Dubai – On March 23rd, Roar founder and creative director Pallavi Dean uploaded a touching video to her Instagram: the United Arab Emirates’ design community had come together to sing Bruno Mars’ Count on Me, sending a ‘little love’ to their Italian suppliers, friends and clients amidst the COVID-19 crisis. The gesture is as much a message of encouragement as it is a reminder that we are braving the uncertainty and consequences of the pandemic together.
Within their immediate community – ‘quite small and despite having healthy competition, close-knit,’ as Dean describes it – designers in the UAE have been informally swapping tips on what’s working and what isn’t as modes of working and business shift by the day. Despite the clear challenges that this time brings, she thinks that it can be also be one for great opportunity. ‘The economic landscape is getting more competitive and the healthy rivalry is an important stimulus; it’s what keeps us innovative and moving forward,’ she explains.
The challenge is to maintain the human aspect of our job
‘The first priority is staying safe,’ Dean says. ‘But a very close second is staying in business – we’ve got salaries and contractors to pay.’ The vast majority of Roar’s projects are still going ahead, but a restaurant project has been cancelled and an office put on hold. Fortunately for the interior-design studio, the UAE’s economic stimulus plan – 36.4 billion euros in funding sourced from the central banks of the country and Saudi Arabia – and the private sector have both helped keep a flow of new enquiries and RFPs coming. Roar operates on a consultancy business model – ‘made for remote working’, as Dean puts it. As a result, her team has become more productive in many ways: hours spent in physical meetings, doing site visits and commuting have turned into video calls, slashing the amount of wasted hours. ‘The challenge is to maintain the human aspect of our job. Video is fine – where would we be without Microsoft Teams and Zoom? But sometimes you need to press the flesh and kick the tyres.’
We need to completely rethink office design... I'm calling it: the cubicle is back!
Brainstorming and doing in present tense, Dean reasons, is not enough. ‘Looking at the bigger picture, I think we need to completely rethink office design – for example, do people really want co-working spaces in a post-Covid world? Clearly video conferencing is going to gain traction, as will remote working – so how will work-station design adapt to suit those needs? I don’t have all the answers, but I think it’s safe to say the sharing desk/hot desk concept will leave a lot of people nervous. Today, most companies in the Middle East are still in the “one worker, one workstation” mindset – staff are territorial, they want somewhere to put a picture of their kids or their cats. Managers want a private office with a sofa and a personal coffee machine. They’ve been ridiculed by the “trendy” design media for being stuck in the 1980s, but it might well be the way forward. I’m calling it: the cubicle is back!’
Dean also believes that material use in product and spatial design will need to develop. ‘One word: antimicrobial. Design consultants like us have been pushing these materials for years, but they're never been the cheapest… so nine times out of 10 they just get value-engineered out of commercial projects, unless it’s a hospital or maybe a school. This will change.’
Designers are not in the front line, but we do have important innovation work to do behind the scenes
‘Designers solve problems – and we’ve got a big one here. Flushing toilets and underground sewers were only invented because the City of New York was facing epidemics. Everyone has to rise to this challenge – designers are not in the front line, but we do have important innovation work to do behind the scenes.’
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