The ONE: the latest casualty of the hot-desking policy of the Commission

A silent revolution, without the involvement of staff and staff representatives.

One year ago, on Friday 13 March 2020, we were all told to go home and start teleworking. No one would have imagined at the time that by now the vast majority of staff would still be doing compulsory 100% telework.

However, while we are sitting at home doing our best to continue delivering on our objectives in spite of all the difficulties created by the pandemic, in our empty buildings things are moving fast. A silent revolution, already well under way, pre-Corona, continues full steam ahead: from DG BUDG, to DG TRADE, to the new Publications Office (OP) (POST-Mercier), to the Jean Monnet 2 (JMO2) and now rue de la Loi.

Taking advantage of the sense of urgency created by the pandemic and of the disconnection among staff members generated by teleworking, DG HR and the Office for Infrastructure and Logistics in Brussels (OIB) and Luxembourg (OIL) continue to work on radical change to the working environment. This is especially the case for the new buildings in Brussels ‘The ONE’ (L107) and ‘Copernicus’ (L51), both in rue de la Loi, where the Commission plans to house a large number of staff in a hot-desking environment (‘dynamic collaborative space’). Basically, this means that desks will be in an open-space setting and will not be assigned. The number of available desks will be only 80% or even 70% of the number of staff [1]. So staff will be condemned to book a spot in advance and hope for the best: what if one has to come to the office for urgent work and there is no available desk reasonably close to colleagues and managers? Will that colleague have to look for a free desk 15 or 20 floors above? What about assistants who need to be close to their manager and to one another to carry out their duties? And teams that need close cooperation? Also, we wonder what will happen with people whose job involves many calls or conversations: will they be allowed to permanently use the few ‘quiet rooms’ available, depriving the others of the possibility to use them whenever they need some silence and concentration, or to make a call? Will people choose to isolate themselves in those ‘quiet rooms’ that have no natural light and are therefore cannot legally be considered ‘office space’?

Most importantly, this is being done without duly involving staff and the staff representation. The director-general of DG HR stated that ‘We cannot consult our staff on where we are going, the decision is beyond our reach [1].’

It is unacceptable that such decisions are taken without any negotiation with trade unions and staff associations (OSPs) [Organisations syndicales et professionnelles] and without the necessary consultation with staff – as prescribed by the 2019 Communication on The Workplace of the Future in the European Commission [2] and the draft Housing Conditions Manual (HCM) for Commission services – Part 3 [3][4]. The first meeting to discuss ‘The ONE’ was held only on 15 February 2021, after staff in different DGs had already been informed that they would soon move to this new hot-desking environment. So, it seems that when staff representatives are finally called to discuss the new building policy of the Commission, everything is already decided, as has happened already elsewhere [5].

What is more, information – and disinformation – reported by the Belgian press increase the concerns of staff: certainly not what we need in the midst of a global pandemic when our lives are put on hold, and we live in the hope that the vaccines will bring back our basic freedoms.

For these reasons, Generation 2004 has united with the other OSPs as a common front to speak up against such practices and defend the rights of all colleagues. We sent a joint email to all Brussels colleagues stating our common position and organised a specific survey for those DGs that are supposed to move to hot-desking in the next few months. We deem it absolutely necessary to consult staff and listen to what our colleagues think about the future of their workplace. Surveys will be conducted also for any other DG that will be involved in this process as soon as we receive more information on the plans of the administration. Please reply to the survey if you have received it and contact us if you have any question or input on this matter.

While the staff representation is uniting to listen to colleagues, hierarchy is simply informing them that they will have to move into a hot-desking environment, although it is completely unclear what this will entail. Especially as the draft housing manual of the Commission setting out the rule for hot-desking has been gathering dust since 2015 and was never approved. So, in principle no hot-desking environment can be implemented as the rules to do it simply do not exist: tell that to DG BUDG and other colleagues already working in these environments!

The Brussels Committee for prevention and protection at work (CPPT) [Comité pour la prévention et la protection au travail], a body whose existence is prescribed by the Belgian law, must be consulted in all decision concerning new working environments. However, so far it has received nothing related to ‘The ONE’ and ‘Copernicus’, except for very general statements, despite asking repeatedly to be involved without any delay.

The only thing the CPPT (including us at Generation 2004) could do so far is visiting the new The ONE building a few weeks ago. But we were not positively impressed. The two floors we were allowed to walk through (while construction work was still ongoing) are arranged only for hot-desking. And while the ‘simple’ soldiers have only a non-assigned desk at their disposal (provided that they find one available) directors are treated to large individual corner offices, with the luxury of space and natural lighting. Even the furniture, as admitted by the director of OIB in a meeting on 15 February, is of higher quality!

The rest of the staff instead will only have a small locker at the entrance to the floor (just like the one you have at the gym) for personal belongings. No cupboard, no drawers, no storage space whatsoever. Not even for the time you use the workstation. Beware of leaving your phone or bag lying around: will you leave it on the desk or take it with you wherever you go? Even including the toilet?

Generation 2004 requested one again that impact assessments of each new measure, and of them all taken together, be conducted before implementing any change, coupled with in-depth risk analyses to identify potential problems and set out appropriate solutions. These solutions should be part of the negotiation with the staff representation.

In fact, plenty of research shows the negative effect on staff well-being and productivity of hot-desking and open-space offices. Such effects include increased distrust, distractions, uncooperative behaviour and negative relationships, together with a decreased perception of support from supervisors. Other negative consequences found out in research studies are employee marginalisation, indifference and inattention to co-workers, loss of identity and decreased organisational commitment. Not to mention increased in the absence rate and the spread of infectious diseases: an element of the outmost importance as the COVID-19 pandemic will not end any time soon.

As a consequence, the minimum we expect from the administration is that the huge savings that will be made on the buildings are at least partially reinvested to guarantee the health and well-being of staff and offset the new risks created by the so-called new ways of working. It is in fact proven that extensive teleworking, open-plan and hot-desking environments, and decreased social interaction, can increase psychosocial risks [6]. The workplace should be designed to support well-being and productivity. One first very small step in that direction (to be done in tandem with the inclusion of staff in the whole process of redesigning offices in any way, as outlined above) would be to have in the new buildings sport facilities for staff – as discussed already with the former director of OIB. This would at the very least show willingness to put staff well-being at the centre of building policy and such facilities are already available in other institutions, such as the European Investment Bank (EIB). Don’t Commission staff deserve to be treated at least as well as our colleagues in other institutions?

As always, if you have questions or comments, feel free to contact us.

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[1] DG HR management meetings debrief – 18 January 2021: said at 13:50.

See also from 10.20 onwards: the future holds more extensive telework but we will still have the option of being 100% office based if we like. Most new buildings will have a dynamic office configuration: most buildings were only occupied 70% pre-COVID. 13:20 ‘We are going to dynamic space, I want to be clear on that: whatever building we go to it will be in dynamic space.’

[2] p.1 ‘Decisions on the workplace are just as fundamental as organisational structures and can be even more long-lasting. They should not be taken lightly, but after due consideration, with support from experts in the field and in consultation with staff. This requires effective support for Commission teams who are going through changes in their workplace and a consistent application of the approach set out in this Communication.’ [Bold is not present in the original]

Luxembourg Local Staff Committee issued a formal opinion on the ‘future way of working’ (11 March 2021) highlighting the need for social dialogue.

The New Normal – how our collaborative space will look (24.2.2021)

[3] Part 3 is not yet published, parts 1 (English and French) and 2 (French only) are available on My OIB.

[4] European Parliament, 2020, Open Plan Offices – The new ways of working: The advantages and disadvantages of open office space [bold is not present in the original]

  1. 10: Conclusion

The concept of open office spaces is a topic of discussion. While it could contribute to the reduction of costs, improve team work and communication it affects employees overall well-being and productivity. The future of open office space is unsure with the outbreak of Covid-19, as diseases spread faster in an open office space where people are closer to one another. Some researchers suggest that open office space will continue for those companies that need a high level of team work and to save costs in the long term. The use of open office space should be based on the common goal of the company and they should communicate these goals to their employees. The best way to let employees adjust better to an open office space is to include them in the designing process. This will make the goals of the new work environment clear and helps them to create the best working space for them. In the end this could help to avoid the pitfalls of open office spaces.

[5] 11.03.2021 Luxembourg Local Staff Committee Opinion on the Commission’s future way of working: ‘Staff Representatives provide for checks and balances in the daily working conditions and must play their role. Only then one can be sure that no stone is left unturned to ensure proper working conditions allowing Staff to best serve the Commission for the challenges ahead.’

[6] European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA): Psychosocial risks arise from poor work design, organisation and management, as well as a poor social context of work, and they may result in negative psychological, physical and social outcomes such as work-related stress, burnout or depression. Some examples of working conditions leading to psychosocial risks are:

  • Excessive workloads
  • Conflicting demands and lack of role clarity
  • Lack of involvement in making decisions that affect the worker and lack of influence over the way the job is done
  • Poorly managed organisational change, job insecurity
  • Ineffective communication, lack of support from management or colleagues
  • Psychological and sexual harassment, third party violence

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