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Tue 3 Mar 2009 04:00 AM

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Out of office

Intelligent, cost-effective space utilisation has become the order of the day – and work practices and office design are evolving radically as a result.

Intelligent, cost-effective space utilisation has become the order of the day – and work practices and office design are evolving radically as a result.

Even in this region, the correlation between thoughtful office design and staff wellbeing is rarely questioned. Effective interiors are accepted as playing a fundamental role in cultivating a healthy, happy, loyal and productive workforce.

"A company's greatest asset is its staff, and employee engagement is the key to staff retention. An ergonomic approach to space planning that encourages health and well-being is a good start," said Nick Burnett, design manager at CitySpace.

"A well planned and designed office is also a measure of the company's ethics and success, and can send a strong message to its clients and prospects."

The way employees relate to their office environment has changed significantly in recent years. Shifting patterns in work-life balance, the unrelenting globalisation of work practices, and an increasingly mobile workforce are all having an impact on the way employees interact with their workspace and, consequently, how offices are designed.

"We are moving away from the confines of our desks, chairs and meeting rooms towards a more holistic approach in the way we interact with the workspace and each other," Burnett pointed out.

In this region, far more tangible forces have been driving the evolution of office design. According to some estimates, commercial property rental rates in Dubai rose by 30% in the 18 months prior to December 2008, making the emirate costlier than New York City.

To varying degrees, this growth path has been mimicked across the region, placing a massive premium on office space and forcing designers and their clients to become increasingly imaginative in the way that space is inhabited.

As a result, explained Cathy Ingram, senior design manager at Dubai-based Bluehaus, companies are examining their work practices and evaluating whether a change in those practices would lead to more effective utilisation of space.

"With times getting tough and with the financial crisis, the desire to be a little more space efficient and spend a little less money on real estate is something that we've noticed with a lot of our projects," she said.

Bluehaus is currently working on a number of projects with the Nokia Siemens Network, and is employing what it terms as ‘modern office concepts' that promote intelligent utilisation of space.

"We have adopted a new way of designing which doesn't just say, for example, we've got 100 staff so we need 100 desks," Ingram said.

"We're seeing a shift away from people being assigned an individual desk, to a lot more of a hot-desking situation. What we've found is that a lot of people aren't in the office a lot of the time - there's people travelling, for example. In addition, a lot of the people who have the most space, such as the directors, are in the office the least amount of time, which is very expensive. People are starting to look at how they can reduce that with different ways of working," Ingram detailed.

The result is employees that arrive at the office, settle on any available desk within a designated area, plug in their laptops and start working. And while employees no longer have a desk all to themselves, they gain a whole host of alternative spaces in exchange, Ingram explained - phone rooms, small meeting rooms, hot desking spaces and break out areas.

"We are trying to let people know that work doesn't just happen at the desk. There are a lot of other places where people can work."

These new methods of working also demand a clear desk policy, which essentially prevents employees from personalising and taking ownership of their working space.

"However, everyone is designated a certain amount of personal storage, a locker, or one of those filing cabinets that you can wheel around," Ingram noted.

"People are quite concerned with creating a sense of identity within their space, and are often resistant to change. What we try to do is have little breakout areas, and make them a little bit different, with colour or pin boards, so that people can personalise those spaces, rather than their own desks. Eventually, it comes off the bottom line and there's more money for bonuses at the end of it. That's the way we try to sell it to your average person."

Meanwhile, traditional hierarchical structures are broken down, as even CEOs and directors make their way out of enclosed spaces and onto the open-plan office floor.

"It has been difficult to try and bring in a flat hierarchy, which is more of a European concept, but we're finding that people are becoming more and more comfortable with it."

Even though such concepts are relatively new to the region, the march from traditional, closed-off, cubicle led offices to open, airy spaces is gaining undeniable momentum.

"In some of the old offices, there's a lot of timber, and it's very dark and closed in. We always try to encourage people to break all that down, open up the communication and put in loads of glass to get lots of natural daylight through - and we're finding more and more that people are warming to the concept," said Ingram.

"There's been so much growth in Dubai over the last five to ten years that you see a lot of poorly-lit, very dark, very oppressive environments," she added. "We're just trying to bring a lot more life into the office because you want your staff to be happy wherever they are."It is imperative to build flexibility into the design, noted Nima Ranjbar, general manager of Ahrend Middle East. Recent years have seen companies in the region grow exponentially and as spiralling profits signalled burgeoning workforces, offices needed to seamlessly expand with the business.

"As a company grows, there will be a need for more furniture, and if the office is not designed in the most flexible manner, the client will need to redesign it all, which is a difficult, timely and costly task. Right at the beginning the design should be flexible, and use flexible furniture that adapts to changing needs of organisations," Ranjbar said.

For Burnett, success hinges on solid forward planning. "Research and preparation should be undertaken before space plans are even drawn up. CitySpace undertakes Workplace Performance Reviews, taking into account elements such as space utilisation, scenario planning, asset realisation, workplace effectiveness and areas where workplace performance can be improved. Workplace surveys study our client's existing position and assets, which provide a framework for the planning of future occupancy strategies and activities," he explained.

The emphasis on better space utilisation has also played a fundamental role in office furniture design, with designs expanding vertically rather than horizontally, noted Ranjbar.

"Just like towers that try to save land by providing more space vertically, or even vertical car parks that save street space, office desks should utilise the vertical space. One important issue to consider, and this is often ignored, is to use the vertical space but avoid high panels that disconnect people, and discourage communication and team spirit."

"Ergonomics also continue to guide the evolution of office furniture, as designs take the ergonomic demands of a varied and diversely-shaped workforce into account. ‘Employers have realised the financial and social benefits of ergonomics; these products increase productivity and reduce injuries," noted Siddharth Peters, managing director of The Total Office.

The need for ergonomic, easily-adaptable furniture is particularly pronounced in the GCC, a multicultural environment that attracts employees of all shapes and sizes.

"Different nationalities have different requirements and body types, effectively resulting in people of different heights and weights using the same office. Thus, ergonomics become a challenge," said Ranjbar.

The shape and support mechanisms of chairs, in particular, continue to come under scrutiny. Dauphin, for example, has introduced the Lordo swivel chair, which moulds itself to the body of the person sitting on it.

Supplied by Ofis, the chair provides automatic weight compensation and seat-tilt adjustment, guaranteeing that the pelvis lies in the correct position and that pressure on the thighs is reduced.

"What irritates me about a lot of modern, so-called intelligent, products is that they always try to tell me what to do. This is not my idea of quality of life or convenience," said Martin Ballendat, the chair's designer.

"The chair should make the person sitting on it feel good, but without forcing them to adopt a specific posture or disciplining them in ergonomics. I think we have achieved that with this chair."

While chair design attracts most attention, ergonomic considerations are also impacting other elements of the office suite.

"In the past, ergonomic furniture just meant comfortable or adjustable chairs. Today, a desk should be ergonomic too - they should be height adjustable. This is an important aspect and really needs to be considered when developing an office. Sadly, it is ignored by many furniture designers and manufacturers," said  Ranjbar.

Ahrend has responded with its Ahrend 750 desk, which provides height adjustability and allows the user to work while seated or standing.

"This is probably the first electrically-adjustable benching/desking system. Designing a good-looking, height adjustable desk is always a big challenge, but both architects and interior designers admire the beauty of this unique system."

When it comes to the aesthetic of office furniture, designers are becoming more and more demanding, placing pressure on office manufacturers to offer not only choice but the ability to customise, noted Stefano Mariani of Italy's i4Mariani Group.

"We've really seen small but significant changes in the requests of designers. What we've seen in recent years is an increasing number of requests to personalise standard production, by changing the finishing of the product, for example. Following the inspiration of the designer or the specific request of the customer, they will ask us to change the wood veneer or the glass finishing and so on."

The company's Ares, Paso Doble, Dolmen and Wing lines have proven particularly popular, Mariani noted.

"I think that the reason behind the popularity of the Ares and Paso Doble is that they offer a fresher design but also a very wide range of finishings - three different wood finishings, three different metal finishings and 27 colours of saddle leather finishing. Dolmen is our evergreen item; designed 15 years ago, it is still contemporary and fresh."

While there is little doubt that office design is developing rapidly in the region, with increasingly sophisticated furniture selection, heightened environmental awareness and intelligent space utilisation emerging as the norm rather than the exception, there is still the odd bathroom conversion to contend with, Burnett pointed out.

"The main challenge we face is where companies work out of residential spaces that were never designed for commercial use, and it is difficult to optimise the space usage. For example, we converted a bathroom into an IT room for a client based in a residential apartment, which was certainly not designed for corporate use!"

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