Taking The Corporate Edge Of Corporate Spaces

On an early season of Mad Men, young advertising executive Pete Campbell gets a promotion and a private office to boot. But rather than the expansive Don Draper or Roger Sterling-type room with a view, Pete is reduced to an interior cubby hole with a column in the middle. Most of the episode focuses on Pete trying to swap his meagre digs for a space that he feels would be worthy of his contributions to the firm. While that ’60s attitude towards office design may still hold true for professions such as law, a more democratic approach to corporate space planning is now the norm for the typical Hong Kong work place.

David Wong should know. The LEED-certified Authorized Person is a director with Hong Kong-based Richards Basmajian (RB), one of the city’s leading corporate interior design firms for almost three decades. Founded by Englishman David Richards and American Peter Basmajian, about 98 percent of RB’s work is in Hong Kong. Wong originally joined RB in 1993 after studying in New York and working in Taiwan, and currently oversees one of the three teams that specialises in corporate and hospitality design.

“Twenty years ago, privacy and status were keys to our approach when it came to corporate offices,” Wong recalls. “The big boss was always in the corner office, the senior management was in offices along the perimeter and everyone else was stuck in cubicles with high panels. Although there are still some traditional offices like that today, we are increasingly planning open offices without any panels at all. The L-shaped desk with side cabinet is virtually gone; instead, people are in benches and have less personal space. Staff members sit closer together and furniture allows them to collaborate more.”

While the real estate required remains more or less the same, the decrease in individual workspace has led to an increase in common spaces. “It is not easy to retain a good employee in Hong Kong,” Wong says. “Many people live in teeny flats and appreciate a spacious office. But if you make someone sit directly across from his colleague in a small space, you have to give him something in return. That may be a lounge for relaxing or casual impromptu meetings. It may be a more generous pantry with lots of space for lunch or coffee breaks. We are increasingly designing quiet rooms: small, enclosed rooms that the staff can use temporarily for concentrated work or a confidential phone conversation.”

“For some industries such as sales or marketing where many employees spend their time outside of the office on calls, we include undedicated desks — called hot desks — for staff to use if they happen to be in the office that day. These typically come with mobile lockers for staff to store their personal items, which can be wheeled to the desk they are occupying that day. But this approach does not always work in Hong Kong, since many people would prefer to personalise a dedicated space.”

Spaces such as server and photocopy rooms have remained the same in size, but have become more complicated to design. “In a server room, the hardware may have gotten smaller, but now there is more of it,” Wong states. “Sophisticated equipment often comes with a lot of conditions, such as a dust free environment. Copy rooms require extra ventilation due to toner discharge affecting overall air quality.”

With the myriad of sophisticated materials available to designers, furniture, fixtures and materials in offices have become much more bold and colourful. Wong often sees the budget being placed on public facilities such as reception, waiting areas and conference rooms to project a certain company image to the outside world. There is also more of an emphasis on green design elements, such as energy saving lighting, water saving faucets, and materials made with high recycled content or rapidly renewable resources such as bamboo flooring.

“Since 9/11, there are more security concerns today,” Wong adds. “Not due to possibility of theft, but about personal security. Before IFC and other Grade A buildings like it, we never had to register our ID cards to enter a building. Now, there is much more sensitivity to the nature of a business and how it conducts it. For example, one of our clients may see protesters storm its premises, then we need to incorporate easily retractable gates to stop them from entering. Both building and individual tenant security have stepped up in the past decade.”