Posted on Tuesday 26 February 2019 by Ulster Business

Nov 1

The beige, dull and lifeless workspace is out – and top NI firms are spending big money on top-end places work for their staff. Emma Deighan looks at the trends in office interiors and the businesses here that marry style with substance

The traditional corporate setup, synonymous with offices of the past, is no longer cutting it for those firms wanting to draw in the right talent and sustain that workforce, which is why the classic office environment as we once knew it has little place in a successful company.

From savvy use of space that allows employees to feel free and inspired, to collaborative areas which break the mould and work stations which promote movement and activity – the office space has evolved.

And it’s an evolution that hasn’t gone unnoticed by director of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects (RSUA), Ciaran Fox. He says office owners are increasingly seeking spaces that shout character, their expectations are heightened, and he says despite a focus on more aesthetic set-ups, office spaces are shrinking.

“Tenants’ expectations have risen,” Ciaran says. “Developers are reacting and those who are spending a bit more on design and finishes are reaping the benefits. There is a widespread realisation that the office environment is a major factor for businesses in terms of recruitment and retention of staff. As a result we’re seeing a much greater focus on those elements that affect health and happiness.”

Ciaran says office designs aren’t all about supporting workloads but more about supporting the physical and emotional wellbeing of those who work in these spaces. He says features like the provision of showers and communal exercise facilities for the active employee, places to unwind and social spots “are being given equally high priority”.

“Generally businesses want a great working atmosphere. This has resulted in a move away from the dreary corporate fitout towards offices with more natural daylight, a greater sense of space and an emphasis on beauty. In practice this has meant more exposed finishes, better materials and a sense of character.

“Indeed the search for character has seen a welcome increase in the reuse of existing buildings for offices. This is perhaps one of the most important trends with regards to sustainability. We are also starting to see more energy efficient office buildings however there is plenty of room for further improvement in this regard.

“Typically, the space for each person in offices has been reducing but that is being offset by an increase in shared space. It’s a response to flexible work patterns and sit/stand/on-the-go working. In line with these changes offices are investing in ever-better IT and communications services.”

One employer which has taken on board the needs and desires of its workforce is Allstate, which opened its new premises in Belfast last year.

The new building took two years to construct and spans six floors which include large, sociable working spaces, a restaurant, break-out areas, outdoor terrace and high-tech software development labs. The cost was £30m and the result is over 140,000 sq ft of space, which will accommodate 1,800 employees.

Its desks are height adjustable, there are showers on all floors, with a ground floor ‘shower block’, a bike rack, communal glass boards, walk-up tech support in a ‘tech cafe’ and meeting rooms, named after Belfast streets.

Managing director John Healy says the space is “inspirational” and provides a setup which promotes creativity.

“The new Belfast office is a ground-breaking facility for Allstate”, John says. “The new development has provided us with the opportunity to create an inspirational working space fit for a world-class technology organisation with a commitment to innovation, imagination and building digital technology of the future. Technology is at the heart of our progressive new workspace, and gives everyone at Allstate NI the freedom to work creatively and collaboratively.

“The investment in a modern new workplace is part of our corporate business transformation, which is focused on innovating to better serve our customers. The building delivers a stimulating, collaborative working environment for employees.”

One of Northern Ireland’s leading fitout firms, Portview, has carried out work with high-profile clients across the UK. Some of its work includes working on offices for Lush in London.

Meanwhile at over at cloud solutions firm, Novosco, an office environment with a different culture is core to its success.

Novosco director, John Lennon, said: “We have been in our current office since 2016 and, alongside our company culture, it plays a key role in helping us attract and retain talent. It has things like a staff gym, a library, a virtual reality room, a coffee dock, and quiet pods for members of our team to make private phone calls. We also have a range of spaces for team working and we’ve spent a lot of time getting the lighting and the acoustics right.

“We want our team to have a good work-life balance, but we also want them to be happy in the office so that they want to come to work, they want to be in work, and they are motivated to deliver excellent results for our clients.”

Financial services firm FinTrU also prides itself on its ability to offer its workforce a quirky but productive office environment that is home to pool and ping pong tables.

“This location has the potential to house the forecasted growth 605 jobs over the next five years and has been redesigned as a fully-modernised, fit for purpose, energy-efficient and high-quality workspace, with recreational facilities to provide a rewarding working environment for all FinTrU employees,” founder Darragh McCarthy says.

Les McCracken, managing director of McCue Crafted Fit has noted that a trend to create an “immersive experience” that was once confined to public facing sectors, has now made itself a home in the corporate world.

He said: “They (offices) too look to have a working environment, which not only optimises the space but also ensures that the workers or employees are motivated and stimulated because of the space they work in.

“McCue’s experience is that this change in culture and trends is across these many sectors. For instance, the likes of Odeon Cinemas have upped their standards to offer a luxury cinema instead of a regular cinema; the fresh handmade cosmetics brand Lush has created its very own experience for customers visiting their stores all looking at new and innovative ways to attract their customer.

“This trend in turn seems to be encroaching into the corporate world. Until recently the finance industry and banks in particular were making little change to their shop windows and offices. Danske Bank is one such organisation that has updated its interiors to reflect the brand in the last 12 to 18 months.

“This is most evident in their flagship bank in Donegall Square West, where McCue was responsible for the fit-out. It saw a much improved and efficient entrance for staff to the building; open plan office space incorporating brightly coloured bespoke soundproof booths, all within a large area providing both private spaces and social areas. This was no doubt to improve processes and efficiency for their staff.

“Much has been made in the design world that collaboration and relaxation zones, colour, transparency as well as bright offices, contribute to a happy workforce therefore a productive workforce. All of which are incorporated in many new corporate fit-outs.”

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