already which aimed at transforming our administration into a modern public administration. For this, we created at that time a transformation programme called Novo, which is ‘new’ in Portuguese. As listeners might know we use three different languages in Belgium, which often tends to be a sensitive topic, so we have chosen a Portuguese name for the transformation programme.
At the launch of the initiative, it was the ambition of our former President of the Board of Directors to become a modern administration because he was aware of the increasingly important war for talent not just in the private but in the public sector as well. He wanted the organisation to become an attractive employer for young people, for young potentials. He was creating a vision and ambition that set out for people to be able to be autonomous in their work and to be able to balance their private and professional lives in the best way possible. So, he created the vision of 'people should be the directors of their own lives' - even if they are working in our administration. They started by analyzing the situation after which the transformation programme, Novo, was created. The programme was composed of different components; it took HR, ICT, knowledge management or facilities into account, as at that time we also took advantage of moving out of our offices in Brussels to a new building. We wanted to introduce remote work in our organisation, we also wanted to work when and wherever we wanted, and create a result-driven organisation instead of one that is a presence driven.
That was a big shift in the mindset of our organisation. People were used to being present at the office from 9 to 5. Chiefs and managers were used to having their colleagues around them and asking them whatever they wanted to do. We wanted to shift the paradigm giving our colleagues the freedom to work where and when they wanted based on a result-driven approach. So, at that time, after the analysis and planning phase, we moved into our new offices on 1 January 2009. Since then we have been using remote working. The legal framework foresees that we can do that three days per week. We shuffled our organisation in a way that set results at the level of the organisation, individuals and teams. This was a big challenge for us to do so. We also adopted our offices in task-driven rooms, task-driven spaces. These include spaces for concentration work, meetings, brainstorming, which provided us with a facility challenge. We reduced our office spaces as a result of us introducing remote working on a large scale. It has been an important advantage for the organisation that we were able to move our offices.
So there was already a change going on for people in terms of the facility aspect, to which they were invited to contribute through working group discussions. These groups worked on determining the look and feel of the new offices. This was a huge advantage. It was a chance for us to make a change in the mindsets of our colleagues, mainly in the mindset of creating a results-driven organisation. In brief, this is the approach, the mindset of the Novo programme composed of different elements. And we had some elements that were more put into advance as a consequence of moving into the new office building. These were, for instance, facility, ICT or document management. But I would also like to add that there were challenges from the aspects of HRM that existed before and after the move, especially, how our colleagues were able to work based on results, and how managers were able to determine these objectives and have these interactions with their direct people.
Agnes Uhereczky: This is exactly what I was about to ask you. Especially now during the lockdowns and forced teleworking across the Globe, as one of the biggest challenges for managers is to define the results and the objectives that they expect of employees. How were you able to break down the individual assignments into manageable chunks, and results and objectives they were working towards?
Gerrit Van de Mosselaer: It is a tailor-made work. It has been a real challenge for most of the people, for most of the employees and line managers because we had to create a new habit. We were not used to discussing objectives, results, which was always ad-hoc earlier. I would say that it was reactive to the things that were popping up from the agendas of Ministers, or certain policy priorities. Now, we need to foresee and predict a little bit the future. We have a legal framework that obliges the public sector in Belgium, on an annual basis, to determine objectives based on both quantitative and qualitative measures. This includes objectives on teamwork as well as service quality. We have chosen to oblige to this legal framework on a large scale and to have guidance to our line managers and employees to hold continuous discussions about these objectives and results to be achieved.
It has been a tailor-made investment because we all have different competencies, tasks and responsibilities within our organisation. We are a public sector organisation, so this was a large investment from our HRM department to have training and guidance about how to have these continuous dialogues between employees and line managers to determine which results have to be achieved in the next one year or six months. But we also focused on having a level of flexibility because we are investing in these kinds of interactions permanently, and we determine objectives at the employee, manager and team level. We are determining objectives and we try to change them a little bit every year also. So, this is why this has been challenging for our employees as well.
One element I did not mention in the transformation programme was the creation of the values of the organisation. We invested in 5 organisation values and promoted them within the organisation and teams. We have been organizing workshops with colleagues to translate these organisational values within their teams. Each team had a workshop at the time of the change progress which focused on translating the organisational values into daily practices. This has been also guidance for teams on how they can develop themselves and the objectives of the organisation.
This is a continuous investment. This is a permanent investment to have these dialogues. But, we have seen during the lockdown that we were very easily able to shift our remote work practice to a permanent basis because we already had these transparent discussions and context in place that made it possible discuss objectives daily, without having too many problems for us to adapt to a new challenging context, or demand we get from our stakeholders.
This is an investment that you need to choose to do.
You also need to be aware that you will need to put your people in the centre of your attention, taking into account the fact they need to be autonomous in their lives that also concerns their work-life balance. This also includes the creation of a culture that is based on feedback, transparency, permanent dialogue to discuss results and objectives. We have seen from our experience that by putting people - and their wellbeing - in the centre of the attention will result in an increased level of engagement. Different elements have been connected which makes it possible to have this transparent dialogue about results and objectives within the organisation. But, you have to pay attention to it and invest time, dialogue into it. It is not something self-evident, with which you will need to be creative as well.
Agnes Uhereczky: Thank you very much for walking us through this process, and its different elements. I think this conversation in a way could be a wakeup call for organisations, leaders and managers listening and a reality check into the current situation when many of them have sent their employees home and it did not work. From our conversation, it is evident why. Because many of the organisations were only catering to the physical, technological, and safety aspect of the remote working. But these swiftly assembled work practices could be jeopardized if organisations haven't laid the foundations before, or if they haven't done all this groundwork, on values, communication and performance. They were the ones that struggled now because there was a communication breakdown between employees and managers about what some of the employees working from home were not clear about what they were expected to do from home.
Gerrit Van de Mosselaer: Yes, right. For us remote work has never been an objective as such. It only contributed to the creation of a modern organisational culture that is autonomous. We have also seen that investing in transparent dialogue, feedback culture etc. makes it easier to create these positive dynamics into the organisation and the engagement of the employees even if they are working remotely. It has been an advantage for us during the last period. But we now have other challenges. From our perspective, remote working is a cultural element.
Agnes Uhereczky: In 2003 and 2006 was the organisation anticipating the investment and work that were needed to go into this? Or, some of it emerged organically?
Gerrit Van de Mosselaer: Certain aspects emerged during the process. We did not anticipate some of the issues, which we could not anticipate at that time, because this was a big change for the organisation. We have seen, for example, that we needed to invest more than what we anticipated in providing more guidance to the line managers for them to be able to run dialogues with colleagues, and set objectives. We asked them to have confidence within their employees working remotely. We asked them to let their level of control go because previously everybody was present at the office.
As a consequence, we needed to invest more in line managers training as they were struggling in figuring out the best way to manage employees if they don't see them every week, or they are not always present in the office.
Also, they needed support to figure out how they can manage interactions within their team members. Therefore, we created a special training programme for line managers, which was an intervention training workshop. This was something we didn't anticipate at the creation of the change management programme.
However, we anticipated that the office space we provided before the move in Brussels was large and we needed less. This was also impacted by the fact that we introduced remote working. Therefore, we needed to change some of our interiors in our new offices. In the beginning, we created more concentration desks but shortly after the move, and the launch of the Novo programme, we learnt that our colleagues were planning to carry out their concentration works from their home, and only come to the offices to meet and brainstorm with their peers. As a matter of fact, in the end, we needed fewer concentration desks and more spaces for meetings and brainstorming.
Also, we did not anticipate - which we could only analyse after the shift - that more people will be shifting back full-time work from part-time positions, because they were able to balance their work and private life more easily after the launch of our remote working scheme. It was not big but a real positive effect.
In sum, there were some negative and positive lessons we learnt from the process. More importantly, something we learnt along the way, is that you have to be open to continuously change something. To give you one more example let me just highlight that we change our interior in our offices continuously, taking into account our needs and demands of our employees.
Agnes Uhereczky: If I could ask you - from all this experience you have gathered - what would be your single one, most important, advice to senior managers and leaders who are sitting on the fence whether they should go all-in into such transformation, or the new world of work, or Novo types projects?
Gerrit Van de Mosselaer: I would say that leaders should not think that they have to create, organise and change themselves, but involve their direct colleagues, employees and their entire organisations. We have seen this as a big advantage that we have involved all our employees in the change. We did not use many external consultants except in the areas where we did not have internal expertise. Involve your employees and colleagues and the entire organisation in the change you want to create!