Facebook's Dubai office sets the tone for workplace innovation

Step into Facebook’s Mena headquarters, just off Sheikh Zayed Road, and quirky, eye-catching features abound, as you would probably expect from the company with a reputation for being disruptively innovative.

There is the majlis-style booth, where traditional Arabic furniture and ornaments have been glued to a side wall, making you appear to be standing on the wall when a photograph is taken.

Visitors can also pose at the selfie station, with a cut-out Facebook “like” logo.

But playful gimmicks aside, what makes the office a space designed to foster innovation, as well as collaboration, is the mix of open office space and round-table meeting rooms with quiet corners, where you can sit on retro-style armchairs and concentrate on the task at hand.

Facebook’s managing director, Jonathan Labin, often grabs his laptop and heads for one of the four spacious balconies to put his feet up on a sofa and get stuck into his emails.

“When it’s not too hot, I’m on the balcony in the afternoon – it’s a perfect place to answer emails and get a bit of quiet thinking done,” he says.

No one who works for Facebook has their own office – not even Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive. But although Facebook’s headquarters in California is the largest open-plan workspace in the world, there are also has meeting and conference rooms scattered around and quiet corners to think.

The social media giant is at the forefront of a global trend that the vice president of global communications for the office furniture manufacturer Steelcase, Gale Loutrey, has picked up on.

“Organisations like Facebook are evolving,” she says. “We see a lot of companies, when they first start up, striving to be hip and designing their office space to be very open, to foster a high degree of collaboration. But these companies are starting to rethink this a little bit. They’re trying to figure out how they can still make it look very current and progressive, but actually add back in places where there is a little more privacy, that aren’t always as frantic and noisy.”

Not every company has the time or money to give their office space a Facebook makeover. The Steelcase Global Report: Engagement and the Global Workplace, published in March, found that 52 per cent of employees in the UAE work either in a traditional private (or shared private) office, compared with 37 per cent globally. Entirely open-plan offices are also relatively uncommon – 11 per cent compared with the global average of 23 per cent.

Engagement and satisfaction levels of UAE workers are significantly above global averages, with 20 per cent of the workers highly engaged and highly satisfied, compared with a dismal global average of just 13 per cent.

“As we analysed this data, it was interesting to us how consistently the most engaged workers were those who had more control over their work experience, including the ability to concentrate easily and work in teams without being interrupted,” says Christine Congdon, the director of research communications at Steelcase.

“Workers who have the ability to choose where they wish to work in the office, based on the task they have to do, are much more engaged in their work,” she says.

An increasing preoccupation with staff wellness is also affecting office design in the UAE. “There is a rise in the demand for health amenities in the workplace,” says Marcos Bish, the managing director of Summertown Interiors in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. “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 well-being at work.”

When the Facebook staff based in Dubai get peckish, they can help themselves to free healthy treats in the office snack bar, and when they want to get their blood flowing, they challenge each other to a round of table football, darts or table tennis.

Ms Loutrey claims movement is key to making employees more productive. “To move frequently throughout the day really matters, not just physically but cognitively,” she says. “We’ve learnt so much more now about how the brain works better when the body is working and how the opposite holds true as well. We are seeing a lot of people having walking meetings, whether their discussions are in person or on the phone.”

One of Steelcase’s bestselling items is the sit2stand desk, which enables users to push a button and go to almost any height they need.

“Actually, whether we’re sitting down or standing all the time, neither is really good for you,” says Ms Loutrey. “It’s about movement – if you are sitting, you should be able to move freely and easily. Then employees feel they have more choice and control over how they work.”


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