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The open-plan office is outdated. But are Middle East companies listening?

With a growing number of companies eager to get employees back to the office, experts say offices require design shifts.

The open-plan office is outdated. But are Middle East companies listening?
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

After two years of working from home, when Hiba Noureldine, project manager, returned to her office in Abu Dhabi, she found it difficult to focus. Like most other employees, she had grown accustomed to a quiet and private workspace at home.

“I felt strange returning to the office after such a long absence. Although it was wonderful to finally meet my teammates, having so many people around made it difficult for me to focus on my tasks,” says Noureldine.

You surely know by now that open-office plans are distracting. According to research, they make people talk less. During the pandemic, employees wondered if it was a viable long-term plan. People are now returning to offices, and although not entirely out of view, open offices remain with many alterations.

Design experts say post-Covid had two main features—Zoom rooms and barista cafes. “Zoom rooms are trending and won’t go anytime soon. We need more of these as more people work from home or use a hybrid schedule, especially if they put in extended hours. They require ergonomically sound workstations, not merely comfy desks. For these silent zoom spaces, the acoustics background has become crucial,” says Pallavi Dean, founder and creative director of Roar, the boutique interior design studio.

With everybody getting accustomed to working from home, employers are enticing workers to return to the office by overhauling workplace design. How is that translated? 

“It is a cafe with a barista,” says Dean. It aids in the restoration of the social interaction that remote work deprives of.

Employers are also splurging on ergonomics, workplace aesthetics, and personalized spaces. 

CULTURAL SHIFT > DESIGN SHIFT

The idea of open-plan workplaces initially emerged in the 1960s, and businesses worldwide quickly adopted it. Considered a source of stress and annoyance, experts say employers post-pandemic must change open workspaces and adopt partitioned workstation structures after.

However, considering price efficiency, experts feel open-layout offices will not go away but may change. “Given the price per square meter of office spaces, it is not sustainable for companies to completely redo their offices. But offices need to transform into something flexible,” says Ruggero Ottogalli, general manager of Middle East at Giorgetti.

There’s a need for a different interpretation of the closed space—it will have to be flexible for and usable by everyone. According to Dean, offices will see a lot of flexi desk systems, where people are adopting this hybrid model. While total redo won’t be possible, companies must look at utilizing every nook and corner.

For instance, the corner office of the C-suite is a waste of space– top management spends most of the day traveling or in meetings. “When CEOs are absent, lower-level staff should be permitted to hold office meetings,” says Dean.

More than design shifts, offices require a cultural switch. The focus should be on what employers can do to improve employees’ perception of the workspace, even though a complete redesign might not be viable. Employers should ask themselves: Is the space helping in their everyday activities?

ERGONOMICS IS PURELY PERSONAL

We spend around 80-90% of our time indoors. A lot happens in the office and affects productivity, and there’s nothing worse than sitting in an uncomfortable chair or at a desk that is falling apart. Here comes the science of workplace ergonomics.

According to experts, appropriate ergonomics is essential in office designs, particularly as workers are transitioning to offices after working from home, sitting on a comfortable couch. Employers are now gravitating towards better ergonomics when reimagining office spaces.

When businesses urged WeWork to construct environments in UAE and Abu Dhabi where people feel engaged and productive, the coworking space provider had a specialized approach. “We want people to arrive with motivation and a sense of purpose. In some of our larger private office spaces around the world, where we might have had 10% soft seating or collaboration-type furniture, it’s now moving upward of 50%, adapting to how our members want to work,” says Scott Rominger, creative director, International Studio at WeWork.

But there’s a catch. Ergonomics, according to Ottogalli, is purely a matter of personal preference. A salesperson who spends most of their time meeting clients will undoubtedly need less ergonomic support than a finance professional who spends 10 hours in front of a screen.

“If you equip everyone with the best ergonomic arrangements, but only 40 to 50% of your employees spend one or two days a week at the workplace, it will be a waste. Just think of the amount of money squandered. Spending here should be thoughtful and tailored to the industry one works in,” adds Ottogalli.

NEUTRAL AESTHETICS ARE MORE INCLUSIVE

Reports have even linked workspaces with natural light and views of the outdoors to greater wellness. Large windows, terrace gardens, the addition of indoor plants, and open balconies are aspects that offices can include to create a unified indoor-outdoor experience. Additionally, businesses can use art to carefully curate workspaces that creatively symbolize the company’s values and goals.

“Wherever possible, we also aim to adopt a localized strategy,” says Rominger. “Everything we created was unique for our two UAE locations, from the community bar to the pantry floor tiles.”

In Abu Dhabi, for example, a floating sandbox influenced by the desert environment is the centerpiece of the public area. The company also designed a Majlis, concealed behind a pocket door and a wall of books.

But not every location should use the same localized approach. For instance, since many different cultures are incorporated into the Middle East office spaces, the workplace’s aesthetics should be inclusive.

It is perhaps not an easy transition but one that has to happen. Companies that refuse to adjust will eventually have to deal with low employee productivity or, worse, attrition. “Given the variety of options employees have in the age of the great resignation, employers must adapt,” says Ottogalli.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hemanshi Tewari is the Senior Correspondent at Fast Company Middle East. She covers work-life, workplace trends, leadership, the future of work, and ideas that create an impact. In her previous stint, she was associated with The Economic Times. When not writing, you’ll find her having a cup of latte while tweeting her mind. More

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