Interview with Robbert de Ruijter - COO AFAS.
Robbert, nice to meet you! How are you doing, how did you experience the past year?
It is going well! Of course it was a challenging year, for everyone and therefore also for us. We are very happy with how the year went. Especially looking at the job satisfaction of our colleagues that we have been able to continue very well, and the confidence that remained from our customers. As a result, we have even been able to show fantastic growth.
It is March 16, and everyone is suddenly working at home. Was this a big change for AFAS or were you already working from home on a regular basis?
It was a huge change, I remember it well, March 13 we decided to lock up the building. And that meant quite a lot because in addition to making software, we had a lot of students and events. So, in the evening our media team immediately converted all the classrooms so that we could give courses remotely, because there were 70+ students registered for the following day. That makes me extra proud of all the employees at AFAS: they put their shoulders to the wheel, are creative and really put the customer first.
It was certainly a big change. For years we had been trying to reduce the number of kilometers consultants had to travel, but that didn't really work. Now suddenly everything and everyone had to work from home to this day. We often say internally that you have to have a good IQ, a better EQ and a great AQ; be able to adapt and we have proven that.
How did this transition to working from home go and what did the employees think of it?
By trial and error. We did have an idea of how we wanted to shape it. And our culture proved to be enormously important in this. We work based on trust and therefore have no rules. The only rule is: work with common sense in the interest of AFAS. A kind of 'oath' you take when you join. After a while we did find out that not every employee was comfortable working from home. We have many young colleagues who have small homes or young families. Although everyone had his/her challenges. We then made a cool video of '500 home offices'. And as cool as the video was, it also gave us a glimpse into everyone's home office. And it wasn't optimal everywhere and it quickly became clear that corona would be there for a while. That's when we decided to give each employee €1000 net so that everyone could set up a great workstation for home.
"Getting structure into your day and not feeling guilty if you go for a walk for an hour"
What was the biggest challenge in the early days of working from home?
Structure and customers. For employees especially to get structure in your day and not feel guilty if you go for a walk for an hour. In the beginning, I too was only in MS Teams for 10 hours a day. That breaks you up and you are really empty in the evening, which is not very pleasant for your partner either. For executives, it's challenging to stay connected with everyone, so we encourage this a lot.
How do you encourage that connection?
We encourage banter and one-on-one contact. For example, my goal is to have at least one real personal conversation with a colleague every day. Not so much about the work, but how the person is doing. That way you stay connected. I also make a lot of use of voice memos and videos via WhatsApp. More personal than mail or a message; and you can record it (and listen to it) when it's most convenient for you. In addition, we regularly send our employees a fun gift or activity that reinforces our culture. In February, for example, 542 of our colleagues took part in the 'Heel AFAS bakt' baking competition, in which the best cake won a dinner for two in our brand-new office building. We encourage craziness and creativity. From the second Corona week in 2020 onwards we have had a 'Corona update' which we have now renamed to 'Break in the Week' in which we let employees have their say, share customer news, good and bad, and of course the necessary jokes and jokes.
Plus, we always had an 'office day' once a month. A day in which we did this more extensively in our own theater. We still do this, only digitally.
In addition, of course, a lot of fun things happen within teams, such as pub crawls. The biggest compliment I recently received was from a new colleague, who had been with us for 5 weeks, and who felt very welcome and warmly welcomed. That's what you do it for!
You were also just talking about the challenge structure; you were working ten hours in MS teams in a day. So how do you keep that work-life balance? What tip would you like to give to the working Dutchman here?
Structure! Make sure you get up, dress neatly (hoodie is not part of this - and clients see that as less professional), work with discipline and focus. In between, weld in "play spaces. Whether you literally spend 15 minutes gaming or just doing something else makes little difference. Go outside, go for a bike ride or whatever you like to do. By really working with that structure, you 'go to work' and close the work. This gives you (proven) peace of mind. After all, in the end, many jobs are not about making sec hours but about 'doing the work'. And peace and air in your head creates space for creativity and reflection. And if we have learned anything from corona it is that creativity is often the solution to many challenges.
What has structurally changed within AFAS during this period?
That working from home is here to stay. And there are many challenges, you have to make the fun more than before. We have always had a lot of excitement in our building with lots of customers, students, and events. This meant that we had maximum contact with each other, which is different when you hardly see anyone during the day. What we have learned is that we have incredibly resilient employees, and that is our success towards our clients.
We have also decided that when the world opens completely again, we will work 2 days a week permanently at home or wherever the employee wants. That means 3 days a week with the customer. Now you may think; but isn't everyone a little done with it? Well now maybe sometimes... but let's not forget that we are now forced to work at home. And that working at home is very pleasant because you can better shape your own life.
What benefits has the "new way of working" brought AFAS?
That we suddenly had 105 consultants working from home and those customers love it. Of course, there are activities or conversations that can be done more finely if you really see each other for a while. But in 2020 we were allowed to bring 554 organizations 'live' with our software, of which over 360 without a colleague ever physically visiting that customer. We couldn't have imagined that before corona. At least I couldn't, because I too sometimes drove back and forth for half an hour for an hour-long consultation. I don't expect we'll be doing that anymore.
"We also call the office our 'clubhouse' and it really will be.
Do you as AFAS already know what your policy will be after the pandemic, what will be the role of the office?
We have just built a new building over the past three years and are looking forward to working there with our colleagues and customers and to inspire each other. We don't do a whole lot about policy; we have the same dot on the horizon and our 'AFAS oath' (see earlier). We did decide that all field service functions go to customers 3 days a week and work at home 2 days a week or at our office if they like it (more). We also call the office our 'clubhouse' and that is what it really will be. A place to work of course, only 20% of the building is equipped with workstations, to talk to each other, connect with colleagues and customers, exercise together, watch movies, drink coffee and of course meet lots of customers. Because every day we teach 100+ students how to work with our product and all kinds of legal issues and we have a lot of events every year. Then we end a great day at AFAS with a delicious dinner in our own restaurant and the Musical '14'.
What has working from home made you realize/learn the most yourself?
Interesting question! Personally, it has also brought me a lot. With two little sons (2 and 1 year old) it is very nice to experience everything from them. Having breakfast, lunch, and dinner together every day is something I didn't know before. Plus, now you can arrange the day better than before. Because we find our culture very important you are also lived in during the day and everyone comes walking in on you. This is very important and pleasant; however, it also meant that you really had to make time for your other work. That is now more manageable, with the downside that I am in all honesty looking forward to the hybrid variant (3 to 2) so that we have the best of both worlds. Because I also miss the liveliness and sociability of colleagues and clients. Physical contact is nicer than via a screen, no matter how good the technology is.
What it taught me the most is that culture within your company will only become more important. A fear/control culture is killing, we knew that already only now a lot of organizations have experienced it as well. If your productivity suddenly collapses; you had a control culture. Give people the freedom and all the tools to do their jobs well. Organize connection and make it part of your weekly routine. Then all the love you put into your employees will be passed on to your customers!
Then of course a word about the platform Workwize: What do you think of the software platform?
What I like best is that the solution is based on freedom. And you can only give freedom if you trust your employees. And that is the basis! In addition, as an employer you have to take responsibility for the well-being of your employees, and a good, pleasant workplace definitely helps with that. At AFAS, we're a bit headstrong and we like to do everything ourselves, but I definitely think that Workwize can be a great solution for many organizations. Workwize unburdens employees with the ordering of home-working products and the organization itself may even realize a cost saving because purchases can be made via one hub. Nice to work on this blog!
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