Companies in the UAE are realising that a well-designed office can increase staff productivity.
Getting the job done better in a workspace with grace
Dealing with disgruntled staff is not something Craig Falconer, the creative partner of the Dubai-based North 55, has to face very often. Several members of his 17-person team have stayed with his design agency since its launch in 2000.
Mr Falconer and his business partner, who started out with just two desks in a 600-square-foot office and used to buy a new desk every time someone new came on board, decided to demonstrate their commitment to their business in 2008 by investing Dh3 million in a 2,900sq ft office space of their own and spending Dh1.1m on a complete redesign.
For Rachel Galloway, an account director who joined the company before the redesign, working in a bright, colourful office makes all the difference.
"As soon as you arrive in the morning, you feel like you are in a creative space, which puts you in the right frame of mind for the day," she says. "The old office was more standard and didn't have the same level of interior design whereas here, there is a constant flow of information and there's no one sitting away in closed offices, which means things get done more quickly. I guess energy is infectious."
Walk into the reception of North 55 in Dubai Media City's Grosvenor Business Tower and you are met by a bright rainbow arch, a Smeg fridge emblazoned with the Union Jack and graffiti art hanging on an exposed brick wall.
In the open-plan office itself, the funky design continues: 12 people sit either side of a giant rainbow-coloured desk; a breakout space acts as a library, a place to have lunch and an informal meeting location and in the meeting room, a bar-height rainbow table encourages staff to stand rather than sit to speed up communication. And all the clutter that comes with a busy design agency is carefully stowed away in a storage room or wall-to-ceiling cupboards, giving the impression of a tidy, clutter-free environment.
This office and many more like it across the UAE reflect the changing office scene, with employers now putting design at the top of the company agenda.
Gone are the days when staff were expected to sit in a grey office surrounded by bland furniture and clutter. Instead, bright colours, exotic water features, hot-desking (sharing desks), natural lighting and breakout spaces featuring bean bags, foosball tables and flat-screen TVs is becoming commonplace.
But there's more to funky design than just look and feel. Behind the innovative interiors is a well thought out workplace strategy that aims to increase communication, creativity and ultimately, the productivity of staff.
"In an age where staff recruitment and retention has become more difficult, creating the right workspace can have an enormous impact on the success of a business," says Shaun Baker, the head of design at Morgan Lovell, the UK's leading office interior design company.
Get the design right and you could have an inspired workforce performing at optimum level; get it wrong and you run the risk of rising recruitment and training costs as more of your staff leave.
"After the running costs of the working environment, the second biggest cost to a business is its staff. For this reason, it is crucial to understand the importance of the workspace in its role in attracting, motivating and retaining key workers and the potential disruption caused by disgruntled staff," Mr Baker says.
Although Mr Baker's company caters to a market already clued in to the importance of innovative design-led office space, here in the UAE the trend is slowly catching on as business heads realise there can be a real return on the initial investment.
When North 55 wanted an expert to oversee its redesign, Mr Falconer and his business partner approached the UAE-based design consultancy Bluehaus. Headed by Ben Corrigan, the principle founding partner, the 10-year-old company has a number of high-profile clients on its books, including the Dubai Chamber of Commerce, for which it produced a design so effective at improving the communication flow it was voted the best place to work in the Dubai Government by its employees.
"Strategy and design are two separate things, but they have to work together in harmony to create the overall solution and there is absolutely no question that it works because it's been tried and tested," Mr Corrigan says. "We've delivered a lot of projects in the UAE and the Middle East to companies who are embracing a more progressive workplace culture because they are seeing the benefits.
"Historically, a company's money has been spent on the image and less so on the wellness and the happiness of the people who are the engine room and I think that's changing."
The region has long been associated with a talent shortage and even with the global economic crisis putting a dampener on the employment market, the emphasis on hiring and retaining strong human capital has never been higher.
"When someone goes for a job interview these days, where they are going to sit, what they are sitting on, where they have lunch and the culture of the business now plays a big part," Mr Corrigan says. "If it comes down to a choice between two companies, the environment can often swing it. If companies focus on the importance of their people, then they tend to hang around and that's vital today."
And it's not just satisfying the work needs of the personnel that is important to companies that have invested in a groundbreaking office redesign. Pleasing the clients is also key.
"You see a reassurance from clients when they walk in," says North 55's Mr Falconer. "As a design agency, there is an expectation you will have an office that isn't conventional, so for a client to come into this environment, there is an assumption that is how we approach projects as well."
And this is the real reason why companies redesign their workspaces - ultimately, a company wants to make a sizeable difference to their bottom line.
"If you've got poor lighting and people are getting headaches and having sick days, then it affects your efficiency," Mr Corrigan says. "Yes, of course, companies want their staff to be happy and more productive, but they need to see the benefits as well. So if they are communicating more, ideas are being shared and people are having less sick days, there is an efficiency there and a tangible benefit to the business as well."
But is a funky new design really enough to make a business profitable?
"I think it helps the mood of an office, but it's a short-term boost," Mr Falconer says. "To say things changed overnight or we had a better morale is a hard judgement to make because we moved in 2008 with the backdrop of the recession, so it was a very difficult period to assess like for like.
"What really changed the psychology for me, and what we tried to portray to the staff, was that investing in the office showed we were committed. It was our way of saying despite the recession we're here to stay, so we have to get through this and I think everyone bought into that. As it happened, we kept the entire team and just worked through it."
Mr Corrigan agrees that measuring the return on an investment into new design is a challenge for companies, but he believes company heads should think outside the box.
"You've got to have leaders who have an element of vision and have a culture of wanting to look after their team and understand the importance of brand and ambition. It doesn't take a consultant like us to advise a leader that to be world class and improve their brand and their business and their perception, they need to consider where they are today and where they want to be. And I'd say work environment is part of any ambitious company's growth."
And though a bright, shiny new work environment can motivate a team, there's no getting away from the fact not every employee will be excited by a new office design.
"That's where change management comes into play," Mr Corrigan says. "We've done projects where we've moved people out of a cubicle office into an open-plan space and you might as well have chopped Dh5,000 off their salary. Culturally, some people see that as a demotion.
"But if it's managed correctly and you explain to that person that, yes, they will be sitting with everyone else, but they've got more meeting rooms, more breakout areas and phone rooms where they can make private calls they will be more accepting."
And it's not just an open-plan model that modern companies are favouring, but also the hot-desk concept. At Nokia Siemens Networks in Dubai Internet City, introducing hot-desks, phone rooms and informal breakout spaces and lounges to its 6,000-square-metre office in July 2009 made sense because the company had discovered the average workstation was only occupied 47 per cent of the time.
The company categorised its employees into "mobile", "campus mobile" and "desk-based" groups and allocated desk space according to function rather than hierarchy.
"If your sales person is out on the road every week, it doesn't make sense from a real estate point of view for everyone to have a desk," Mr Corrigan says. "And if 150 of your workforce is sitting on one desk today and another tomorrow, they might strike up a conversation each time they move, so they are sharing ideas and building knowledge.
"With modern technology, we can work anywhere these days and if you don't give people a choice as to where they can work, you're just stunting creativity and chaining them to the desk. There are some businesses who we work with who are not getting it and they'll just find in five or 10 years' time that they are a bit behind the curve."
Mr Baker, the design expert, adds: "I can see a future where the desk has become a secondary feature within the workspace and we all work in pseudo coffee shop lounges with the ability to access a larger surface or confidential cellular facility if and when required."