Tech-savvy Dubai playing catch-up on wellness at work

Dubai has adopted smart technology that can measure utilisation of space and decide who we should meet at work. But why is it falling behind on wellbeing? WORKTECH Dubai brought the experts together to debate the big issues

Dubai may divide opinion on occasions, but the phenomenal and exponential growth of this forward-thinking Emirate State City is fascinating.

From having just 13 cars on the road in 1968, Dubai now has more than 1,300 skyscrapers and welcomes 70 million passengers through its airport every year. The cosmopolitan community of Dubai has become a melting pot of different cultures, ideas and thinking, creating a truly international platform for business.

Now in its second year, WORKTECH Dubai, held 26 September 2017, brought together global thought leaders and local experts to debate and discuss workplace trends from data informed architecture and customisation of spaces to blockchain, robots and even a small workout from Tim Garret, owner Healthy 4 U and Corporate Wellness Dubai to keep the audience on their toes.

Data shaping design

The conference began with Ulrich Blum from Zaha Hadid Architects explaining his methodology behind the Self Learning Workplace. Quoting Peter Sondergaard, SVP Gartner, 2011: ‘Information is the oil of the 21st century, and analytics is the combustion engine’, he went on to outline how the process of gathering data with occupation sensors can inform algorithms of movement, communication and proximity, leading to semi-automated space planning.

With examples of projects from Saudi Arabia to Belgium, as well as new organic-shaped groundscrapers in China, Ulrich illustrated how Zaha Hadid Architects has utilised this method to offer enhanced floor layouts, maximising light and space.

Primo Orpilla, Co-Founder and Principal of Studio O+A, with his portfolio of some of the most cutting edge workplaces in Silicon Valley and beyond, spoke about the increasingly sophisticated workplaces that are required to support businesses of the future and what developers need to do in order to fully activate spaces.

The evolving requirements include the incorporation of analogue environments such as ‘workshops’, as well as ‘town halls’ for large format collaboration. Primo spoke about the future requirement for real sensory experiences in the workplace, based on his installation for Samsung at this year’s Salone de Mobile in Milan, which was an exploration of human discovery of natural elements such light and water.

The robot invasion

Aiham Al-Alhras, representing Wilkommen, told us that there is only a 50 per cent chance of robots overtaking humans in the next 45 years. Reassuringly, Aiham also highlighted the fact that humans are still superior in terms of creativity and innovation, which are the top requirements of most knowledge workers.

Haworth’s Brian Kelly, reminded us that real estate remains the second largest corporate expense, with many workplaces running with vacancy of 50 to 60 per cent. Haworth Analytics is producing data via the integration of technology in its furniture that measures occupancy using heat and vibration, allowing them to create utilisation reports with a view to future-proofing real estate investment.

Philip Ross, UnWork CEO, introduced the app-centric workplace that focuses on the User Experience (UX), with new initiatives such as ‘engineered serendipity’ pushing the idea of the physical social networks, helping corporates to break down the silos. Other Ross takeaways included smart building infrastructure with the case study on the Boston Consulting Group in New York; near field communication; li-fi; and the experiential dimension of the tech-enabled workplace for the user.

In touch with nature

Wellness at work was a theme present in a number of the sessions, with Hala Yousef from Cundalls talking us through the benefits of its own WELL-approved office in the UK. HR metrics showed a drop in absenteeism of 50 per cent and a drop in staff turnover of 27 per cent. A post-occupancy survey also highlighted vast improvements in productivity (50 per cent), and sustainability, corporate image and workplace culture all showing an increase of over 60 per cent.

A panel debate expanding on the wellness topic followed, chaired by Yulliana Porter from AAID, with a panel comprising of David Clements of Future Designs, Elaine O’ Connor of JLL, Richaol Singh from Ericson, John Lee and Hala Yousef from Cundalls. The panel agreed that the UAE is currently behind Europe and the UK in this area. The UAE is possibly hampered by the hierarchal structures in organisations, but there is no doubt that local momentum to catch up will continue, especially as the commercial implications of caring for a workforce are become increasingly apparent.

Biophillia is also an important element within the wellness debate. Professor Carla M Arias of the Canadian University Dubai highlighted that having worked in the fields prior to the Industrial Revolution, we now spend one third of our lives within the confines of the working environment, in closer proximity to tech than nature. Carla outlined way to integrate connections to nature in the workplace that enhance wellbeing and performance.

Jim Taylor from Orangebox talked us though the issues of obesity, ethnic diversity, increasing height of humans, obsession tech, distracting noise levels and the need for more spaces for focused work. Taylor highlighted that so many of these bad habits begin in childhood, noting that some school conditions (particularly in terms of desk space) would actually be illegal in a corporate workplace.

Issue of short-termism

The day was rounded up with the Corenet expert panel comprising Maryanne Iles from Shell, Elliot Lewis from General Electric and Scott Barras from Standard Chartered. A key question put to them was ‘Why aren’t the best offices in the Middle East?’ The panel agreed on the ‘short termism’ that is commonplace in the region, property cycles tend to be over five years and therefore there is much less up-front investment in the fit-out of offices. Another factor is a management culture focused on maximising profit within a short space of time.

Despite this, WORKTECH Dubai left the impression that workplace standards will continue to improve. Events such as this allow the opportunity to reflect on the vast benefits of investing in the real estate and the UAE is determined to be a key global commercial hub.

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