Jan-Peter Kastelein

The workplace as a tool

Corporate meeting room © Creative Commons

The spatial planning of an office must be synchronized with the managerial model within the company. Drawing inspiration from architectural field research done for medical facilities, evidence-based design provides a method to connect to all players in the workspace to find design solutions tailored to each organization. Involving various disciplines such as environmental psychology and the study of economic behavior, this method practiced by YNNO, an agency stratigizing design options for businesses, is the origin of the workspaces.

Jan-Peter Kastelein is a managing partner and environmental psychologist at YNNO, a leading workplace consulting company based in The Netherlands.

Stream : Can you tell us more about the activities and values of YNNO?

Jan-Peter Kastelein : YNNO started around 10 years ago with a vision of creating a consultancy firm that could integrate the bits, the bricks, and the brains into one proposition for clients; bits meaning we advise our clients on modernizing information and communication technology systems (ICTs ), bricks as how we carefully tailor and construct the building, to the brains on installing and advising for innovative HR  practice. Most important is ensuring thorough integration of all three; not just HR, not just the building, and not just IT, but a whole systems approach for our clients. We care about the “ecology of the workplace,” as it is referred to here at YNNO. What we do is advise our clients on how to best optimize and balance this ecology.

Stream :  Who are the people working for YNNO?

Jan-Peter Kastelein :YNNO is very diverse. We have people working for us with backgrounds in architecture, design, ICT, even in social science (sociologists, occupational psychologists, clinical psychologists). Additionally we hire people with background in the same field as our clients, especially healthcare and business.

As a consultancy firm we aim to innovate; we can only do so if we have people among our team familiar with existing business models. Further, when we send someone knowledgeable in this regard, this helps build trust with the client and facilitates our process. Work is at the core of whatever we do. Our personnel has been trained to first understand the client and then translate understanding into designs that help the client work more efficiently and effectively.

Evidence-based design

Stream : How do you organize your practice? Do you rely on precedents and standard procedures or do you have to start fresh with each client?

Jan-Peter Kastelein : Learning and knowledge sharing is very important. We are a four partner firm, myself as one of them, who have joined together specifically with this aim in mind. We encourage personnel to form discussion groups based on topical subjects. For example, one group focuses on evidence-based design and on how to integrate that into consulting with clients. Projects are the fruit of internal collaboration and exchange of knowledge and ideas. The office for us is really a space for sharing, interacting, and learning so that when we are away with clients we can produce better solutions.

Stream : You have mentioned evidence-based design as an important part of the practice of your office. How exactly does evidence-based design work?

Jan-Peter Kastelein : Evidence-based design stems from healthcare practices and procedure. A physician is trained to take notes on everything, using these records to develop their practice. The first architects to adopt evidence-based design, about ten years ago, were involved with designing for medical and health facilities. Inspired by the pragmatism of healthcare, they sought a way to design safer, healthier, and more comfortable medical facilities. So what is evidence-based design? My definition is simple: using credible research to inform design decisions, credible here meaning research held up to rigorous academic standards. One of my biggest critiques of other practices and of our own practice, is that we are not yet accustomed to using research in design. Work we do mostly stems from creativity, intuition, prior experience, and building standards. There is a big gap between the research community, the design community, and on-the-field. In fact, we get most of the pressure to incorporate evidence-based design into our practice from the clients themselves.

Stream : How is evidence-based design used in your relation with a client? What can be gained by adopting this practice?

Ynno, Creative Valley-Youmeet, Utrecht © YNNO

Jan-Peter Kastelein : Research integrates well with the design process: before you start anything, you need to understand what the client is about. You begin by asking questions, and to do so you must know even what questions to ask. Hypothesize. You must predict what design solution will be needed. If you want to use red paint for a particular wall, you need to ask why. I understand aesthetics, but what effect is the color red going to have on people who have to work there everyday? There have been numerous studies on the effect of red paint on mood and behavior, as simple a design decision as it may seem. Red is not forbidden. It just depends on desired effect. For one space red will be ideal, while in others it will not. You are generally not going to use red in a ceremonial hall for example. It’s too active, too agitative, too energetic. It doesn’t make you at ease. But a crematorium, a hall for loved ones to be present at the cremation process, dictates an emotionally charged space. In this case, the color red could help stimulate the emotions of people who have deliberately elected an emotionally charged experience. In working environments, this effect is critical; one must ask, for anything designed effecting the work and daily lives of people, what environment will this decision produce? This is where the evidence must come into the design process. What produces an environment where people are inspired, where people feel comfortable, and where people can feel good?

Stream : When taking on a new client, what is your first step in the process? For example, with Google, were you were hired on just to research what they are already experimenting with and doing right? What inspired Google to contract your services and how did you begin your work with them?

Jan-Peter Kastelein : Google was a very interesting case in that they have been doing a lot of the designs of their offices based on intuition and a vision. Google is one of those places that really take the workplace seriously and who do not want to cut out any of the potential benefit that an office environment can bring about in terms of productivity, knowledge-sharing, or worker’s satisfaction. The company really believes in the power of the office to bring about all of that, which of course we at YNNO strongly agree with. The problem was that Google was acting really just on intuition but lacked evidence to support their decisions. Some of their policies were working well and others were not. That’s why they hired us on, to examine scientifically what effects policies were having on the behavior of people. One of the things we learned was to look beyond pure functionality.

Google Offices, Zurich © Google

Valuing employees

Google is very playful. One might wonder, why do they need a slide, why do they need an Eskimo hut, why do they need cable cars in the office? From a functional point of view, there was a lot of space that was never being used. But when we asked people, well should we take this out, the answer resoundingly was “no.” What we’ve come to realize is that there is some cultural or symbolic value to such attributes, similar to the role of art in a workplace. It is a reflection of what the company is all about, a reflection of how well treated people feel working in the Google Office. You can come into the office and get a good breakfast, lunch, have a great dinner whenever you need it. There is a sports center. You are being looked after; the design of the office promotes your wellbeing, both emotionally and physically. What we found at Google is that one of the greatest factors in people’s sense of satisfaction at a workplace is feeling valued.

This is an effect that the design of a workplace can have. Putting people into boxes, how valued can you feel in this situation? An employee that feels valuable is far more productive and actively involved in the company. This need is especially poignant in the newest generation to enter the workforce, Generation Y, of whom there are high expectations to be innovators, but who also, generally speaking, seek fun over business. In order for businesses to function, the workplace of the future must figure out how to balance these forces; encouraging the value and innovation of the young minds while also clearly establishing that there is money to be made and work to be done. Google is a very profitable organization. Though playful, they work hard, they share, they communicate, and they virtually measure everything.

There is very clear feedback. They do everything like a contract, expectations are stated and then the employee is free to do whatever it takes to meet those expectations. It’s a management based on results as opposed to presence, on being physically in the office. One thing I really try to convey to organizations is that just because an employee is behind their desk does not necessarily mean they are being their most productive. They can be, but they could be doing nothing as well—just staring at their computer screen. But if you set expectations for the next few weeks or months, then it becomes very clear. As a manager my job becomes a facilitator. I no longer care whether you are behind your desk, or playing football, or at the gym or having a great lunch; what matters is that you meet the expectations that have been set. It’s a different style of leadership. As a leader, I feel I am too bright and energetic to be a heavy-handed manager; I prefer to be an inspiration and to facilitate people to do their best not manage people’s lives. That’s what brings me to the office from time to time. We all know that sometimes you have to do that, but it isn’t something to be a dominant style of leadership. This is what we refer to as the new style of work; it is not about flexibility or the virtual office. It’s about management style.

Stream : The workplace is therefore a tool to facilitate this style of management practice?

Jan-Peter Kastelein : Yes. The workplace is tool, but nothing more than that.

Stream : So it is just the essence of the valuing employees that defines the new workplace, and even if you have a beautiful space—

Ynno, Creative Valley, Utrecht © YNNO

Jan-Peter Kastelein : You can have the most beautiful workplace with all of the ‘right’ sort of facilities but if you have the most horrible person to welcome people at the door, no one is going to feel welcome; it is the people within a space that really make the difference. Frank Duffy came over here and he loved it but he said, to be critical as he always has to be, “It would even be better if there were people around.” I’ll never forget that comment. People bring the color to any workplace. That’s what we are doing this all for, to facilitate people to bring the best out of their work, and in my opinion, the best out of their lives as well. That is our responsibility as consultants and as employers at our own firm as well. This is quite a mental shift for what people are taught at business school. As a professor and an academic myself for some business and knowledge management courses, it is very difficult to get people to understand the impact that workplace environment and culture has. I teach at one of the oldest business schools in Europe and unfortunately, it is hardto make people receptive. But it is a process.

Fostering serendipity

Stream : For the knowledge economy, creativity and innovation are the two lovers for competitivity. Meanwhile the rapid growth of communication technologies, equally pertinent, has a tendency to make the physical office disappear. What sort of “office” do you envision could encompass the technology and trends of the knowledge economy while also facilitating encounters, sharing, and innovation?

Jan-Peter Kastelein : Stemming from my research and my own personal experience, one of the four most important factors for sharing and collaboration to happen, is awareness. Why awareness? If you are aware of a fellow employee’s work it is much easier to start a conversation like “Hey, what are you doing? Tell me about your work. Tell me about how I can help you or how you can help me.” If this sort of awareness of each other’s unique background, experience, or style is not happening, it is very hard for collaboration to happen. You can create workplace environments to facilitate this awareness. For example, many people refer to me as a “white board maniac” because I have been installing wall-wide white boards in all of the projects. A big wall-sized white board can be a useful tool to facilitate discussions, especially if you leave the drawings and notes up; it is about leaving traces of your thought processes. One of the major problems of offices today is this compulsive need for a “clean office,” these “leave a clean desk behind policies,” erasing all of these notes and generative ideas. The “flexible office” has generated a culture of packing up and erasure. These sorts of spaces are the dullest office environments in the world; they lack identity. For example, Nokia HQ in Helsinki, is a beautifully designed building; but if I walk in there, I wouldn’t be able to tell what sort of work they do: it could be an insurance company, a bank, a hospital, it could be anything. Again, there is no identity to that building whatsoever because no one leaves anything behind. How will anybody learn from each other if they cannot figure out what each other is doing? This awareness is very important.

The next important aspect is access. Knowing what each other is up to doesn’t do much good if you do not have the access to continue developing ideas and interact. Putting people in boxes is a very bad idea. A closed door acts as a sort of psychological boundary that creates a segregation of public and private domain discouraging each other from interacting. In American office complex buildings with big open spaces full of cubicles, it’s very difficult to know where people are. They literally don’t have access to each other. We can create offices that are more open, that put a big emphasis on “way finding.”

And then it all leads on to the third factor, engagement. If there is no energy, time, or privacy to engage in these discussions, they are never going to happen. Yes it’s great, I’m aware of what you are doing, I had access so I was able to find you, but now we need to find a place, out of our primary work station, as to not disturb others, to engage. This could mean providing a mix of workspaces, where people can meet formally, informally, in teams on projects, facilitated with good technology, good design, good food and coffee, whatever they may need. Google has technical assistance support centers merged with a secondary program of informal restaurant. So while waiting for tech support, you can have a coffee and interact with people from all over the building, spawning creative fusion between minds from, for example, the mobile department and the online department leading to who knows what sort of technical innovations.

Lastly there is trust, important to all factors. How do you create an environment where people can feel safe enough to trust and where they feel trusted? If people feel valued, its much more likely that people are going to trust each other as well. So what we can do is first of all design environments on a human scale, which do feel great, and which express the full value of trust. I don’t have the full answer but I can sense it. Walking around the Google office or at Nike, one can sense this feeling immediately. It’s not something that can be written on the wall, but it is somehow openness in design and procedure that effaces transparency, that the organization is worthy of its employees trust. It’s pride, transparency, awareness of what everyone is doing.

YNNO, Creative Valley, Utrecht © YNNO
YNNO, Creative Valley, Utrecht © YNNO


Stream : Can you talk about the Creative Valley project in Utrecht? This morning you said that this project could not have come about with just a random promoter or real estate developer.

Jan-Peter Kastelein : I won’t say that it would have been impossible, but assembling the right team was key to the success of the project. We wanted to come up with an example to show the world what a model multi-tenant office would look like with sharing as the core value, employee comfort the chief goal. We wanted to make a place that, even in an undesirable location, far from the city, not even easily accessible, is still a very desirable place to work. A place where people want to be. And people really do want to be here. We have built an ecosystem out of a building and that didn’t happen from day one. And we had a shared vision amongst the developer, ourselves, and the architect to help make this project work. In the end, as well,it really depends on having the right tenants. A vision is no good without someone willing to fund it. Finance and economy are very important factors in addition to behavior within the building.

And we know it has worked. I always tell my employees, if you can get the client over here that’s at least 50% of the work done right there. This building really exemplifies what our mission is and demonstrates what we can do for our clients. People can see it and experience it. Whatever room you use, the ambiance is a little bit different. Spontaneous conversations occur in the hallways. This maybe is not the solution but it is a solution that proves that our ideas can work and can be used to even regenerate old offices. I used to say that many of the old offices complexes in Holland, built unsustainably and hard to get to, were destined to be turned back into cow pastures, that that would be the best thing to do with them. But now, I have begun to see a future for such complexes. There have been successful renovations, and there are some very positive spaces. Though I’m still not fully optimistic, there may yet be a future for the poorly designed office complexes of the past.

Ynno, Creative Valley, Utrecht © YNNO

Multiple tenants environnement


Stream : Can you define how this building is different from the traditional office building?

Jan-Peter Kastelein : How did you feel when you first entered the building?

Stream : Well it doesn’t look like an office building. We know a lot of the rules and that this building doesn’t follow a lot of them, which makes it in our eyes more beautiful and more comfortable of a space.

Jan-Peter Kastelein : One caveat to this space is that it is twice the price of a standard office. The only reason you would make that sort of monetary commitment is if you really see the value in a space like this to overall performance of your organization. You can rent an office in certain areas at warehouse prices, so about 90€ a square meter. This is roughly 360€. People want to be here despite the price because of the experimental environment and because of the positive performance results. It is one of the most commercially viable around here. We have a waiting list. We never would have dreamed that it would be as successful as it has become. Companies are looking to differentiate, to attract better personnel, even to be able to market themselves as a forward thinking company. My message to property developers is not necessarily to copy this complex, but to investigate the ideas behind it; to not fall back upon the tired office complex formulas, where no one wants to be—inhumane even—but to try to create a new sort of environment.

Stream : This is a very important subject and with quite a bit of intelligence on the matter, though dispersed, it starts to resemble a strong trend. We would like to know more about the collaboration process with the architect. And second, how do you see this concept and the new office environment in the rest of the world? Is it a niche, creative-firm trend not appropriate for banks and lawyers? If so, could it become in 20 years universally appropriate?

Jan-Peter Kastelein : There is always tension between the vision of the architect and us, the workplace strategists. The architect typically does not want anything interfering with their ability to create a beautiful building. We value this of course, but our goal is to create a building that works for the client by incorporating design with management strategies. With some architecture firms, our process works great, and with others we find this very difficult to implement. In those cases, the firms are so strong in their design vision, that they are not even open to their client’s needs. We often end up in the position as the voice of the client, for example, when used to do the architect selection. And with the architect, we first invest a lot of time gaining understanding of each other’s working style and vision, which really pays off in the results achieved. Yes, we don’t always agree, but it is about mutual respect. The architect can approach us and say, “You are the workplace strategists, help us figure out what the client’s needs really are and help us to reflect on the design options we come up with.” We are really there to be the ones asking the tough questions, to inquire, “Why are the walls red?” At the core, that is how the relationship between an agency like ours, and the architect, looks like. It’s not always an easy position to be in because we are always learning as well about what designs do work and what don’t. We really mean to convey to the designer that we too dream design and that we are really on the same page. With the developer, we must really sell the vision, even if it is relatively untested. We were not sure if the Creative Valley was going to be a success or a complete failure, but because of a common dream, we were able to make it happen. It took investment, learning, and building relationships amongst ourselves, before we were able to get this complex to the point that it is today.

Stream : But in this case, you were not working for a specific client; you were just working for yourselves right?

Ynno, Creative Valley, Utrecht © YNNO


Jan-Peter Kastelein : Our vision was to create a multitenant environment with specific companies in mind that we wanted to attract. But even still, we wanted a building that was flexible enough to be able to turn into a shopping mall or a call center or whatever necessary, which I still feel is possible. Unlike most office buildings today, this building was designed to be able to change function and still operate at a high level.

Stream : So how do you envision the office of the future? While we agree that this space is successful because of its innovations, it does not seems like something a bank, for example, is ready to adopt. Is there a formula you can generalize from this that would foresee space suitable for all businesses?

Jan-Peter Kastelein : Generalization is very difficult. In Holland, we have a pretty open and trusting culture, making it a good place to experiment with new forms of working environments. It’s not yet standard, but it is becoming a standard by which other places in the world can measure. And it’s not just the creative industries. There are banks, insurance companies, and a number of other traditionalist industries that are designed in the same sort of flexible, unrecognizable office space. One of the first big examples of this movement, back in 1996-1997 was an insurance company. They turned around the whole culture of the company, from being one of the most traditional in the industry to being among the most sexy to work for. It is still an office environment, but it has a totally new way of working.

Stream : What is most striking about this complex is the transparency, awareness, and trust. Notions preoccupying developers elsewhere are those of paranoia and security, the complete opposite. As a fundamental, they produce a very different design style. The relationship of end-user, real estate broker, and then developer—there is a chain of information that confronts you as an architect. You end up not really knowing what the client needs. Another voice of reason, like that of your agency seems to help change the discussion. No one seems to sense paranoia here.

Jan-Peter Kastelein : I don’t think there is any fear over here. We are even bringing complete strangers into the building to show them how we work. We don’t have much paperwork lying around so that is not really much of an issue. Openness is very strong value and it may be one of the reasons why the new way of working is bigger here than anywhere else in the world. We get many international visitors, people from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, United States, South America, South Africa, who bring back and adapt the ideas to their countries. Maybe the economic downturn doesn’t help, or maybe it does. Maybe this is the sort of pressure needed to stimulate the transformation in the way we have been living and working. The most importing thing is to learn how to express that we really value people. In the past ten years, the movement has really grown and continues to. I don’t know how fast it’s going to go but it is a movement that can’t be erased. It may even take over the world one day. And we at YNNO are glad to be at the forefront.

(This article was published in Stream 02 in 2012.)