Although an open-plan remains a prevalent concept for modern workspaces worldwide, many companies are now diversifying their offices to include private areas.
While the basic principles of doing business may remain the same, the changes in employee demographics and their attitudes toward work, swayed by technology advancements, affect the way designers approach office interiors.
During the 1990s, companies based in Silicon Valley, California were early adopters of open-plan offices and today almost 70% of American employees work in low or no-partition workspaces, according to the International Facility Management Association.
Tech giants such as Google, Apple, Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook have gone one step further, offering their staff quirky “work and play” interiors, some even without assigned seating. Last year, Facebook employees moved into a new 40,000m2 headquarters, designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Frank Gehry, which is, according to Mark Zukerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, “the largest open floor plan in the world”.
At the same time, an on-going debate among designers over open offices was triggered by an essay “Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace”, published in The Washington Post last year.
With 11 regional experts weighing-in on current office design trends, Commercial Interior Design explores a number of issues that are affecting workplaces both globally and in the region. The majority we talked to agreed that although an open-plan remains a prevalent concept for modern workspaces worldwide, many companies are now diversifying their offices to include private areas where workers can work without being disturbed.
CUBICLES VERSUS OPEN PLAN
Gilbert Grino, marketing manager of BAFCO, says that the idea of using smart office design to stimulate creativity is not a new concept, nor was it invented by Google.
“The pioneering Walt Disney promoted this concept more than 70-years ago, believing that it ideally supported creative and innovative work,” says Grino. “Depending on what they were working on at the time, employees would assemble in different office areas, which offer different functionalities. At Disney, every participant in the creative process was able to use different spaces; according to their assignments – there were playful spaces for dreaming up ideas; workshop-like spaces for practical implementation; and even clear strict spaces for criticism. Utilising this approach optimised the Disney workspace by providing both collaborative and private work spaces.”
Today, as Grino explains, the average office space is 55% cubicle and 45% collaborative or shared.
“In our extensive UAE design experience, we have found a hybrid solution often works best: small private rooms for concentrated work, personal work stations in open office settings for team work, and a variety of formal and informal meeting spaces is the most effective combination,” explains Grino. “A properly designed office should combine both the collaborative and privacy requirements of its users. Communication and the quality of interaction become the focus, while honouring the need for privacy and providing spaces where one can work quietly on a concentrated task.”
Cathy Di Savino, marketing manager at Intermetal, office furniture manufacturer, agrees that “collaboration with a bit of isolation is required by today’s tech savvy employees”.
“Employers have seen the need for functional workstations that allow for interaction between co-workers while providing areas of isolation where focused tasks can be performed,” says Savino. “Both the areas are now being designed and integrated into today’s office spaces.”
Commenting on the latest furniture design trends for offices, Savino says: “One size does not fit all, therefore, we need to be ready for all types of working environments, whether it’s a private office or open-concept area. Our design team continues to create flexible furniture that can be used for a multitude of purposes to fit the organisational goals while accommodating the employee’s needs.”
Catering to demand for more flexible concept of workplaces, Alshaya Trading, a Kuwait-based company, has a portfolio of exclusive brands, including dealerships for Sedus and Now Styl.
“Work almost anywhere is today’s model and architects are converting this model into airy and bright open spaces where borders are not defined,” says a spokesperson for Alshaya Trading. “Workspaces are now more focused on ergonomics, IT and soundproof features. Office design, therefore, keeps evolving and changing constantly with an eye on functionality and minimalism. The changes we are seeing reflect today’s requirements where collaborative and open spaces enhance interaction and communication in a world of media and digital technologies.”
DESIGNING FOR PEOPLE
Communication, collaboration and interaction are the buzzwords today and Joakim de Rham, CEO and co-founder of Swiss Bureau Interior Design says that workplace design in 2016 is all about people.
“More employers recognise that taking care of their employees’ wants and needs means a healthier, happier workplace and, in turn, increased productivity, higher retention and an improved bottom line,” says Rham. “Many of the key decision makers of the next few years have experienced both cubicles and the open office. They are aware of how the workplace can affect people. We’ll hopefully see the impact of this as more companies place workplace design high on their list of priorities.”
An office can send a profound message about what a business stands for, according to Jean-Marc Garabedian, operations manager at Advanced Business Concept, which is an authorised dealer of office manufacturer Herman Miller.
“Unfortunately, for many, space is viewed as a commodity–nothing more than floors, walls, doors, and windows. By acknowledging the importance of the human experience of work, and the way space enables people to do their best, an office becomes an investment with measurable returns,” says Garabedian.
“ABC is one of the preferred Herman Miller dealers in the UAE, and confirms that in the workforce, it has been a challenge for clients to switch from conventional furniture to newer designs and concepts. We have worked closely to educate the customer about changes in the workplace, and how to accommodate that change through design.”
Suki Tan, marketing executive at Oasis Furniture says that the Leesman Index, which studies workplace effectiveness, had measured the relationship between people and places within global organisations and the results showed just 54% of 100,000 respondents agreed the design of their workplace enabled them to work productively.
“Wellbeing, workplace and productivity are intrinsically linked,” says Tan. “A good office design is always the solution for a multitude of problems. Thus, a good office design will transform a tired workplace into a rejuvenated and inspirational one.”
Xavier Grau from JG Group, a Barcelona-based office furniture manufacturer, shares this view and states that manufacturers must make an effort to serve these new habits which improve creativity, information-flow, integration and motivation for a work force.
He says: “Good design is directly related to better functionality, this is one of the main requirements. Design itself features a non-tangible value, which generates personal satisfaction among the users of the product.”
Space management is another important criteria to be considered, notices Ravindranath Penikkattil, managing director of United Office Systems. He says: “A sleeker design often means less space. Due to the high cost of operating offices, space is becoming even more precious, so in the future, we will witness changes towards a better optimisation.”
Commenting on the challenges of bringing good design to the office environment, Penikkattil says: “Better working environments largely depend on furniture that is environmentally friendly. We have done turnkey projects for studios, and other retail and commercial spaces, while this year we will focus more on furniture projects. We have already established our manufacturing network with European brands and companies in the Far East.”
ERGONOMICS OF THE OFFICE
Since a majority of workers are still spending a minimum of eight hours behind their desks, Alan McDonald, managing director of Humanscale for the MENA region, points out that the associated health risks, such as awkward posture, are more prevalent than ever.
“This is why good ergonomic design is so important for the workplace, it reduces the risk of injury and maximises comfort. Prolonged sitting and use of mobile devices are key causes of injury so the workplace needs to allow for a variety of body postures and easy adjustments. The concept of ergonomics and the needs of individual users are often introduced at a very late stage in the project or when the user is already experiencing problems. It is only then that strategies, which promote movement and postural variation, are put into place. Retrofittable sit/stand solutions, such as QuickStand and QuickStand Lite, are perfect for these situations as they transform any existing fixed-height desk into an active one.”
A manufacturer of furniture for offices, hospitals and classrooms, Steelcase, spends $50m a year on research and, prior to launching new products, its research teams analyse users, observe new ways of working and follow the latest workplace trends.
“We noticed that employees were increasingly spending more time working on mobile devices rather than desktop computers, often switching between three different devices throughout the day,” says a Steelcase spokesperson. “This observation resulted in the Global Posture Study, an analysis of 10,739 employees across six continents. Research findings revealed that people used more devices and were more mobile throughout the day, leading to nine new postures not currently supported by traditional office chairs. This made us fundamentally rethink the way we design chairs – the result was the Gesture chair. Its three key interfaces – the core interface, upper limb interface and seat interface – specifically support the new postures driven by technology and more casual behaviour in the workplace.”
According to Gavin Phillips, workplace consultant for Steelcase, height-adjustable desks increased in popularity throughout 2015, particularly among multinational corporations.
“Having realised the importance of movement throughout the day, companies are starting to introduce these desks as a global standard for employees across all of their locations,” comments Phillips. “Companies that initially embraced entirely open-plan environments, perhaps a little excessively, are now seeking a balanced ecosystem of spaces, where workers can choose their preferred level of stimulation depending on the task at hand. Offices that are completely open-plan can affect productivity – the lack of privacy inhibits the ability to do focused work, as well as take a break to recharge.”
BAFCO has recently launched Quickstand, a system that transforms any fixed-height desk into an active one.
“An adjustable keyboard and monitor arm platform provide exceptional stability while typing. An innovative counterbalance mechanism enables users to transfer from sitting to standing positions with ease and encourages more movement—creating a truly active workspace,” says Grino.
While Steelcase’s research reveals that in the UAE the number of offices based entirely on an open-plan concept are low, because most of employees work in traditional environments with an emphasis on hierarchy and desk-based individual work, Ben Woods, general manager of urniture company OFIS, argues these environments, if designed well, can be more conducive to collaboration.
“With the advance of technology in the work environment, fresh behavioural patterns and new work postures have come into existence, says Woods. “The open plan office of the future is one which allows collaboration, socialising, focus, rejuvenation and privacy, all of which facilitate engagement levels in employees.”