Workplace Technology

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Creating activity based spaces that encourage employee engagement and collaboration via seamless technological integration continues to shape the workplace

However, in the 2016 Dell and Intel Future Workforce Study, 44% of employees are of the view that their workplace is not “smart” enough. Additionally, more than 50% of employees expect to be engaged in “smart” workplaces within the next five years. Businesses that have not considered upgrading their offices may have to realign their priorities when it comes to meeting the expectations of new talent.

By cleverly integrating the latest technologies into an office fit-out, employees can feel more creative, productive and engaged. A study by Steelcase and Microsoft has shown that the creativity process requires diverse work modes as well as different types of technology. Whether working alone or in groups, activity based working demands a need for a range of devices that are mobile and integrated into the physical workplace.

Recently, in partnership with Design Worldwide Partnership, Summertown completed the fit-out of the Smart Dubai office – the headquarters of Dubai’s tech-led Smart City initiative. Smart Dubai wanted innovative technology in their workplace that embraced their core values and mission to establish Dubai as the most efficient, seamless, safe and impactful experience for residents and visitors.

The office was designed to encourage collaboration via cleverly integrated sharable ‘digital spaces’. Meeting rooms featured seamless connectivity with multiple devices and writable walls to help foster creativity and productivity. Additional technology installed included a virtual unmanned reception, a café with a curved LED screen to broadcast live feeds of social media and events, an auditorium with flexible seating and quiet zones where employees can choose to work thanks to 24/7 wireless connectivity.

The technology integrated in the Smart Dubai office is a prime example of the UAE leadership’s commitment to becoming one of the world’s best connected cities. As new technologies and working habits continue to transform traditional workplaces, designers, architects and workspace solution providers will have to work together to introduce these principles into projects to increase user satisfaction and productivity.


Dubai welcomes new green building regulations

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By Marcos Bish, Managing Director, Summertown Interiors

The Dubai Municipality’s decision to introduce Al Safat, a green building rating system for new buildings in Dubai is set to improve corporate sustainability in the UAE. The rating system has been designed to achieve high sustainable performance of buildings by strengthening their planning, design, implementation and operational phases.

It is now mandatory for all building owners, investors and developers to meet the Al Safat’s minimum bronze rating – those failing to meet the minimum rating criteria will not be given permits. According to the Dubai Municipality, by applying Al Safat standards a building can produce savings in energy use of up to 34 per cent – currently, more than 90 per cent of buildings in Dubai constructed after 2001 already meet the necessary criteria to qualify for the bronze certification.

The introduction of Al Safat is a promising move by the Dubai Municipality – since Dubai pledged to make Expo 2020 the first sustainable Expo the UAE Government has made very clear its intention to become a successful model of a sustainable economy and has put in place some ambitious targets to make this vision a reality.

The UAE Government’s implementation of plans and policies such as the Al Safat System are highly important in helping to promote and enforce policies to reduce its carbon footprint. Dubai’s commitment to becoming a world leading ‘green’ city provides businesses with an opportunity to understand and implement strategies that can translate to their bottom line.

Millennials influencing workplace design in the UAE

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By Marcos Bish, Managing Director, Summertown Interiors

The UAE’s commercial fit-out market has experienced a greater demand for office workplaces that meet the expectations of the ‘Millennial Generation’ who are reshaping workplace design in the UAE. This ambitious, tech-savvy generation has notably different working styles and preferences than other generations and place much higher value on the office environment and workplace culture. Designers, architects and workspace experts have started to introduce these principles into their projects to increase user satisfaction and productivity.

Millennials look for collaborative working environments where they can share ideas and learn from their colleagues. As ‘digital natives’ they rely on 24/7 connectivity to technology so they feel less reason to be tied to a desk. Offices that are designed to encourage collaboration via cleverly integrated sharable ‘digital spaces’, such as a top-of-the-range conference rooms, help to foster collaboration and improve creativity and productivity within the workplace.
Transparency is one of the top qualities that Millennials look for in leaders – honest, open cultures where there are limited barriers between management teams. This is reflected in office fit-outs where the focus is shifting towards open and airy spaces. Glass partitions for office cubicles are increasingly favoured over gypsum partitions. However, these open spaces also need to be balanced with private areas. Millennials want to know their colleagues are always approachable, but also want to enjoy their own privacy when they need to concentrate.

‘Rethinking’ the use of space has fast become a top priority for companies in order to encourage employee engagement. Many Millennials want to feel that their company really cares about their wellbeing and this has seen a rise in the demand for health amenities in the workplace. From yoga rooms, to pantries stocked with free and healthy foods and sleep corners, companies are increasingly understanding the role that the physical environment plays in promoting wellbeing at work.

‘Millennial offices’ are firmly shaping the future of the corporate real estate industry. By 2020 Millennials will form 50% of the global workforce and, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF), the UAE is the top emerging market destination for young professionals looking to further their careers. Interestingly, a survey carried out by HSBC’s private banking arm showed that the UAE has the youngest successful entrepreneurs in the world.

Investing in the workspace should not be considered an extra cost, but an investment that has a positive impact on employees’ happiness, productivity, and loyalty. This will, in turn, enhance the organisation’s overall success. As Millennials continue to dominate the workforce, companies must adapt to new ways of doing business in order to retain employees and encourage productivity.

Increased corporate sustainability awareness needed in the UAE

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By Marcos Bish, Managing Director, Summertown Interiors

Despite the progressive measures the UAE Government is taking to make the country a successful global model of sustainable development, UAE businesses are still considerably behind their Western counterparts when it comes to implementing sustainable practises.

Since Dubai pledged to make Expo 2020 the first sustainable expo, the UAE’s sustainable development agenda has been thrust into the global spotlight. The UAE Government has made very clear its intention to become a successful model of a sustainable economy and has put in place some ambitious targets to make this vision a reality.

In 2015, His Highness Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, launched the Dubai Clean Energy Strategy 2050. This aims to make Dubai a global centre of clean energy and green economy by providing 7% of Dubai’s energy from clean energy sources by 2020, 25% by 2030 and 75% by 2050.

The UAE through its diverse strategies and investments in clean and renewable energy is leading global efforts in this area, despite having the second-largest oil reserves in the world. Since the recent unveiling of the new cabinet including the appointment of Thani Kharkhash as Minister of State for Climate Change and Environment, much effort is being put into diversifying the UAE’s economy away from oil by 2021 to create a business environment that ensures economic and social stability.

Although there has been an increased interest in building green in the past few years, the corporate and economic benefits of sustainability are still underestimated in the region. Being green is a lifestyle choice and a business strategy, which, if done well, positively impacts the company’s bottom line. People will be more engaged and work better together, costs will be managed more efficiently, and the company will gain credibility in the market.

As a company that walks the talk, our clients, partners and the business community in general look to us for advice and knowledge when it comes to integrating sustainability into their business operations. From our own experience, the most common mistake companies make when they want to embrace sustainability is having too narrow a vision: setting just a few goals and metrics for measurement, and then following those without looking at the big picture.

Sustainability has always been at the forefront of Summertown’s operations and we will continue to pioneer the ‘green’ movement here in the UAE. We look to inspire and help other companies to integrate ‘green’ practises into their business strategy to help sustainability become the standard modus operandi, both in the UAE and worldwide.

Top trends towards a more productive workplace

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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.

Air pollution control in the UAE – both outdoor and indoor

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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.

The role of bespoke in interior design

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By Marcos Bish, Managing Director, Summertown Interiors

I recently attended a panel discussion at Design Days Dubai on the role and value of bespoke in interior design. The panel included members from Capsule Art, Pallavi Dean Interiors and the UK Crafts Council, and the main focus of the discussion related to commissioning bespoke art for interior design projects.
Bespoke is a subject that is close to my heart, not only because Summertown Interiors recently commissioned bespoke art for our office from Mawaheb, a local art studio for adults with special needs, but also because of the highly personalised service that we offer our clients, particularly for green fit-out projects. A number of points raised during the talk resonated with Summertown’s business, and I left with the impression that from a designer’s point of view there are many similarities between convincing a client to commission a piece of art and convincing them to opt for a green fit-out.

It was agreed that there is a common misconception that commissioning bespoke art is a risk, whereas buying something that is ready-made and tangible is a safe option. The opposite is in fact true. A bespoke piece of art or furniture is personalised – it has been created to be just right for the client and to fit their brief as closely as possible.

The same can be said for a green fit-out. When looking at ways to reduce waste and carbon emissions while creating a healthier workspace, the designer and contractor take must take into account the individual behaviour of the occupants, paying close attention to the workspace and maximizing it to the full.  Green fit-outs, particularly retro fit projects, also encompass a number of creative resourceful solutions that are bespoke through the reuse of existing materials. For example, in one of our projects The Change Initiative, we removed the marble flooring and reused it in the kitchen, and reused wooden flooring to make the wooden wall paneling.

Another point raised during the talk was that clients felt commissioning art was expensive. This is also a main factor that is considered when it comes to a green fit-out. A green fit-out costs only marginally more than one that is not – approx. 1-2% for a project that is certified at the lower level, and up to a 20% increase for the higher rating; ‘going green’, however, delivers major benefits in the long run due to operational cost savings for the building occupants.

Again we see a similarity with original art work in that green design really comes into its own as time passes. Landlords will see their building appreciate in value as the benefits of the project start to be felt. We estimate that ROI for a green project is between 1 and 8 years, depending on the size and scale of a project.
The talk ended on a positive note – the design industry in Dubai is one of the most exciting in the world. UAE projects want to push the boundaries and be the biggest and the best. For everyone in the industry this is great news. Once clients understand the role of bespoke, green, and customisation, and value their many benefits, we will start to see some major developments in the industry and, knowing the UAE, it will happen sooner than we think.

A Healthy Resolution

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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.

The Evolution of Office Design

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I am sure by now you would have heard the somewhat alarming statistic that over 30 per cent of our life will be spent at work. We all know that colleagues can become like family and equally the office can become a second home.  Employers are increasingly aware of the importance of providing employees with a workplace that they look forward to coming to everyday – this not only applies to the people they work with but the environment that they are in. It has been proven that the built environment can not only inspire but also relieve and heal as with the case of Maggie Cancer Care Centres, for example, in the United Kingdom. Office design also plays an important role in ensuring that you get the best from your employees, and its evolution over the years has developed to reflect this.

We have witnessed a marked shift in the way offices are designed; the market has moved away from fixed bespoke joinery items in favour of more flexible off-the-shelf furniture. In order to meet the demands of a mobile workforce, companies are choosing open plan, activity-based layouts to facilitate a more collaborative approach to work and personal accountability.

Workplaces today increasingly reflect this requirement for transparency where solid wooden doors and partitions have been replaced with glazing set in aluminium or steel frames. Also, long shared desks with mobile pedestals are increasingly replacing single workstations.  Efficient use of office furniture increases maximizes available floor space and provides opportunities to introduce breakout areas where staff can gather and collaborate, an important requirement among the millennial generation.

Along with an open plan office deign, we are also seeing an increasing awareness of environmental concerns such as recycling stations and energy saving lighting. This is for several reasons including cost savings, enhancing the company’s image, and of course saving the earth!

Gone are the days of dark, monotone offices – office design is now considered an essential part of an organisation’s image and brand. It is the ‘face’ of a company and is often a critical factor in recruiting and retaining talent. Given that the future of this trend is focused on making employees lives that much more enjoyable at work, this is good news for 30 per cent of all our lives!

Are we ready to welcome the green building regulations?

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By Marcos Bish, Managing Director, Summertown Interiors

The Green Building regulations, first established by the Dubai Municipality in 2008, will finally be made mandatory for the private sector in early 2014. While this is a welcome introduction in the UAE’s sustainability charter, are we, as an industry, ready yet? Have we educated ourselves enough? Are we prepared for certain changes and uncertain expectations?

Preparation is key if you want to adapt to change quickly and effectively, whether within an organisation or within the industry. Here are a few things we all can and should work on:

1)  Familiarise yourself with the rules: why wait for the regulations to actually come into effect? Let’s use the time to familiarise ourselves and our teams with the rules and project how these will impact our current processes. Use web materials shared by the Dubai Municipality, hear from experts, discuss potential changes with your industry peers and, if you are a developer, find yourself a trusted consultant who can give you the best advice. Organisers of The Big 5 convened a webinar last week in which representatives of the Dubai Municipality presented crucial information about the upcoming regulations and answered questions from attendees.

2)   Define roles and responsibilities: this is something you should do long before regulations actually come into effect to avoid making sudden changes to business processes later. It may involve ironing out both internal and external processes, whether it is deciding who will look after new documentation procedures, who will manage product certifications or how much of the regulation responsibility will be shared by your partners. At Summertown, we’ve learnt that the best way to run a project is to get our employees involved right from the beginning. Form an internal taskforce who will be responsible to both allocate and manage the achievement of environmental goals – this will ensure their ownership and commitment to the task from the very beginning.

3)   Understand that change requires a shift in mind set too – the industry has been asking for mandatory regulation of sustainable building practices for a long time now. However, as this comes into effect, we should not start believing that this is the be all and end all. Regulation is only one step in the right direction for making our community and environment more sustainable for future generations. All of us and, particularly, the design and construction industry, have a civic duty to reduce our environmental footprint. While regulation will ensure better green compliance, sustainability should be a voluntary code we should all practice without further delay.