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Tue 5 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Productive design

Kurt Parry investigates the impact bad office design can have on employee productivity.

Productive design
Productive design
Productive design
The state-of-the-art video wall acts as a focal point with full visability from the entire floor.

Kurt Parry investigates the impact bad office design can have on employee productivity.

The productivity of a business and its employees has traditionally been measured in either mathematical terms or a formula that has been created by time and management consultants.

While they may measure output relative to the number of employees and the systems they use within a working environment, they often don't take into account the environment itself.

Efficient office design can increase productivity significantly and there's more to planning than simply knowing where to position the power sockets.

The logistics of an office layout must be the first and foremost consideration, but the psychological factor of the workers themselves plays a surprisingly large part.

Environments where staff feels claustrophobic or isolated can have a drastic effect on the bottom line.

Martyn Staniforth, a freelance office design consultant in Dubai, is often amazed at the lack of preparation he encounters. "I would say about a quarter of businesses - particularly small to medium sized - don't even consider the number of employees relative to the working space."

"There are certain stipulations which state that each member of staff must have a certain area of workspace. I have seen businesses try to cram in their staff without considering comfort, practicality and ultimately output."

"Many companies will even purchase or rent office space without any consultation at all."

Style over substance

Office construction and management can be all-encompassing, from concept to completion, but what constitutes the finished product? Is it when the last tile is grouted, the first employee walks in or the first sale is made?

For world-class FM companies, it is when the office is well-established, the company is productive and the employers and employees are happy.

John Buck is an expert consultant for ‘Plan Abu Dhabi 2030', the urban planning initiative that has already announced projects worth over US $500 billion (AED1.8 trillion).

He was involved in the construction, leasing and facilities management of the Sears Tower in Chicago and believes that the right working environment is paramount to a company's success.

"The design of an office building should result from the program of the users."

"Whether it's a large bank, like the Abu Dhabi National Bank or whether it's a stock exchange or Morgan Stanley, they have actual requirements for their office space, and those requirements dictate what the office building should be," he says.

But he believes the Middle East sometimes falls into the trap of creating icons rather than practical space.

"What I've found in this part of the world is that a lot of buildings are constructed without any regard to the programmatic needs of the end user."
That may sound a little bit strange, but that's the way it's happening out here.

"There's a very famous architect from the US who talked about ‘form follows function'. In the first instance we will design an office product that actually works for the users and we will identify that as soon as possible."

"Then we can get into architecture and the architect must understand that ‘form follows function' - what he designs must be based around the needs of the office as a company and their staff as human beings - they are the priority."

Simon Townsend, Middle East director of real estate services firm CB Richard Ellis also advises developers to design office blocks "from the inside out" rather than focus on exterior design.

"Developers use the word iconic, but very few like the words functional and practical. That's a difference that must come into this market. Dubai's commercial buildings are impressively designed on the outside, but often lack the interior functionality that potential tenants require," explains Townsend.

"For corporations, the perfect floor plate is a big rectangle with a small central core and very few columns, so they can plan the space perfectly, but the future supply of office space is going to make that very difficult."

Wealth and safety

When companies have established the basic needs of their office space and the necessary regulatory and practical requirements, one of the main issues is then where to find the contractors.

There are many separate elements to consider, from fire escapes to telecom wiring and while there are several excellent facilities management companies in the Middle East which could cater to all these needs, some of the smaller companies may not have the budget to use them.

Three trillion dollars are lost globally each year through accidents in the workplace - 5% of the world's GDP. Health and safety issues are - or should be - of paramount importance when locating or re-locating a business, but the reality is very different.

Staniforth has encountered cases where the workmanship and lack of knowledge has not simply been unacceptable, but at times, potentially lethal.

There have been businesses that have done the right thing by seeking advice, but then ignored it by taking a cheaper alternative.

It's no use getting a curtain hanger - even a perfectly good one - to check the circuitry just because he has a tool kit.

"I have seen carpenters installing fire alarms and even an IT technician trying to fit glass. It's frightening, but people will still try to cut costs and that also means cutting corners."

"Even if there is no injury to the staff, their productivity and efficiency will suffer enormously because of inadequate design and implementation."

Bleak house

A leading Arab business report recently quoted staff retention as one of the MENA region's major challenges to economic growth. It is not just a migration of talent to overseas, but domestic movement within the workforce.
Companies invest a significant amount of time, resources and training into their staff and need to retain them to realise a return on that investment.

While career advancement and salary are listed as the primary considerations for employees' company loyalty, office "atmosphere and environment" also plays a key role.

"It's something that many staff doesn't even realise at the time, but their attitude to work can often be dictated by their physical surroundings," said Rebecca Perry, an HR Consultant at Emirates.

It's not just a case of the people you work with, its how you feel about your surroundings.

"We're very lucky here because a lot of emphasis has been put on our environment and it makes the world of difference, but I have worked for large companies where the staff came in with a cloud over their heads."

"Their co-workers are friendly and professional, but the physical structure and design has been depressing. Whether it's a lack of natural light or bleak walls and furniture, it can make their days a misery."

It really should be something of a priority when it comes to recruiting and retaining staff.

Planning for the future

Some organisations, though, have been meticulous in the planning and design of their workplace. The Dubai Mercantile Exchange (DME) is billed as the most advanced trading floor in the Middle East. It has created the buzz, the business and the backing of its clients.

"It took a great team effort to build the Exchange. The architects, the designers, the consultants - everyone was fantastic."

"The first thing you notice is a state of the art video wall which is amazing to look at and acts as a focal point with full visibility from the entire floor," says Reem Rabia, media manager of DME.

By its very nature, the DME could be a sterile environment, with traders merely buying, selling and bidding. But the Exchange planned and prepared not only the facts, but also the feel of the floor.

"Each trader needs to have a workstation that has their name and their organisation's banner clearly visible, but we've tried to ensure this isn't seen as merely a requirement, but that it also gives a sense of identity and individuality," adds Rabia.

"We wanted an atmosphere of energy and the colours we use really help that. It's a hugely vibrant and energetic place and it has that unique mix of high professionalism, enormous excitement and also sociability."

"There is an atmosphere where traders can talk and chat as well as deal with the extreme pressure they are under. We are enormously proud of the fact that people want to do their work here."

So, for those planning an office move or a company start-up, it may well be worth investing a little more on the inside to get more business from the outside.

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