Digital for all now

Belgium’s Dept. of Social Security : “No one has their own office anymore“

Econocom 9 Mar 2015

When Frank Van Massenhove joined Belgium’s Department of Social Security as Director in 2002 he was full of original ideas about teleworking and social networks. His task: to put a moribund institution back on its feet. His strategy: telecommuting. To cut costs and boost productivity of his 5,000 employees, he allows them to work from home three days a week.

In a documentary called Le bonheur au travail, (“Happiness in the workplace”) directed by Martin Meissonnier and recently broadcast on French TV,  the audacious Massenhove’s initial impressions of the working from home experiment were positive: employees were both happier and more efficient and the cost savings generated by the Service Public Fédéral (SPF) meant he was able to replenish the coffers and invest in some new open-plan, lively, connected offices.

“Money doesn’t motivate people. What motivates them is to work in an atmosphere of respect and trust for an organisation that is well respected by society.”

When Frank Van Massenhove joined the SPF Social Security, no one wanted to work for what they perceived as an archaic institution. His idea was to hire Y generationers – digital natives. To attract these people who didn’t want to be told when and where to work because the ubiquity offered by digital tools is second-nature to them, he created an organisation that was geared towards their culture and requirements, and with a focus on teleworking.


A DISCREET transformation

“I knew that if I’d gone to see one of the ministers and told him that SPF wasn’t going to tell people where and when they should work, he’d have gone mad. So I didn’t say anything and did it on the quiet.”

The first step of Frank Van Massenhove’s ambitious plan involved giving employees the option of working from home up to three days a week and, consequently, allowing them to organise their work schedule as they saw fit. Of course, those who still prefer to come to the office every day are perfectly free to do so.


How it works is employees work on computers connected to the SPF’s network and communicate with colleagues via instant messaging, meaning the teams don’t have to be in the same place in order to work together effectively. They also find is easier to concentrate at home. It does of course mean that staff are required to be available evenings and weekends, but on the whole there are no unreasonable demands made on employees’ time.



One of the most common arguments against teleworking is that employees won’t be motivated. And yet at the SPF, it’s quite the opposite: the average lead-time for handling cases has gone down from 18 months to 4 and a half months and the organisation’s results have improved.


Furthermore, substantial savings have been made: now that the majority of the 5,000 employees work from home, the organisation doesn’t need as much office space. Some of the savings generated were therefore used to create a more collaborative workspace with open meeting areas fitted with sound insulation so employees can work in peace and quiet. These workspaces, ideal for “hot-desking,” was another idea of Van Massenhove’s to encourage communication and create a more dynamic relationship between employees and managers:

“No one has their own office anymore. I myself work at a different desk every day.”

And whilst certain managers don’t approve of these changes, they have little choice in the matter:

“We let employees assess their managers. If the managers had a poor performance review, then they were demoted … So they had to change, they had no alternative.”



As a result of this new organisation, managers are more receptive to employees’ needs, the teams are closer, and a number of initiatives have been launched that are difficult to imagine in a government institution: for example, at the SPF, employees are encouraged to communicate on the social networks.

“In most companies, you’re not supposed to go onto social network sites on company time. But we don’t have specific hours and we encourage our employees to go onto social networks.”

And the policy for posting content is somewhat surprising for a public body:

“We have a simple rule: always tell the truth. And it doesn’t matter if the truth isn’t flattering: as long as it’s the truth, the employees can say it.”

According to Frank Van Massenhove, only the most flexible employers will survive in this environment: soon, they will be the ones who have to convince staff, and not the other way round. Working from home and using social media sites are therefore essential factors: as Van Massenhove explained in an interview on website l’Observatoire de la vie à la maison:

“Teleworking is really just an extension of the pre-industrial era: before there were factories, almost everyone worked from home. iPads and smartphones mean that’s now possible for a lot of people in the service sector.”

Van Massenhove was quick to grasp the importance of the digital transition: Digital for All, Now is a lever that allows companies to rethink the way they are organised and adopt more flexible, effective models, whilst improving employees’ working conditions. In this revolution, everyone’s a winner: so why doesn’t every organisation take the plunge?


Photo credit : Henri Bergius – Coffee break (, licence CC BY-SA 2.0)

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