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Staff comfort, wellbeing influences new office designs

By Mkala Mwaghesha | April 14th 2016

Are you bored with sitting on your desk all day? Are you stressed that you do not trust the nanny you left your new-born baby with? Or do you feel like your employer should factor in your gym time?

In other words: What can my employer do to make my life easier?

As Home & Away found out, some companies are taking employee comfort seriously. Take Unilever East Africa, for instance. From Industrial Area where they were situated, the firm this year moved into world-class offices at the Water Mark Business Park in Nairobi's Karen.

The office, according to Unilever, has been designed "to celebrate and foster a collaborative and agile working environment through its open plan layout that removes traditional hierarchical office layout structures, as the CEO and leadership will seat with their teams".

Ms Salome Nderitu, Unilever's human resource director, explains that these office trends are indicative of what the corporate world currently demands. 

Unilever prides themselves with the concept of ‘hot desks’. “We have built this around flexible work areas with teams co-located but no fixed desks and no assigned spaces. Additionally, we run a clean desk policy each evening with everyone having a locker to keep their belongings,” said Nderitu.

“The hot desks, coupled with our open layout plan, has seen barriers between teams dissolve and productivity rise, with people happier and better connected. It creates a world class, modern and light environment for everyone,” says Nderitu. “Management becomes more open and the whole team ethos grows.”

“Put simply, they work,” says Nderitu.

“We know that globally this model of office makes people proud of the company they work for, happier in their work space and builds a sense of teamwork and collaboration.

“We were keen to create a fully East Africa identity with the office as a regional hub and this model helps break down the silos and inefficiencies that come when people are divided by team and office,” says Nderitu. “Overall, it is also a more efficient use of space with people speaking more than e-mailing and many people also have reduced travel times.”


Another company that is taking a different approach to the work space is Safaricom. “For any employee to work with efficiency and maximum concentration, their bodies and mind has to be in sync,” says Mr Peter Kioko, facilities manager at Safaricom's Waiyaki Way office, as he took this writer through a tour of the office. “We are in a very competitive world where an employee is always looking at working in a place that affords them something extra.”

In one room, a clinic, employees are seated on a long settee, waiting for their turn to be attended to. A few steps away, a door indicates ‘Mothers’ Room’. This is a room to cater for women who have recently become mothers. Our photographer can not access the area as it is occupied.

We move to the ground floor, where we visit two prayer rooms -- one for Christians and another for Muslims. Both are well carpeted. All through the building, piped music sips through.

“This is not just a trend that is passing. Studies have been done globally and we are just borrowing what modern office space entails. We are dealing with different demographics in the offices and we accommodate a prayer room for those who regularly need intimate time with their creator,” says Kioko.

Besides a spacious cafeteria and a recovery room -- where staff recovering from sickness or those not feeling well can lay for some time -- the building has a modern, well-equipped gym and a multipurpose space, the Michael Joseph (MJ) Centre. With a cocktail bar on one side, the space is decorated with local art and it can be used for cocktail events, music concerts, plays and even mentorship talks.

And it is not just the multi-billion shilling behemoths that are going this direction. A while ago, Home & Away toured the offices of One Africa Media, the mother company to Brighter Monday, Buyrent Kenya, Staynow and Cheki.co.ke.

At the time, our writer Peter Muiruri described the offices as looking more like an amusement park -- mini Jurassic Park were his exact words; with recycled materials cobbled together to create eye-catching designs meant to create an easy office environment.

OLX Kenya offices in Nairobi's Westlands, on the other hand, are designed with the company’s business in mind, a marketplace. Murals on the walls represent different trading spaces (markets). The company also has a lounge set aside as an entertainment space. Colourfully decorated, it presents employees with an informal space to unwind and hold meetings.

Work-life balance

The key phrase being achieving a work-life balance. The trends and innovation being applied into office spaces have been widely welcomed.

A report by Mentor Management Ltd in 2014 accused developers of not meeting the demands of modern offices.

It said most developers were not building offices in sync with what most urban companies are looking for.

“Developers are not responding to the rising demand for buildings with high quality, specifications and car parks, especially for grade B space,” said Mentor CEO James Hoddell.

With an appealing gym, a rest room or a fully-stocked restaurant at the corner space, how do companies ensure staff do not abuse office hours by over-indulging in these facilities?

“At Unilever, we focus on employee output rather than time and attendance. This way, everyone is able to plan and manage time wisely and use these facilities as a source of motivation, teamwork and more collaboration,” says Nderitu.

“It is important to note that the design of an office impacts the health, well-being and productivity of its occupants. These features of our modern office have a positive impact on time management of employees rather than a negative one.”

According to Kioko, Safaricom banks on the staff being responsible enough not to use office hours to access the facilities.

Outside the Safaricom office, at one corner, sits a colourful creche. A green carpet is well laid out the entire length of the facility. It looks like a misplaced children’s playground.

“There are attendants who look after the children. The attendants maintain the highest safety and health standards. All that our staff need to do is bring their children along with a change of clothes and food, and they do not need to worry anymore for the rest of the day,” says Kioko.

Other offices such as Coca Cola's and Google's have also embraced the modern, trendy facilities and designs.

In short, the future of the office space is ensuring maximum cooperation, coordination and easy brainstorming.

“That these kind of creative solutions bring people together in ways that they can be at their best is certainly the future of office spaces,” says Nderitu.

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