Thursday, February 16, 2012

A new world of work for scientists

Last week, I went to visit two companies where the concept of "a new world of work" (het nieuwe werken in Dutch) has been implemented. Although I am always eager to try out new ways of working and new productivity tools, and even though the whole process is probably supervised by experts on organization psychology and management, I did have a few ideas on the side.

1. Going paperless requires another way of teaching 

Going paperless would be a nightmare for me. Just like that. All my research starts with a pencil and a piece of paper. I sketch general ideas, and draw little diagrams with forces on it. Lots of arrows, and some abstract symbols.
I cannot imagine doing this on a computer, for the simple reason that my mind would end up being preoccupied with how to use the computer program as opposed to the creative process itself.

In fact, I clearly remember one of my professors in Brussels stating that the goal of our studies was to have the right understanding of structures, such that we would be able to design a bridge in the jungle by sketching it on paper and calculating by hand.
This explains how I as an engineer have been raised, and how I develop my ideas. I didn't grow up sketching force flows on a computer. If we want researchers and engineers to go paperless, we probably will have to teach them during their studies how to work out their ideas on a computer, instead of with pencil and paper.

2. Seriously, cubicles?

From sticking around the blogosphere and the marvelous newsworld of Twitter, I thought it was a common truth that cubicles aren't the way to go. Here's a quote that I wanted to dig up again for this quote from Brain Rules:

"What do these studies show, viewed as a whole? Mostly this:

If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom. If you wanted to create a business environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a cubicle. And if you wanted to change things, you might have to tear down both and start over."

However, I've seen cubicles in one of these ultramodern new work spaces and I was more than surprised, and I would love to hear what might be the reason for that.

3. Rules

I thought working in new ways would mean more freedom, but it seems in a way also to mean more rules. Apparently, more law and order is necessary to make sure data remain structured and the open offices remain nice and shining. Just like in secondary school, eating behind your desk is not allowed anymore. With my ideal work/study place looking like the picture below, I feel rather uncomfortable in a sterile white environment without books and plants.

courtesy of thefabweb.com

4. How do researchers work?

Just a random last question to end with: don't we need to understand how researchers work first before we determine which environment is better for them? I'm sure, again, that there must be experts out there who can pinpoint out all the typical behavior of a researcher, but I just didn't hear yet how to precisely implement that into a new office concept.
My five cents on this:
- The office should be suitable for irregular work hours: you don't want to start feeling uncomfortable in a giant office when you're the last one left who is working late at night.
- Having a microwave is a life- and research-saver, and equally important as free coffee.
- 15% to 20% of all people are highly sensitive - and we too would like to feel comfortable in our work space (otherwise I think I'd just stay working from home to avoid the fuss).
- Tools are key: for example, having enough strong computers to run simulations is totally necessary.

 Overall, I'm still very curious to see how this will be implemented, and I think trying to change the way we work will actually make us think more about how we work, and what we can optimize along the way. And even though the changes are planned for 2014 (when I'm supposed to have graduated already), I'm trying to do my part by reading, thinking and taking in information.

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