office entrance

How one CEO increased engagement with a “disappearing office”

October 7, 2019
5 minute read
Last updated October 7, 2019

How one CEO increased engagement with a “disappearing office”

By Chris Butsch October 7, 2019

It’s 5:57 p.m. in Haarlem, a suburb of Amsterdam. As light from the setting sun skates across the canal waters, the crosswalks above begin to bustle with commuters. CEOs and service workers alike pass each other on bicycles, and instead of brash car horns, the air fills with a gentle symphony of bicycle chimes. 

In the offices of Heldergroen—a prominent Dutch design and branding firm—senior strategist Marjolein Doets notices the warm glow of the sunset reflecting off her monitor. The workday is over. She logs out of her workstation, gently pulls her purse off of her desk, and takes a deep breath. 

Across the room, CEO Sander Veenendaal turns a key in the wall, and the sound of hidden motors hums to life. 

Suddenly but gently, every desk in the office begins rising to the ceiling. 

As her desk reaches eye level, Marjolein spots the key to her bike lock hiding behind her keyboard. In a slight panic, she reaches up to grab it. Three of her co-workers chuckle with sympathy; they’ve all done it before. 

As the shared desks continue to rise—computers and all—Marjolein looks around at her coworkers, now sitting comically desk-less. Everyone shares a tongue-in-cheek grin. 

That never gets old, she thinks. 

office entrance

House of the rising office

Though it (literally) separates employees from their work each night, Heldergroen’s famous “disappearing office” didn’t begin life as a work-life balance tool. Rather, it began as a practical way to create more space. 

In line with the firm’s focus on wellness, employees expressed an interest in adding a multi-use area for yoga, meditation, and family-style meals. However, to lease additional office space in Amsterdam would be expensive. Instead, their CEO innovated a more cost-effective solution: elevate the desks to the ceiling, and simply use the space they already paid for. 

By rigging the same wires used in theatrical productions to hidden motors and pulleys, Heldergroen was able to implement the “disappearing office” for under $22,000. 

See the disappearing office in action here

Though employees were delighted by their “new” space, Veenendaal saw a further opportunity for increased employee welfare and engagement. 

Each night, regardless of workload or client demands, Veenendaal activates the disappearing office at 6 p.m. sharp. Computers, coffee mugs, and work of any kind remain out-of-reach until the next morning. Heldergroen employees are then totally free to share a potluck meal, perform yoga, or simply go home. 

Implemented in 2013, Veenendaal heavily credits the disappearing office with an immediate and enduring surge in engagement and retention. While his competitors continue to poach and shuffle talent like Silicon Valley tech giants, Heldergroen employees happily stay put. 

“There are firms in downtown Amsterdam that offer more prestige and money,” he says, “But each morning, my employees bike right past them to work here.”

The power of the disappearing office isn’t in the mechanism; it’s in the message. Go home. Be with your family. Work will be here in the morning. 

“The disappearing office is how I remind my employees: life first, work second.

While employee engagement is on the rise in the U.S., disengagement continues to be a $7 trillion-dollar crisis globally. With employers investing billions into engagement solutions with mixed results, why is the disappearing office so overwhelmingly effective—and what can leaders learn from it?

There's no cure-all for employee disengagement.

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Why the disappearing office works

Having interviewed hundreds of CEOs and SVPs of HR for my upcoming book Disengaged: Solving the Trillion-Dollar Crisis, I’ve had countless discussions surrounding methods for increasing engagement through improved work-life balance. 

Common work-life balance “boosters” include unlimited PTO, remote work options, and even do-not-disturb windows during which employees are allowed to temporarily disable email and work phones. 

Many employees I’ve spoken with feel that while these policies provide the outward appearance of work-life balance—attracting prospects and positive press—they often fail to make the positive impact touted. 

Evidence suggests that employees with unlimited PTO actually take fewer days off than employees with a set number of PTO days. Employees of one Fortune 500 company calculated that each hour they spent on “do not disturb” directly impacted their “effectiveness rating,” shrinking their bonus. In both cases, these policies led to a dip in employee engagement.  

Two employees talk

Work-life balance boosters succeed as engagement tools when they not only enable flexibility and time off, but actively encourage them. 

Consider what these popular companies are doing differently:

  • Evernote offers a $1,000 bonus to employees who take five consecutive days off. 
  • HubSpot has a “two weeks to infinity” policy, setting the expectation that all employees should take at least two weeks off. 
  • In addition to PTO, electronic medical record giant Epic offers tenured employees fully-comped, 30-day “sabbaticals” every five years. The only catch? They must go somewhere they’ve never previously been to. 

These policies—and the disappearing office—all share the same message with employees: We care about you, your family, and your mental health. 

“It’s not therapy,” said Veenendaal. “It’s business. My employees are my shareholders. They invested their life into my company. I simply offer them a greater return on investment than the competition.” 

How you can apply this philosophy to your business

Not every company should implement a disappearing office. But every company should consider whether it encourages—or merely enables—time off. Employees shouldn’t have to choose between work-life balance and appearing dedicated.  

For that reason, a tweak in your company’s policies and messaging to encourage—or even mandate—personal time could lead to highly “elevated” levels of engagement and retention.  

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