By Esra Kayhan, HR Manager, Summertown Interiors
Workplace wellness, sustainability and employee engagement are three emerging trends that are influencing workplace design in the UAE. Get all three right, and you will be well on your way to creating a more productive workplace, according to recent studies.
Wellbeing at work means much more than taking care of employees’ basic needs; it fosters an atmosphere of healthy competition and processes that make the workplace more conducive to performance and positive thinking. This, in turn, boosts productivity and reduces stress levels.
Investing in the workspace is no longer considered an extra cost, but a productivity investment that enhances an organisation’s overall success. From paying more attention to the quality of lighting, indoor air, sound level and visual design in the office, companies are now understanding the role that the physical environment plays in promoting wellbeing at work.
The fit-out industry has experienced increased pressure to implement environmentally-responsible practices. The UAE is a signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement and by 2020, as part of Dubai’s Clean Energy Strategy 2050, the emirate intends to obtain 7% of its energy from clean sources.
As buildings are a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, more attention will be given to the construction of green buildings and the maintenance of sustainable interiors. Regulation will likely be a driver of this, but so will end-user demand. As clients become more aware of the advantages of building green, and their responsibility to the planet, they will put more pressure on the fit-out industry to implement environmentally responsible practises.
‘Rethinking’ the use of space to accommodate employees will also be a key consideration. Until recently, open plan offices were considered the best environment for staff, encouraging collaboration, innovation and team work. Now many studies have proven that a lack of privacy negatively affects concentration levels, productivity and creativity. Today, the focus is shifting towards building a space that offers the perfect balance between collaboration and privacy.
Creating workplaces and spaces that encourage employee engagement via seamless technological integration continues to shape the commercial fit-out industry. Technology is a vital component which spearheads and enables creativity amongst the workforce when its implementation is thoughtfully considered. By cleverly integrating the latest technologies into an office fit-out, employees can feel more creative, productive and engaged.
These are increasingly important considerations to bear in mind when designing the ideal workplace environment. The workspace of the future will have to be efficient, sustainable and healthy, while providing the right environment for a creative, productive and engaged workforce.
This year’s edition of the Little Green Data Book by World Bank Group, the highly reputable reference on key environmental data for over 200 economies, welcomed the inclusion of two new indicators on ambient air pollution.
Worryingly, the findings highlighted that in many countries, exposure to air pollution is increasing at a fast rate and has in fact become the main environmental threat to health. In the UAE, the emphasis on air quality is treated as a serious matter which is led by the Ministry of Environment and Water.
Although the results of both new indicators for the UAE proved to be much higher than the World Health Organisation’s recommended guidelines, the Ministry has been working hard to combat the issue and continue to improve the region’s air quality. For example, the introduction of a further eleven air quality monitoring stations are to be built as part of a new monitoring system called UAE Air Quality Network.
Although this is a commendable feat for the UAE, we believe that it is also just as important to raise awareness of indoor air pollution and put in place controls to reduce it. According to the Dubai Municipality’s Public Health and Safety Department, “people spend an average of 90 per cent of their time indoors”. Therefore, tackling indoor air pollution is a necessity, as the pollutants indoors can be just as high as outdoors and can cause harm to both the family home and working environment.
For example, indoor air quality invariably impacts the overall working atmosphere of any office space. If indoor air is polluted, employees are more likely to feel sick and uncomfortable, resulting in a negative impact on productivity levels. Indoor air can be polluted by a number of factors ranging from furniture materials used, a lack of proper housekeeping or even as a result of occupants’ activities.
What we have found is that it is also important to ensure the building or office occupancy quota does not exceed standards in workspace design as the extra bodies will impact air quality. Pollution caused by poor quality furniture and fixtures can be easily avoided by specifying or installing products and materials with low or no Volatile Organic Compound levels.
When it comes to maintenance and housekeeping works, be sure to use cleaning products that are environmentally friendly. Those that are not tend to cause micro levels of air contamination. Occupants’ activities such as smoking close to the building can be easily taken care of by ensuring designated smoking areas are away from the building.
Air pollution can also be caused by a general lack of fresh air supply. Having the right ventilation system design at the time of construction and, an operation and maintenance policy that is adhered to, will help to monitor supply of fresh air. At our LEED Gold certified showroom, sensors have been installed in closed meeting areas to ensure fresh air is pumped in when carbon dioxide levels are high. In this way, we have been able to provide 30% more fresh air in our offices than ASHRAE standards.
During the construction of our office we ensured we used low-emitting adhesives, paints and sealants, certified eco-friendly system furniture and seating, and implemented a two-week flush-out period before occupancy.
While we don’t have specific research to prove this, it is logical to say that indoor air quality can be harmed if the level of pollution outdoors is high. If your workspace is located in an industrial area or even within a busy city where the air is more polluted, it is likely to damage air quality indoors, especially if you are trying to pump in ‘fresh air’ from the outside.
Looking ahead, we are confident that decreasing air pollution will be a high priority for the Ministry of Environment and Water. However, it is important to note that it is not only the government’s responsibility, but all segments of society.
From small to large businesses, we all have a part to play — a part that can be beneficial for the business, the community in which it exists, and the planet as a whole.
By Paul Briers, Projects Director, Summertown Interiors
A healthy employee is a happy employee. Many companies now recognise employees as their most important asset. They have also realised that by focusing on employee wellness they not only improve their market reputation, but also levels of employee engagement and productivity, which positively impacts their bottom lines.
There are various workplace initiatives taking place across the UAE to promote and support a healthier lifestyle, from offering guidance on healthy eating, sleeping, and exercise to free health check-ups. As a fit-out contractor specialised in green interiors, Summertown Interiors is encouraged to see more companies rethink the way they fit-out their offices in order to promote and support a healthier lifestyle for their employees.
There is, however, an issue which is often overlooked: indoor air quality. Although a survey by the Environment Agency Abu-Dhabi shows that people are significantly more aware of the importance of air quality, with awareness rising from seven per cent in 2013 to 90 per cent in 2014, the issue of indoor air quality goes largely unnoticed. This is most likely due to a misconception that while the air is polluted outside, we are safe once inside our homes or offices. The truth is indoor air can be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air, some alarming news considering we spend 90 per cent of our time indoors.
What exactly makes the indoor air so bad? Among the pollutants in an office are chemical emissions coming from conventional building materials, furnishings, cleaning products, paints or even office products such as printers, mould and poor ventilation. The latter is particularly relevant to the UAE, where access to fresh outdoor air is not possible most of the year, making us dependent on air conditioning systems.
Having the right ventilation system design at the time of construction and, an operation and maintenance policy that is adhered to, will help to monitor supply of fresh air. At Summertown’s LEED Gold certified showroom, sensors have been installed in closed meeting areas to ensure fresh air is pumped in when carbon dioxide levels are high. In this way, we have been able to provide 30% more fresh air in our offices than ASHRAE standards.
To improve air quality, the countless toxins found in our indoor environment—such as formaldehyde, VOCs (volatile organic compounds), trichloroethylene, carbon monoxide and benzene, to name just a few—must be reduced as much as possible. Besides having a proper ventilation system, this can be done by using green certified fit-out products and materials with low or no VOC levels, proper housekeeping, and by making sure the office occupancy quote does not exceed standards in workspace design.
Adding office plants has long been a solution for improving indoor air quality and recently we have seen an increase interest in adding green walls, which are panels of plants grown vertically using hydroponics on structures that can be either free-standing or attached to walls. Not only does this improve air quality, it also provides a visual break, which studies suggest stimulates mental alertness for its occupants.
January has always typically been a month of health and wellness. Millions start the New Year on a new diet and with high hopes to follow a healthier lifestyle. Unfortunately these good intentions are often short-lived. Old habits are hard to break. However, help is at hand, and it comes in the surprising form of your employers.
With the planned roll-out of a mandatory health insurance scheme for all companies in Dubai at the start of this year, and following recent reports placing Dubai in the top 10 countries in the world for diabetes and other lifestyle diseases such as hypertension, we are seeing a prominent trend emerging in the region to incorporate health and wellness into the workplace. With the objective of promoting healthier living habits and general wellbeing among the workforce, companies are rethinking how they fit-out their offices and reviewing HR practises and incentives.
We are seeing an increase in the use of natural light in a number of projects. This not only saves money on energy bills, but is also one component of occupant health affecting productivity and both physical and mental health. The important role that natural light plays in boosting morale and wellbeing among the workforce has resulted in the incorporation of large picture windows and open terraces that enhance natural light in the office and communal areas. This can reduce a number of physical effects such as eye fatigue and headaches.
We are also seeing a number of projects with Green Walls–panels of plants, grown vertically using hydroponics on structures that can be either free-standing or attached to walls. With countless toxins found in our indoor environment, such as formaldehyde, VOCs, trichloroethylene, carbon monoxide and benzene, to name just a few, adding office plants has long been a solution for improving indoor air quality. Green walls do just that, but on a much bigger scale. Not only does this improve air quality, it also provides a visual break, which studies suggest stimulates mental alertness.
It is not just the mind and soul that is benefitting from this trend, but also the body. Companies are now actively promoting a healthier lifestyle in the workplace – from installation of employee gyms to providing advice for employees on nutrition and diet and provision of healthier food options for staff. At Summertown we run a monthly initiative including free to attend seminars, healthy snacks, and team events such as the recent Dubai Standard Chartered Marathon where more than 40 employees and their family members took part in the 10km and 3km to raise money for charity.
With so much help at hand to support an active lifestyle, it looks like 2014 is the year that your healthy resolution is here to stay.