By Stephan Becker
This interview was originally published in German in Baunetzwoch #569, titled: "Soziale Nachhaltigkeit: Inger Kammeraat und Jan Knikker sorgen bei MVRDV für gute Arbeitsbedingungen".
With the Coronavirus pandemic, the question of work-life balance is being asked anew. Are our lifestyles and ways of working flexible enough that, when the pressure mounts in the home office, everything isn't immediately thrown out of sync? Offices that have been thinking about their social and organisational qualities for some time are clearly at an advantage in this respect. Managing Director Inger Kammeraat and Partner Jan Knikker discuss how MVRDV is meeting these challenges.
Architecture firms have a bad reputation when it comes to working conditions. What is the reason for that?
Inger Kammeraat: I think it has to do with the nature of creative work. You never actually reach a destination, and there are always more options you could try. Many people in this profession work with a particular passion, which also means that it's sometimes difficult to draw a line.
Jan Knikker: For younger architects in particular, there is also the fact that they are completely absorbed in their job. They often don't have any hobbies besides architecture, and they want to achieve something. Then it becomes difficult to find the right balance.
For MVRDV as an office, the question of good working conditions has been a focus for a long time. Why?
Kammeraat: From an organisational point of view, the size of the office was a crucial issue. Once you reach 100 employees, the day-to-day processes have to become much more structured.
Knikker: At that size, a works council becomes necessary. That way there is an official framework for addressing such issues. One important result, for example, is that there is no longer any unpaid or uncompensated overtime at MVRDV.
Kammeraat: With regard to the works council, we also worked from the very beginning to ensure that there would be constructive dialogue – and not a confrontational situation. After all, it's important for us as a company to find out what moves people in the office. Without this channel, it would be more complicated.
Knikker: Another aspect is that before MVRDV we worked in other large offices, with all the advantages and disadvantages. In that sense, now that we are in senior positions, we are also to some extent concerned with creating a working environment for others that we ourselves would have liked at the beginning of our careers.
But despite all the idealism, isn't the question still what MVRDV as a company gets out of being a good employer?
Kammeraat: Getting good employees and keeping them in the office for the long term is only possible if the working conditions are right. Of course, you can try to squeeze everything out of people, but more continuity also means more efficiency. Knowledge and experience cannot simply be replaced. That's why we need structures that make it possible to reconcile work and a private life – not just for two years, but for twenty, especially with a family.
Knikker: You can also simply see experience in the output. In competitions, you can of course experiment until just before the deadline, but the result is then very unpolished. With more structure and focus, you achieve a similar creative level, but then you still have time for elaboration. This also includes, for example, paying attention to the right mix of skills when putting together teams. This is certainly a more holistic approach than relying on creative chaos.
Kammeraat: You simply have to say that, as a company, you get into a kind of positive cycle if you make a serious effort to create a good working culture. People feel the appreciation and also give it back, which then again means positive side effects for the office.
But isn't there still a danger of becoming too structured and professional as an office? At some point, creativity might suffer?
Knikker: Of course we are aware of this fear, yes. But we have visited various companies, for example, and seen how they do it. Among them was the hotel service provider booking.com, but also Olafur Eliasson's studio and various Swedish offices. Ever since, we've been sure that we don't have to worry about our creativity. But we’ve also been sure that it can't hurt if our working life becomes a bit more "Swedish".
Kammeraat: It's also the case that a little more structure can even open up additional space for creativity. This applies to individual employees as well as entire teams. If we succeed in removing as many hurdles as possible in the background, then there is more time for design. In terms of concrete creative processes, this doesn't mean that there won't be moments in the future when people are completely immersed in a project, perhaps even working through the night. But then you also need recovery times. We have to make sure that people develop a reasonable work-life balance.
Knikker: Finding the right balance is very important. We have many employees who come to Rotterdam specifically to work for us. If their social life is confined exclusively to the office, if everyone buries themselves in their work like moles, it ultimately damages the creative side of the office. People also need to get out into the city, experience things, see new things, get inspired. And those who are satisfied with their job will then bring this knowledge back to the office.
Kammeraat: We don't want to restrict individual creativity, but we also want to make sure that people know that there's more to life than just working at MVRDV. That's why, for example, we have a rule that every team goes on a joint excursion once a year. Dinners, parties, and sports are also organised.
How has MVRDV changed against this background?
Knikker: If you look at the way we work, a lot has changed, of course. But despite all the professionalization, as an office we have always tried to retain a certain idealism, perhaps even anarchism. We think very carefully about which projects we invest our energies in, and economic considerations play only a subordinate role. If we find a project exciting in terms of content, we do it.
Kammeraat: Despite all the growth, it has always been crucial for us to preserve the DNA of MVRDV. If we open a new office outside the Netherlands, we still want to establish our own corporate culture there. In dialogue with the local culture, of course, but also specifically Dutch – or maybe Scandinavian in the future, who knows. That's why we also support a lively exchange of personnel between Rotterdam and the other offices.
One organisational challenge for many offices is that experienced architects hardly ever get a chance to design themselves. Originally, you wanted a creative job, but you end up sitting in front of Outlook all day.
Kammeraat: Yes, that is definitely a big problem that we have been dealing with for a while now. At MVRDV, there are now different career paths for architects. If someone is a good designer, they can move up in the hierarchy and still be primarily responsible for design. In addition, there is of course the classic project management, but also a more technical orientation and specialisations, for example in scripting. Of course, this is also a form of sustainability, if such specialists can develop and feel comfortable in the office in the long term. And when we put together the teams, we make sure that the skills complement each other well.
How do employees decide which path to take? Most of them probably come to the office as design architects first?
Kammeraat: Exactly, and that's also important, this passion for architecture. Specialisations actually only emerge during day-to-day work. Of course, there are also regular employee appraisals, which are largely about such questions. What are people good at, where do they want to go?
Knikker: Incidentally, the topic of passion should not be limited to architects. We also saw with Olafur Eliasson that really everyone in the studio shares a creative mindset, right down to the accountants. Specialisations are important, but it is equally important that there is a common vision, that all disciplines are in contact with each other.
MVRDV has long been one of the big firms. Could you give younger architects some advice that you would have liked to receive yourself when you started your career?
Knikker: I think it is crucial to develop a good corporate culture right from the start. Even in small offices, there are differences between owners and employees. And the owners should take responsibility for their employees. Otherwise, it's all too easy to get carried away with the crazy work mentality that's needed at the beginning. And if there are no high salaries, then you can at least make the work exciting and varied. For example, by taking employees to important meetings. Often it's situations like that from which you learn the most – Inger, that tip actually comes from you.
Kammeraat: Exactly, my advice would also be to think about such questions from the very beginning. But it's also important to keep things simple, not to over-organise anything. So, step away from the two-hundred-page office manuals, at most maybe one A4 page with a few rules, if a problem comes up again and again.