Look and Feel of a Modern Office


A staff kitchen at EABL. PHOTO | COURTESY

What is an ideal workplace for you? What features should such a workstation have? Is it comfort and flexibility or functionality and quietness?

The design of a workstation affects the mood and attitude of those who work there, and significantly influences how people relate with each other. For some, office is the second home.

Picture this. You walk into the office in the morning, grab your laptop and head to the office bar or balcony where you get down to work. In this office, there are no designated work stations and everyone, including the general manager, sits wherever they choose.

You can work sprawled on the couch, and if you crave a private moment, there are sealed compartments that offer this privacy. No one questions what time you report to work, because here, deliverables, and not the number of hours clocked, is what matters. Interestingly, you are at liberty to have a drink at the bar—if that’s what stimulates your creative juices.

This is the future of the workplace, a dramatic departure from the traditional office set-up where workers in different departments sit in an open plan office, supervisors have labelled private cubicles and the company chief executive occupies the corner office.

Here, furniture, type of equipment and privileges differ by rank, where senior employees have the best quality.

In the old-fashioned office set-up, interactions are also limited between specific people. The office plan influences who interacts with senior managers, when the interactions happen and for what reasons, usually in a top-down fashion.

Everyone frowns upon being in the boss’s office.

This though is fast changing. The modern office format dismantles the conventional hierarchical layout, and instead emphasises freedom, flexibility and fun at work.

As the world of work fast evolves globally, HR managers and employers are having to reimagine the workplace, and to project future developments in response to the preferences of their employees, especially millennials whose tastes are more erratic.

East African Breweries Limited (EABL) blazed the trail of the changing office plan landscape in the region when they recently launched a new office complex at their headquarters in Nairobi’s Ruaraka.


A communal workstation at EABL's new offices in Ruaraka. PHOTO | COURTESY

The fully automated space occupying three floors at the Garden City Business Park is characterised by agile sitting spaces of bar-like stools, cosy chairs and couches, working benches carved out of rustic wood, bars, kitchens, all accentuated by minimalistic yet vibrant décor of predominantly Afrocentric theme.

Its décor, lighting, somewhat eccentric furniture and sheer size all lend this space the look and feel of a giant restaurant. Staff engrossed in their smartphones and laptops cut the figure of patrons minding their business at an eatery. Only these are busy working.

On the motivation behind the new office format, EABL director of human resources Ednah Otieno says that this new format “recognises the totality of the well-being of employees” and allows them to be “fully expressed.”

“We spend a significant proportion of our life seated at our workplaces,” Ednah explains.

“The idea was to make people be who they want to be while at work, to give them flexibility, agility and the best space to do their job.”

Confining employees to a specific type of workplace for a specific number of hours every day is not the most productive style, she argues.

“Our seating spaces are divided into personalised sections, open plan spaces with no barriers and those that encourage collaborative working. Based on what an employee wishes to do on any given day, they might want to use the various spaces differently,” she adds.

Ednah acknowledges the growing desire among professionals to telecommute, noting that when the workplace provides comfort and flexibility, this reduces the need to work from home.

“Creating and recreating the most desired setting for employees every day at work enhances their productivity,” she notes.

Isn’t this arrangement chaotic? And what limitations does it have? Is it possible to monitor if people are actually working?

“The automation allows an individual or a group to book a space real time. This effectively bars different groups from booking a space at the same time,” she says.

This feature also eliminates the common workplace occurrence where teams clash over extended use of conference halls.

On monitoring employees’ behaviour, she says: “The performance pressure is so high today. No one has the time to inspect when you come in, where you sit or how you’re dressed,” Ednah observes.

“Sway in your seat as much as you want. At the end of the day, you must deliver,” she says, noting that EABL has hard metrics to ensure that people deliver results.

“Our goal was to make our employees happy. There is a performance dividend when you work with happy people,” she says.

So, how are HR managers able to assess the mood, attitude and productivity of their employees in this type of structure?

“Putting up a flexible office space doesn’t change the underlying issues in an organisation,” Ednah says. “To understand and diagnose issues relating to performance challenges and engagement in a business have to be dealt with in the most traditional of ways, both formally and informally.”