The situation at the European Innovation Council and SMEs Executive Agency (Eismea) is no bedtime story – staff reductions, reorganisation, unfinished offices, a car park which is unsafe for bikes, and where most of the parking spots remain occupied with bulky office furniture, platoons of builders roaming the building without displaying identification: a fundamental requirement under the current alert level to which all Commission buildings are subject.
The original plan for agencies
The European Innovation Council (EIC) was to be an amazing and visionary initiative, a flagship programme to identify, develop, and scale up breakthrough technologies. It has all the ingredients to be a game-changer serving as a catalyser for innovation in Europe. Expected at first to be its own decentralised organisation (agency), it was to foster entrepreneurship and lead to the creation of unicorns and minotaurs in Europe. Unfortunately, the EIC would see its grandiose plans crumble as a result of Covid and ever-changing political priorities. The decision was taken to have the EIC housed under the roof of Eismea, one of the 6 executive agencies. Eismea would bring together bits and pieces of programmes that did not fit anywhere else. Eismea would then host the EIC together with legacy and new programmes for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
Yearly reductions in staff numbers
In 2021, a cost benefit analysis (CBA) was drawn up and the delegation of programmes and respective budgets decided (C(2021) 946 final). The downsizing of Eismea should not come as a big shock: that communication set out a plan for yearly staff reductions at Eismea. Numbers would drop from 388 staff members in 2021 to 327 staff members in 2027 (page 14, C(2021) 946 final). In fact, ad hoc funding became available through NextGeneration EU in 2022 leading to a slight adjustment in the expected size of Eismea: peak growth was to be expected in 2023, reaching 408 colleagues and from there to then start progressively shrinking to 331 in 2027.
Even when all the above information was publicly available, it seemed very counterintuitive to Eismea staff that the agency would grow, only to then substantially shrink in size over a short number of years.
This issue of the expected and necessary staff reduction was finally put on the table by Eismea management in 2022. Conversations began around this delicate matter. Staff members were told that Eismea was already up and running, and that less effort would be needed to keep it running than was originally needed to kick-start its operations. While this may seem logical when taken at face value, it is in stark contrast with the reality faced by many: the number of tasks has increased, processes and workflows have become more complex, (notably, the Horizon Europe framework programme requires a more hands-on approach from staff than its predecessor, Horizon 2020, ever did), and dwindling resources have led to unsustainable workloads. Regardless, the show must go on.
What did the audit say?
To add insult to injury, 2023 saw Eismea undergo an internal audit, the results of which, where the subject of countless rumours in the corridors, given management’s decision to limit access to the corresponding information to a very select few, contrary to one of the main principles Eismea is expected to operate under: transparency. Nonetheless, the audit results led to a major shift in the responsibilities of Eismea vis a vis its parent DG, DG Research and Innovation (DG RTD). The audit led to several tasks being taken back by the DG to be handled under their direct oversight, and along with the tasks, a number of colleagues were also siphoned off by the DG. An internal reorganisation was also planned.
Moving building at short notice
2023 still had plenty to offer Eismea staff, at least in terms of nasty surprises. After years of occupying Covent Garden, Eismea would relocate to the North Light Building. Staff were informed during an emergency Town Hall Meeting, called with a few days’ notice on the 5 of April 2023. The new building is located to the west of the North Station (Brussels), a downtrodden area of town which has been targeted by Brussels officials as an area ripe for gentrification (at some point in the future which might be rather far away), an area which has, on occasion, been used to house refugees, and where drug dealers and other unsavoury characters roam the streets.
Following Staff concerns about security in the area, and how well the building would be suited to Eismea’s way of working, another town hall meeting was called with the presence of the Office for Infrastructure and Logistics in Brussels (OIB) and DG Human Resources and Security (HR). Not only were staff concerns taken lightly, but the news was also sprung on staff that the building move was planned for September because another executive agency – the European Research Council Executive Agency (ERCEA) – had successfully contested the move and would stay in Covent Garden. For context, the European Research Executive Agency (REA), which was also to be exiled to the North Light Building had had over a year to plan their move. Eismea was given but a few months.
Hot-desking in open spaces
Staff concerns which went unanswered by the OIB and DG HR, were also brushed aside by an Eismea management bent on acquiescing to the Commission masters. The move would happen, and it would happen quickly. Staff were instructed to ‘travel light’ to the new building as there would be no storage space whatsoever other than small lockers where one could keep a pen and a stack of post-it notes. All plants, kitchenware and other amenities were to be left behind. These same issues are raised again and again as staff are pushed to hot desk, often while doing jobs wholly unsuited to working in open spaces.
In line with the Commission’s greening agenda, only the lucky few will have access to a parking spot, given the very limited number of parking spots available in the new building. And the cherry on the cake: while the move was taking place (from late July to mid- September) staff would not have an office to work from—so either telework at their own expense (from Belgium, naturally), or book desks in random Commission buildings. Good luck.
In hindsight, the moving period was not as bad as the rentrée has been. After about a month in the new building, staff have taken collaboration to a whole new level, hosting work meetings, while working side by side with construction workers who have been giving the ‘finishing’ (so they claim) touches to the building for over a month now.
Staff have been navigating a construction site since they were asked to return to an unfinished office space which, as expected, is far from being fit for purpose. Stakeholders are naturally unaware and still expect staff to deliver, making this period of the month particularly challenging given the large number of review meetings expected.
Remember the promised internal reorganisation? Staff are still waiting for it to become effective and to experience its aftermath. Brace yourselves.
At least not all is sombre. Staff now have access to their very own overpriced canteen. Maybe this will help them to swallow all the rest. Bon appétit.
 Eismea is a successor to Executive Agency for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (EASME) which finished 01.04.2021.
 Until the car park is made safe colleagues are to dismount and walk their bikes in or use the bike parking at the rear of the building. How well does this fit with greening and with inclusivity policies? Not all cyclists are fit and able: sometimes a bike is a way of maintaining mobility while less able to walk.
 MERP, Luxembourg is in a similar neighbourhood.
 OIB/OIL has openly declared that its plan is for the vast majority of Commission staff to move to hot-desking in open space (‘dynamic, collaborative space (DCS)’), while reducing the number of desks, parking spaces and canteens available.