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Jul 7, 2015

Brussels – breaking the rules




Yesterday, like a lot of others, I took the train into central London. However it was just the start of my journey as I was off to Brussels by Eurostar.  As we sped through the Kent countryside I wondered what my visit to the Belgian Social Security Services HQ (FPS) might produce.  Having met Frank van Massenhove the Chairman, I was intrigued by the thought of how a public service entity might be a beacon for agile and distributed work. For many observers, this on the face of it seems implausible. I could hear the voices of the incredulous mutter; – agile work is for the TMT sector or companies such as Google or tech start-ups.  There is little chance of a public service group based in a highly unionised country, in a city synonymous with bureaucracy, achieving a 21st century workplace. The only solution was to go and see for myself.  I was really glad to have made the trip as what I found was truly amazing and an inspiration for any organisation grappling with how to survive in today’s tough business climate.

Having found my way to my destination in Brussels central business district having successfully navigated the metro I approached the 36 story Finance Tower and its imposing yet traditional reception area. My heart dropped as I feared this visit was going to be just another office! Things changed when I stepped up to the FPS reception desk to be greeted by an array of smiling faces. This set the tone for an amazing few hours.



Frank van M.7 July

Frank van Massenhove in his lair



Walking around the space it struck me that this is a different sort of workplace. I came across lots of smiling faces.  Why was everyone so pleasant? This didn’t fit the stereotype view of people delivering a back office function for a public service.  I was able to get some answers from my chat with Frank van Massenhove the amazing and disarming Chairman who along with his team have reshaped this 1,100 person organisation into a truly agile working group. Having heard Frank tell his story on a number of occasions both at IFMA and ThinkFM conferences I was keen to get a better sense of how this transformation took place. As Frank doesn’t have an office we chatted in one of the meeting pods which typifies how this organisation functions. It is simple, airy and accessible to all.




Here are some soundbites from our conversation;-

  • It is all about finding the right people
  • BYOD will be standard in a few years.
  • Files should follow staff
  • Corporate cultures need to change fundamentally


The FPS space is totally different to the majority of the Finance Tower.  One thing that struck me was the pristine nature of the floors. Having been refurbished in 2009 one would expect to see evidence of wear and tear but not here. Could this be because people treat their space differently?  Certainly there was no clutter and very little paper in sight. I learned that there is only one printer per floor and the majority of work is digital.  This has enabled FPS to revolutionise the way they work.  In terms of space layouts they use team table and there are no assigned spaces.  There are plenty of options for break out spaces and for quiet work.  What struck me most was working practices – FPS people can choose where and when to work.  It is truly an outcomes based organisation – one that has broken the rules of command and control.  For those who are interested in metrics here is a random sample of factoids;-

  • The agile programme reduced space by 30%
  • Annual savings of €5m
  • Payback of 18 months on office re-configuration
  • 84% reduction in paper
  • 92% of staff can work from home
  • 69% actively use the option of home working
  • 3% of the CEO’s time is spent in the office.


The FPS story demonstrates that agility is not just for the private sector – it can be achieved anywhere and with any type of organisation.  During my visit Frank and I chatted about a wide range of topics plus music!  We focused on people not space or property deals or construction. Whilst these are ingredients in the overall mix I sometimes wonder are they given too much prominence. It reinforces my view that you cannot divorce people and place when it comes to smart spaces and places.

Frank and team

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