All work and no play is old way at Hong Kong's hippest offices

A few firms have caught on to the idea that a stylish workplace with a built-in fun factor can lure young talent and boost productivity

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2012, 2:56pm

The beer flows freely, and cues thwack on billiard balls. But this is not a pool hall. A pianist tickles the ivories while a fine red is uncorked. But this is not a wine bar.

Welcome to the world of upmarket offices. To project the public image they desire, and pull in the talent they need, Hong Kong companies are outdoing each other in the fabulousness of their workplaces.

Ed Ng and Terence Ngan, co-founders of the interior design firm AB Concept, immerse their clients in uber-luxury at AB Concept Atelier, their new office in Causeway Bay. The 14,000 sq ft space is designed to feel like home - that is, if your home includes a Salvador Dali sculpture, a classic Hermès lamp and a gallery-quality art collection.

Since starting out in 2001, AB Concept has carved a niche in the high-end hotel, residential and restaurant sectors. Realising that their expanded Hong Kong headquarters would be the perfect showcase for the firm's trademark upscale interior detailing, Ng and Ngan decided to furnish it with pieces from their personal collection. Rather than keep these treasures at home, Ng says: "We decided to place them where they could put a smile on the faces of clients and colleagues".

Beginning with an indoor garden sprouting out of nowhere and a giant ring sculpture that is actually a desk, the space has an Alice in Wonderland feel. That bright green toy pony is in fact a chair (made in 1973 by Eero Aarnio) and what appears to be a grand piano gleaming in the distance turns out to be a kitchen island (made from black Polyform). Curiouser and curiouser.

Clients invited into "the big room" (aka the conference room) sit on original Eames chairs by Herman Miller, the mood enhanced by a famous mug lamp from Hermès' "Petit h" project. "Everything we put in the space has an artistic quality to it," Ng says. "All the pieces speak to each other, and they have a very interesting dialogue."

There is lots more that the clients do not see: a first-class staff gym and a steam shower; a staff dining room to rival a restaurant; a materials library with so many finishing samples it would put the biggest Wan Chai showroom to shame. (There is also a real piano, which staff are welcome to play, and a wine cellar that's opened on special occasions.)

"When clients come up to our office, we want them to see we are serious about our profession: that we live up to what we promise; that we understand how people use a space," Ng says. It is good for staff morale, too, he adds. "We don't want people feeling they're suffering at work - we want them to be joyful."

Retailer Lane Crawford Joyce Group also upped the swank ante with its new headquarters in Wong Chuk Hang. The 175,000 sq ft space, spread over seven floors, converges the group's luxury department store, freestanding branded stores and e-commerce businesses. Jennifer Woo, the retailer's CEO, says the time had come "to create a new workspace that is a physical manifestation of who we are", and provide "the creative surroundings to stimulate inspiration and innovation".

Its open-plan layout is "the antithesis of a conventional, cubicled office" - a design intended to break down physical barriers and allow individuals to work creatively. Full-height glass curtain walls maximise natural light and open up expansive sea views. Although the basic structure, materials and palette are common to all floors, teams were encouraged to customise their space through the use of colour, furniture and accessories.

It's happy hour at architecture and design firm 10 Design, yet no one leaves the office. Why bother, when they can wander over to the in-house bar for free - with ice-cold beer on tap - and where billiards, table tennis and darts beckon?

The firm's partners opted for a laid-back feel in the design of the Wan Chai office, opened in October 2010. Gordon Affleck, a Scot, is the firm's official advocate of its innovative "work and play studio" concept. "We wanted the atmosphere to be more social, both for our architects and their clients," he says.

The vast, cavernous space, gutted to be completely open plan, has white walls and simple, polished concrete flooring. Big windows allow abundant natural light - perfect for the art exhibitions and other events held there.

The bosses do not "police" any of the playthings in the space, Affleck says. No one abuses the bar privileges, but staff do leave their desks at any time of the day for a "creativity-restoring" game of pool or ping pong, he adds. Clients can't resist, either. "We've had a pool tournament with a client," he says.

He believes clients appreciate the informal atmosphere of the office. One, a Zhuhai developer, liked 10 Design's office culture so much he asked if his company could copy it.

In the competitive arena of staff retention, a fun-filled workplace also helps attract talent. The firm holds an annual surfing party instead of a cocktail party, and has held team meetings on the beach - what's not to like?

It's not just creative industries that are zhooshing up their workplaces. M Moser Associates, a specialist in workplace strategy and design, sees this as a trend in Hong Kong and other global locations. Moira Moser, its chairman, says: "Today's workplace is increasingly focused on the needs of a younger more collaborative generation - those who are the best and brightest. They are the ones who will rise above the fierce competition in securing the right client, and consequently we are seeing a trend in organisations investing wisely in their workplaces to attract and support quality staff and to promote the right image to their clients."

Just one example of M Moser Associates' work is the Societe Generale Private Banking office in Hong Kong.

"It opened up the possibility of being more creative with their workplace," designer Ziggy Bautista says. "They'd previously been quite congested, and this was an opportunity for us to play around with the space and also give them more room to breathe."

Now, the red-carpeted reception area with its monolithic marble desk feels more like a luxury hotel than a bank. Artworks and books are displayed, and the meeting rooms, each named after a wine region of France, are appointed to match. The arrangement of unobstructed work stations allows staff to interact spontaneously and naturally, leading to more effective teamwork.