Do office spaces differ in developing countries?

Descending into Medellin, Colombia’s second-largest city, from nearby Rionegro, home to the Medellin’s international airport, visitors can spy the iconic Bancolombia building glinting in the middle of the city. The headquarters of the country’s biggest bank, this monument to the new Colombia has a reputation for being a good place to work, filled with all the latest mod cons.

“If you go to Bancolombia, it’s probably one of the most beautiful sites we have in the world,” says Sylvia Metayer, chief executive of worldwide corporate services at food services and facilities management giant Sodexo. “Bancolombia is very committed to giving a thriving workplace to its employees. It’s certainly very similar to what you may have in a banking site in London or in China.”

Colombia may still be a developing country by some standards, but that hasn’t stopped businesses from striving to give their employees great places to work, something that goes for other companies in developing countries all over the globe. Ms Metayer says she has seen some “mind-blowing” campuses in China and insists that, actually, workplace quality is largely due to company culture.

“Where the workplace is doesn’t necessarily drive a different type of environment,” she says. “When you do see local drivers, especially when you’re talking about the specifics of [employee] experience, you’re seeing trends that have different applicability across the globe.

“What I see more than anything is a real consistency of outcome. The input is not the same, whether you’re working in Medellin, Paris, Beijing or Johannesburg, but what [employees] want to get out of their workplace is pretty consistent.”

According to a report released by Sodexo this year, companies are focusing on redefining workplaces to optimise their employee experiences. This includes using the workplace as a catalyst for overall wellness. Putting the employee experience first, the company says, is becoming an ever-bigger trend. Globally, including in developing countries, 79 per cent of executives rate so-called design thinking – a school of thought focused on optimising and simplifying the employee experience – as an important factor of building a workplace.

How global companies adapt

Of course, unifying workplace ideals is no small feat, especially when world-spanning companies have headquarters located far away from offices, call centres or factories in other parts of the planet. For big-four accountancy firm Deloitte, which comprises of a global network of different member firms, a strict code of conduct is followed to ensure that Deloitte employees have the same opportunities the world over.

“Everything we do is guided by our shared values,” explains Michele Parmelee, Deloitte’s global managing principal for talent. “All our member firms commit to and are guided by these values, and as such these values provide a baseline of operation throughout all our workplace environments.”

For Ms Parmelee and Deloitte, the core tenets of helping all employees reach their potential lies in commitment to each other and taking strength from cultural diversity. By having a unified and expected set of standards, Deloitte ensures that all employees have the chance to learn and develop their skills.

New-build offices in developing countries such as Mexico often outshine their counterparts in Silicon Valley

Ms Parmelee says: “We support our practitioners to develop the same portfolio of world-class skills and expertise no matter where they are located across the globe… We regularly monitor the talent practices in each of our member firms to help ensure that Deloitte people are receiving a consistent talent experience.”

However, Deloitte avoids whitewashing the employee experience by encouraging member firms to adapt to the needs and wants of their local workforce. “We encourage each member firm to customise its offering to reflect the things most valued by employees in their local market and culture,” she says.

It’s not all good news

With swathes of the global garment industry’s workforce based in developing countries, factories in countries such as Cambodia or Bangladesh often leave much to be desired with regards to providing the type of workplace experience as described by Deloitte and Sodexo. While some big brands, such as Nike, flex their muscles to force factories to adopt better standards, not all are doing so.

“If you look at the global garment and footwear industry, and at the places where those products are often made, it’s an industry that is well documented as having some pretty poor working conditions,” says Dan Rees, director of Better Work, an initiative of the International Labour Organization.

Mr Rees explains that, since factory disasters in Dhaka and Savar, both in Bangladesh, resulting in the combined deaths of more than 1,200 people, garment producers and factories have started to wake up to the dangers present in industrial workplaces. “[The accidents] led to a much sharper focus on building safety and building control, which previously most companies didn’t think they had to get into,” says Mr Rees.

Globally, workplace quality remains very much a mixed bag, but large companies at least are keen to address disparities between working environments in developed and developing countries. While Ms Metayer can vouch that new-build offices in developing countries such as Mexico often outshine their counterparts in Silicon Valley, it’s clear that not all companies are thinking along the same lines. That said she also explains challenges arise more via workplace environment than business geography.

“I think the challenges come not so much by geographical location; they come from the different environments in which the employees work,” she concludes. “The environment in which the work is done is more of a differentiator than the country in which you find yourself.”