Home Society Cold-desking and crypto tulips: A peek inside the EU’s tech HQ
Cold-desking and crypto tulips: A peek inside the EU’s tech HQ

Cold-desking and crypto tulips: A peek inside the EU’s tech HQ

by host

Monday morning returns to the office can be cruel, all the more so if you’re working at the European Union’s digital policy department.

Ever since moving into new premises on Brussels’ street of power, Rue de la Loi, in June 2022, officials at the European Commission’s Directorate General for Communications Networks Content and Technology (DG CONNECT) have had to deal with two shakeups of office life: a post-pandemic shift to more remote work and the impact of a raging energy crisis — let alone being turfed out of their lunchroom by massive tulips inspired by the cryptocurrency bubble.

Soaring energy prices triggered by the fallout of the war in Ukraine have led the Commission to turn down the heating in all its buildings, with thermostats set to a crisp 19 degrees Celsius. 

But at the beginning of the week, when the digital department’s tower of glass and painted metal is still warming up, temperatures can touch 16 degrees Celsius, said Ivan Brincat, the department’s head of press.

When POLITICO visited DG CONNECT in late December, employees were carping about having to pack extra jumpers. Not everyone was complaining: Those lucky enough to sit near a window with good sun exposure can hope to get near-balmy temperatures on a good day. 

Indeed, POLITICO’s tour of the department’s 11th floor, which hosts its communications staff, revealed temperatures oscillating wildly between different parts of the office — with the most sun-kissed bit hitting 23.6 degrees Celsius, and the gloomier section stuck at 20.5 degrees Celsius.  

Luckily, Brincat said, DG CONNECT adopted a “hot-desking” policy, encouraging people to set up their laptops or plug in their keyboards wherever they prefer on their floor, and spill over to other floors if needed. 

One such level expected to boom is the building’s fourth floor, which deals with online platforms, as the Commission sets up a new team tasked with enforcing the bloc’s landmark regulations: the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act.

They, like all other employees, will be supposed to work from the office for a minimum of two and a maximum of four days per week. To avoid desk shortages, different units ask employees to come to the office on different days.

Barring DG CONNECT’s Director General Roberto Viola, his two deputies and nine unit directors, no one has separate offices. “It’s open-spacing and hot desking all around,” Brincat said. 

An open-plan setup had been experimented with in some parts of DG CONNECT already back in the 2010s under then-Digital Commissioner Neelie Kroes. When in June the department moved from its previous building — the (frustratingly, to many officials) remote Avenue de Beaulieu in southeast Brussels — to its current one, it embraced the experiment as a generalized policy.

Art for lunch

Usually, DG CONNECT staffers would grab lunch on the building’s ground floor, in a vast open space with French doors opening onto a pretty terrace. But when POLITICO visited, that was not the case. 

On December 1, tables, Tupperware and lunchtime chatter were replaced with futuristic art installations. The art exhibition is part of S+T+ARTS, a Commission initiative fostering art focused on technological themes, and will go on until the end of February.

The art exhibition is part of a Commission initiative promoting art focused on technological themes | Gian Volpicelli/POLITICO

The 12 artworks and video clips all riffed on the promise and peril of emerging technologies. A recreation of a 1960s-style living room showcased the dangers of manipulated videos, via a deepfake of U.S. President Richard Nixon delivering fictitious televised remarks about a failed 1969 moon landing.

Two LCD screens (a third was inexplicably turned off) lit up with images of blooming and wilting tulips; the flowers’ growth and decay were algorithmically determined by the peaks and troughs of bitcoin’s price. The tulips, of course, were a nod to another financial bubble: 17th-century Tulipmania.

There was a critical take on dating apps, and there was DNA-inspired music; there was a headless statue whose face was designed in real-time on a screen by an artificial intelligence — except the screen was encumbered by pop-up windows about software updates.

Curator Nicolas Wierinck, an artist working with the Gluon art nonprofit, scrambled to fix the rogue screen. “See the problem with tech?” Wierinck said.

Tell that to a department staffed with public servants tasked with launching major regulatory crackdowns on the global technology sector.

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