Office design in the Middle East is still “old school” says X Works

Office design in the Middle East is still “old school” says X Works

Desk layout, Digital offices, Interior design, Interiors, Middle East, Modern workplace, Office design, Office layout, Workplace design

Special report: The XWorks team shares its thoughts on what defines modern office layouts and why it is important that workplace design caters to both analogue and digital collaboration.

Nowadays, smart companies are redefining offices as places that make employees feel happy, comfortable, productive, and engaged, according to Soren Kraen, founder of Dubai-based Xworks Interiors. He has been working in the interior design and fit-out industry in the UAE for more than 25 years, and established his own company in 2009.

The firm now delivers a full-service, including strategic workplace analysis, interior design fit-out, and furniture supply.

Xworks’ portfolio includes projects for Maersk Training, Gilead Sciences, Ernst & Young, Lindt & Spungli, and Pandora. Recently, its team has been involved with the design and building of six offices in Dubai Design District, for clients that include Zaha Hadid, Calatrava, Cracknell, Haworth, and RMJM. The company is currently collaborating with Hyperloop on its first regional hub in d3.

“We see a lot of people in the market are expanding their scope of work, but we believe that there are plenty of opportunities within the office interior design and fit-out market in the region and, with the right approach, there is possibility of further growth,” says Kraen, adding that Xworks intends to maintain its niche focus on employees’ wellbeing, sustainability, and indoor climate.


Kaj Helstrand, who joined the company as managing director two years ago, describes workplace design in the region as “old-school”.

“Workplace design here is still used to communicate status. There is still a drive to have managers’ offices distinguished from those of the rest of the team,” he says. “We are starting to see a desire to spend money differently now.”

Helstrand says that digitalisation and wireless technologies are beginning to free many companies from desk-bound work.

“There are still misconceptions about desk occupancy. When you ask companies how much their workstations and desks are occupied, they will usually say ‘most of the time’, or ‘80 to 90% of the time’, when in reality the desk occupancy is only about 35 or 40%. That’s a global benchmark of successful workplace occupancy today,” says Helstrand.

He adds that it is crucial for design to support both analogue and digital collaboration.

“Technology has become an integral part of the way people work today, however they cannot be innovative with IT alone, because it limits our ability to think freely. Our clients are now asking for writeable surfaces to be placed within their collaborative spaces and we use whiteboard paint quite successfully, which can transform any wall into a working surface.”


There is an ongoing debate as to whether open-plan offices truly foster collaboration, or in fact decrease productivity and employee well-being.

“In many open-plan offices, you will find extrovert people that are quite relaxed, and a lot of introverts that are anything but comfortable in such spaces,” comments Helstrand.

Having worked on workplace strategies for Google’s offices in Shanghai, Melbourne, and Singapore, Helstrand has first-hand insight into whether Google’s famously quirky designs are actually beneficial to staff.

“In all three offices, users wanted something funky,” says Helstrand. “In Singapore, they insisted on having a karaoke room. Two years later, it is the least used space. Google has made it part of its brand image to pamper its employees almost beyond reason. Now they are expected to deliver workplaces that get global media attention. But don’t misunderstand the company – Google still expects its staff to deliver the work; they can’t hang around all the time.

“It is probably not necessary to take it to the same level as Google, but I strongly believe that in order to have an effective and productive staff, you have to offer them a choice; you have to provide spaces where they can work alone, using – or not using – IT, and where they can work in groups, with spaces for informal and more formal collaboration.”

He further explains that the traditional office pantry area is being redefined as a space where staff can work throughout the day.

“If you design a pantry area to be occupied only during lunch hours, then you have very expensive square metres that are not fully utilised,” he says. “The average worker is comfortable eating and having an informal meeting at the same time. Coffee is key to everything, so why not take that coffee culture into the office?”

For Pandora’s regional office in Dubai’s Marina Plaza building, Xworks turned 30% of the floor plan into a community space, thus challenging the client, whose initial brief considered the pantry area as a secondary space within its office.

“We’ve given the pantry area a primary position, with views over Dubai Marina,” says Kraen. “We designed it as place where people can go and eat, but also as a flexible space where staff can work throughout day and have informal meetings. Today, 12 months later, this is one of the spaces staff use most, and where they now proudly take clients.”


Insisting on the concept of insight-based – rather than simply attractive – designs, Helstrand says that many companies are occupying “too many square metres with the wrong design”.

“Key to Xworks’ success is the fact that we dare to ask the questions we believe matter to our clients. If answered wrong, these questions cost money,” he says.

The strategy behind most workplace design is built on assumptions that are 20 years old, according to Helstrand.

“For example, if a company has two meeting rooms for 10 to 16 people and, in practice, 80% of the meetings have no more than four participants, why not make 80% of the meeting rooms an appropriate size for those smaller groups?” asks Helstrand.

Before starting the design of Canon and Visa’s new offices, Xworks conducted a detailed workplace occupancy and user-satisfaction analysis, in partnership with a Finland-based technology specialist.

“These are the tools that we now offer exclusively to our clients,” says Helstrand. “We did a two-week study where we measured occupancy, and we also sent out a survey asking employees how they engage with each other, with the workplace, and with technology. This data was then input into an algorithm, generating a 180-page report on recommendations for workplace design.”

This enabled Xworks to prove to both Canon and Visa that they needed a lot more focus rooms and fewer large boardrooms, says Helstrand.

He continues: “The research costs only few thousands euros, but the value of the insight is immense, because we are able to have an evidence-based design instead of just an attractive one.”

Kraen believes that tools such as these provide a more effective way to approach the market. He says: “There are lots of players out there, so it’s important for to us to show what we can actually do.”

Value for money

Xworks’ business model is a selective one, says Helstrand, explaining that the company chooses not to work with clients that are only interested in “the cheapest and fastest” option when it comes to office design.

“[If a client] says, ‘Let’s ask five different design companies to pitch for this project. Then we’ll take their ideas and install them in our own design, and tell them that they lost’, that’s free design and we don’t want to be part of that game,” he says. “But if we’re up against two that we know have a similar approach, we are happy to compete, and it’s never a fight for the lowest price – it is always the best design that wins. “It doesn’t make sense to talk about being cheap or expensive, but about using your money wisely,” Helstrand concludes. “We deliver value for money.”

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