Guest blog by Nishar Fatema, Associate Director, Global Client Engagement, Space Matrix

On the face of it, contemporary office spaces in North America and Asia-Pacific look quite similar – open layouts, a bright and lively feel, eco-friendly features, and collaborative and social spaces. But first impressions can be deceiving. Peel the surface and you will see what sets them apart – what makes a workspace in Asia tick is not a theme based on a global template but a design strategy that accommodates local business and cultural considerations into global guidelines.

Each Asian country comes with its own distinct business culture, real estate regulations, workplace habits and weather conditions. For an American company setting up shop in Asia, the most daunting task is often to understand these myriad factors that influence design decisions. Many companies, who have set up large campuses in India and China, and regional hubs in Hong Kong and Singapore, have learned the hard way. Those who have leveraged the knowledge and experience of Asian workspace design firms have found greater success. These firms have helped American multinationals navigate complex regulatory, business and cultural factors to create productive, vibrant and engaging workspaces.

What works in North American may not work in Asia

It is a common practice in the US to go to a design consultancy firm for the design strategy and planning, and a building contractor for the design execution. This approach works well here where the variables that could impact the project schedule and cost are fewer. However, the design-and-build approach works much better while managing a project in an Asian country remotely from the US.

  1. Projects in Asia tend to have shorter timelines which makes schedule management extremely critical. Having a single point of contact for the project end-to-end means the buck stops with the design firm and there is better control of project timelines.
  2. While setting up in a new country, there is the additional risk of not being thorough with local regulations. A design-and-build partner with knowledge of local laws can be a great help.
  3. The knowledge of the end-to-end partner is helpful for incorporating localization at the planning stage. Take for instance, the choice of material for a partition. The material we use for a cubicle partition in the US is different from what we use in Asia. Cubicle sizes in Asia tend to be much smaller, which means people will touch the partition more often and only highly durable materials will survive.

The design process in the US and Asia are at different levels of maturity. Many in Asia still look at design as a commodity and are not prepared to devote much time or resources to it. To express the design philosophy well, it makes sense to work with a design firm that is attuned to global design concepts and yet is conversant with local conditions and thought processes.

Culture is an important determinant when it comes to office design. In Asian culture, business often begins in an informal environment and then moves to a formal setting. That preference needs to reflect in the workplace – provide for a coffee shop-themed space within the office where not just social conversations but also business transactions can take place. We encountered a peculiar problem while designing an office for a multinational in China. The client had wanted workstations to be placed in such a way that employees’ backs would be towards the corridor. We decided against it since in China people are uncomfortable about someone approaching them from behind as they could peek at their computer screen.

The value additions of working with Asian partners

Asian design companies are using benchmarking studies to unravel some of the subtle nuances of doing business in a country. These studies provide critical insights into industry practices. For example, what is the accepted employee-to-meeting room ratio in the financial sector in Hong Kong? Or what percentage of the office of an IT services company in India must be devoted to collaboration spaces? Another important factor that benchmarking studies reveal is the role of technology in enhancing the employee experience.

Asian design firms can act as knowledge partners that provide their clients considerable hand-holding from the time of real estate selection to the final building certification process. For instance, a design partner can advise clients on the documentation required in a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) or Software Technology Parks of India (STPI) development in India or the Philippines Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) accreditation in the Philippines. A local partner with global or regional presence also helps in streamlining the sourcing of materials and resources from different countries.

Designing a backoffice in Asia calls for a separate set of guidelines. While working on such a project for a global insurance company in Hyderabad, India, we encountered a rather unique design objective. On the one hand, the client wanted the workspace to attract the best talent and establish the brand in India; and on the other hand, it wanted the interiors to be understated. The client felt that creating a “wow effect” might send out the wrong impression to its customers, that the company was making unjustified use of customers’ money.

Winning the client’s trust is critical while managing projects remotely. Mature design firms in Asia are now offering clients access to live video streaming of project sites so that they can monitor progress at their convenience.

For senior managers in America, setting up shop in Asia is often like working through a labyrinth. However, with a partner with experience in the local market the going gets much smoother and the outcome much more successful.

Nishar Fatema is a passionate global representative, architect, workplace design strategist, artist, and a volunteer – Nishar is part of the core-cell of Space Matrix global team with a deep understanding of the workplace design & build. Her enthusiasm to share her learnings and understanding from her career in Asia, drives her thought to share her knowledge with global leaders who wish to expand in APAC region, providing efficient delivery and honest communication.

Nishar is also an author of the research piece “Understanding of an ornamentation in Islamic architecture” and contributor to a book on vernacular housing of North India called “MATRA: The measure”.