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Does a fancy office mean happier workers?

We have all enviously eyed the offices of companies such as Airbnb and Facebook. But how much does workplace design really affect staff engagement and productivity?

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NO TRADITIONAL WORKPLACE: Airbnb's new office in Singapore features open spaces for people to move around and for different teams to work closer together.

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NO TRADITIONAL WORKPLACE: Even the meeting rooms (above) are replicas of actual Airbnb apartments such as an Andy Warhol-inspired art loft in Bangkok, a caravan in Cornwall, and a villa in Bali.

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CREATIVE SCRIBBLING: Facebook’s office at South Beach Tower embodies the design and culture of its Silicon Valley office.

Singapore

STEP into Airbnb's new office on Cecil Street - and you are likely to feel like you are on a luxurious trip around the world.

The attention to detail is impressive; even the meeting rooms are replicas of actual Airbnb apartments such as an Andy Warhol-inspired art loft in Bangkok, a caravan in Cornwall, and a villa in Bali.

The lure of working in attractively designed offices such as Airbnb's can be hard to resist, but it is still debatable if such an investment is extravagance or a vital ingredient for innovation and productivity.

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While there is no denying that a well- designed workspace has its benefits, it is just one part of the whole package that makes a company a great place to work. BT talks to workplace strategy specialists to find out what office design is really all about.

Building culture

The office is not just a place to work, but a physical expression of an organisation's culture and values, says Grant Morrison, head of workplace strategy, Asia Pacific, JLL.

Even visitors are able to get a sense of a company's culture when they step into an office. "Workplaces are rarely neutral when it comes to communicating a buzz of engagement or a sluggish vibe of resignation," he points out.

More employers are now taking the connection between their workspace and what their brand exemplifies seriously.

Social networking service Facebook is one example.

Its new office at South Beach Tower embodies the design and culture of its Silicon Valley office, which stays true to its global workplace culture.

The office space has an industrial feel with piping visible on the ceiling and concrete floors, which Facebook says is a physical reminder that their journey is only one per cent done and that there is a lot more to be accomplished.

"We understand we can't build an open and connected world unless we build an open and connected company, and if you look at our office, it has been designed with connection in mind," says a Facebook spokesman.

The office is full of open spaces and breakout areas on each floor that encourage conversation and a culture of working together. It also has artwork by artists that embody the connection theme.

Likewise for online accommodation marketplace Airbnb - design is deeply embedded in its culture as the company is about people and spaces.

"Airbnb has never been a traditional workplace . . . This is reflected in the unique layout of all our global offices. Our new office captures what we value as a company: creativity, travel and thoughtful design," says Julian Persaud, regional director of Airbnb, Asia Pacific.

New way to work

Greater collaboration and innovation are touted as the biggest benefits of workspace design.

However, this has not been well understood in most contemporary workspaces, says Peter Andrew, director of Workplace Strategies Asia, CBRE.

Traditional open-plan workplaces allow for open conversations while working, but often pay minimal attention to other types of collaboration such as creative spaces to stimulate creative thinking or social areas to encourage better interaction and relationship building.

According to Mr Andrew, too much of the "wrong kind" of collaborative space can affect workers' need for concentration and focused work.

JLL's Mr Morrison observes that many offices currently provide a sea of desks plus some enclosed meeting rooms.

However, the way people work is now evolving and offices need to keep up.

According to him, a workplace that provides the right variety of space configurations and technologies aligned to specific business processes will give employees control over the way they work.

By providing workplace choice and creating space that accommodates different work styles, the company can see greater engagement and productivity, he says.

Money matters

For global companies such as Facebook and Airbnb, it is easy to understand how companies are able to make such an investment in workspace design.

But for small and medium-sized enterprises in Singapore, cost is a major consideration.

According to Toby Koh, group managing director of Ademco Security Group, his office is a very functional one. In his own words: "Not fancy, with regular work cubicles."

While a workspace still needs to be comfortable, he explains it makes more business sense for the company to have a more conservative outlook in the utilisation of space due to the high cost of real estate here.

"Physical infrastructure is just a small part of engagement and productivity. What matters more is morale, such as a sense of belonging and fighting for a common goal," he explains.

Instead of investing in designer furniture, Mr Koh says the company would rather invest in regular team-building trips overseas organised every two years.

He says the staff get very excited and engaged when the company plans such trips.

"I have a choice to spend money on nice chairs and tables, but I choose to take everyone out for team building. I think running around Angkor Wat playing fun games is a lot more meaningful than a nicer workstation," Mr Koh explains.

"Our staff realise that such company- wide trips don't happen very often in bigger firms, and I think they appreciate the company's efforts."

Striking a balance

Ultimately, workplace design is not about "cosmetic factors", says Mr Morrison. The focus should be on creating a workplace that will improve employee engagement, exemplify a company's values and drive productivity.

Office design alone is not enough to achieve such desired outcomes.

Those can be achieved only through a well-aligned strategy that incorporates physical space, people, process and culture, concludes Mr Morrison.

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