Didi Lenz, Bene GmbH (A), talks with Ben Corrigan (B) and Dragana Cemalovic (C), Bluehaus Group, about the big changes and upcoming challenges in the future of work.
A: How do you perceive the future of work in your everyday work? What issues do you have to deal with regarding the impact of the digital transformation and different generations coming to work as employees to your company?
B: We at the Bluehaus Group are trying to understand the big changes that will take place in the next few years. I don’t think anyone has a clearly defined answer as to where we are going. We’ve seen hybrid workplaces that bring together different areas: hospitality, a bit of retail, a bit of F&B. They’re coming together in the corporate workplace and that’s exciting. We are able to challenge our clients, particularly the more established ones. We have a unique environment here in the UAE. We live in a city (Dubai) where we have every nationality on the planet coming into the UAE with different expectations. We have to design workplaces that work for everybody and then obviously bring technology into the environment. So the first thing we do is to understand what technology is going to be used, what audio or video they will need, how the IT will work, and then we designing the space based on that. We are designing spaces now to follow the technology, not the other way around.
A: What experience have you had with running your own office?
B: That’s a good question. As the leader of this business I have to ensure that our people are happy and enjoying themselves here and obviously are productive at the same time. I think within every design firm there is a sense of “the carpenter’s door is always broken” – so, are we working in the environment that is ideal for our needs? Probably not. We spend that time delivering very progressive forward-thinking workplaces for our clients. Now we’ve spent about six years integrating technologies such as virtual reality and we are now on another path with other technology. So when we talk about technology we have to be seen to be leading the way. Some of the clients are millennials, some of them have traveled the world, they are very well educated and what we are finding is that we have to strike that balance between showing the value of a human hand-drawn design process. So that they can see that we have gone through a process to arrive at their solution. But they also want to see it presented in virtual reality and in some cases have it 3D printed with all the fancy technical features. I think it’s a balance between the human aspect and driving innovation with technology.
A: I remember a visit in Zaha Hadid’s office in London where I saw crowds of people, architects all dressed in black, working behind their screens. They were all making digital sketches and expanding the boundaries of architecture. You don’t use a pencil anymore, instead you use machines. This transforms the process of constructing a building, a three-dimensional object. Is that something that will be inevitable in the future or is it just hype that will disappear again?
C: As Ben mentioned, it is very hard to predict what the future will really bring, but I think that we are in an extremely exciting time and touching on the preview question, we are probably the ones who we are going to change the most in this regard. We are at a crossroads where we are learning about what’s currently going on in the future of the workplace. When we are talking about this human aspect, I think it will also change through generations. So we see these generations, millennials and generation Z, as having different perspectives a about the human aspect. Maybe for them technology will just be very common in the future and what we do now in an old school way will be very exotic.
A: What challenges do you think will occur in the future when dealing with youngsters who are driven by new technology?
B: We have seen the UAE grow up at an incredible pace in 15 years. We’ve had to adapt to that. When we started 15 years ago as a team of four, I guess Dubai was considered to be a bit behind. You know we certainly were a long way behind Europe and the US and everywhere else that we perceived as our benchmark. Over time obviously the perception of Dubai has changed. Our team consists of 54 people with 20 nationalities. You cannot integrate technology into a business without first having a robust, collaborative, communicative culture in place. What I have learnt is that technology is clearly the way to go, but we have to balance that with a very human aspect. Clients still love to see hand drawn sketches, they love to see a thought process before the technology even comes into play. But as leaders we must not forget that despite the amazing technology we invest in, it’s very, very difficult to integrate technology into a business if your culture is not already established and robust.
A: What are the main ways to establish that kind of culture of collaboration? You call it” collision”. Collision is something contradictory, it calls for a solution to that “how-to-correlate”. What are the means to give support to that collision?
C: Our task is just to listen, to listen to the leaders, to study what their culture really wants to represent in the space. And also to listen to how the new generations want to work. They have a completely different perception of how work should be done. They can work from home, they can work from the airport. What is that element that really brings them to a space together and makes them interact in person rather than through a screen?
A: Regarding the fact that more and more workplaces are going to co-working spaces: Will there be any need for office buildings in the future to house a company’s headquarters or will there be just a mass of co-working spaces where a variety of collaborations will happen?
C: Co-working spaces are great, but they are nothing other than spaces that enable people to perform their tasks. So, whether they go somewhere else or everyone is in the same building under one name and one brand doesn’t really make a difference. We just need to make sure that these spaces enable people to perform their work in the style that it is natural to them and their age and their background.
A: So if you turn these spaces in companies into co-working spaces, will there be the same acceptance by the users?
C: Perhaps. We need to understand that the UAE has all the world’s different cultures, so that’s another layer that we need to consider. For instance, why have we placed a huge rectangular table in our break out area? Because most of the cultures here like to eat together. So we just need to understand how to cater to every culture to enable people to enjoy coming to work in one organization. The same way Google did it – by employing youngsters and offering them couches to work from. It’s just simply thinking about how they live, how they interact when they are not at work and then offering the same scenario at work.
A: What do you think of the loss of work that we will see in the coming decades? Replacement by other skills but knowing that probably we won’t be able to get the right skills at the right moment to the extent we need. So will there be an impact that we have to keep an eye on?
B: I think it is both exciting and scary. This seems to be the general consensus amongst most people. I do take an optimistic view and I have my own theory, which is that, if you look at how many entrepreneurs your grandparents know, it is probably zero. How many entrepreneurs do your parents know? Maybe one or two. I am sure all of us in this room know at least a dozen entrepreneurs and I think our kids will think nothing about starting their own business. In fact, they may have multiple businesses. It also depends on whether you define an uber driver as an entrepreneur. I do. Do you define a KFC franchise as an entrepreneur? I would. What I find exciting is the idea that we will all be entrepreneurs in the future, and we will all be in charge of our destinies. Our kids will be able to establish a business over the phone, overnight and have multiple businesses and choose their own hours. That I guess is my optimistic theory. Whether this comes true or not, who knows. Because there is another argument too. You know it also depends on which parts of the world you are in. There are countries in the world that may suffer from automation more than others but the advent of technology and the ability to start a business I think is exciting for our kids’ generations.
What will not change is the need for collaboration and the need for human interaction. You asked earlier whether companies still need a HQ. My sense is that you still have to have a strong culture within any business and that will be true whether a co-working space is leased by an organization or they have their own huge building. It will be a little bit of everything, but I don’t see this need for people to come together changing. We’ve already seen some backtracking in organizations all over the world. They went for 100% flexible working and it didn’t work. They pulled everybody back to the building. So we have seen this backtracking and I think for the right reasons. If you design the space like you said, Dragana. They enjoy the designed workplaces, they enjoy being here. The workplaces are quite homely, they are quite warm, there are comfortable spaces. So let’s create spaces that people enjoy spending time in.
Ben Corrigan is the CEO and Founder of Bluehaus Group. Ben is passionate about well-considered robust design and the importance of coordination. Ben plays an active role in driving business culture within Bluehaus Group to build on the already strong corporate values of the group. As an established ‘Associate – Interior Designer’ with Bluehaus Group, Dragana Cemalovic is responsible for leading a team of Interior Designers and to aid in the consistent delivery of quality and innovation of design. Whether working in a team or alone, Dragana’s passion for smart, high-quality and pragmatic design is reflected and proven through the consistent and successful delivery of her projects. Explore more about the Bluehaus Group: http://bluehausgroup.com/