As we all embark on a gradual return to normality post-pandemic, Paul Black can afford himself the luxury of being optimistic that his teams in Northern Ireland and across the British Isles are likely to be busier and busier. Paul’s Alpha Group, from its Belfast roots, has grown into one of the UK and Ireland’s leading office design and office furniture specialists, responsible for a wide range of workplace environments across the islands. With workplaces undergoing the kind of change no one could have envisaged just over a year ago, the Group is well placed to reap the benefits. “It’s going to be a slow return to office working and there’s no doubt that it is going to be different,” says Paul Black. “Like almost everyone else, I don’t think we’ll ever see a 100% return to office working. “We have all seen, ourselves included, that home working does work. So going forward it will be about proactively managing the space that we have, making it safer for employees and for visitors. We’re on site in Belfast now re-purposing workplaces on behalf of clients. They are creating a destination for their people, with the expectation that they’ll come in two or maybe three days a week. With a third or half occupancy at most, they take all the pressure off the available space. “If you had asked me 15 or 20 years ago what we did, I’d have said that we sell desks. Five years ago, it became more about assisting our clients to retain staff by creating vibrant and welcoming workplaces. Now it is about re working these spaces to make sure that people feel comfortable coming back.” Alpha’s teams, he says, have been working on open plan office spaces with an increased emphasis on the best use of space – a distinct move away from old style operations involved banks of desks. “I hear lots of people say that productivity isn’t affected by home working, and that’s true. But, in a company like our’s and I suspect many others, the best ideas come from people meeting and collaborating. There are some things you can’t achieve on Teams or Zoom. “So I really do think that there’s an appetite to get back to the office, even if it is for two or three days a week. I think that the vast majority of organisations will be able to move towards hybrid working models. It can be done and it’s definitely nothing to be worried about.” Like many in business, Paul Black welcomes the success and speed of Northern Ireland’s vaccination programme, another factor which should facilitate a gradual return to workplaces over the coming months. “It’s so important,” he says. “The city has lost its soul and it needs to get it back. It’s been a very sad place to walk around over the past few months.” The question of when city centre offices will start to come alive is a bit more difficult. “I do think that once anyone of any size and scale returns, there will be lot of other following their lead. There are a few significant fit outs going on in Belfast at the moment and, once they’re completed and restrictions allow, there will be an increased appetite to return. “I think we’ll see quite a few people back in by August with another increase in the early autumn,” he predicts. The company has clients as far afield as Australia where workplaces are pretty much back to normal. “We’re hearing that they’re delighted to be back, and that absenteeism is running close to zero.” Alpha has continued to work throughout the pandemic, even during the early days of the first lockdown. “We were lucky to have a few big contracts which started before the pandemic and continued on. One of those was a major Boeing/MoD contract at the big Lossiemouth base in the very north of Scotland. So we got through the year pretty much unscathed.” Alpha has its main base in Belfast but has an office and factory in Dublin as well as a busy operation in Glasgow and a number of sales executives covering the English market. The group has a total workforce of 92. Travel to and from bases and customer sites hasn’t been easy during the pandemic, but Alpha’s teams have managed to continue to travel when necessary and to maintain a physical presence on site. “I made 47 return trips between here and Glasgow in the year before Covid and precisely none in the last 12 months. So it hasn’t been easy, but it’s a question of adapting. “I do think that there is going to be bounce, a more positive times, coming as we move out of lockdown this time. There will be spin offs all around.” Paul Black is optimistic on the post-Brexit situation. “Some companies and sectors are clearly having problems, but we’re looking at the positives and I do think there are positives. Northern Ireland has a unique position and we have to exploit that.” But his focus is firmly on workplaces here, in GB and across Ireland, and on how they can be re-engineered to work in the post-Covid era. “It’s about thinking outside the box, or the box at it used to be,” he says. “Communal areas like office cafes are a bit of an issue and need to be re-thought and re-planned. And there are other issues – like common access areas for shared office buildings. But all of the problems areas can be solved. There are lot of solutions. “You can think about increasing the use of all available space, one-way systems, lifts going up and stairs to go down....that kind of thing. Back at the very start, we had a deluge or orders for perspex screens and that kind of solution. Now we’ve moved on from that to planning space effectively.” He’s optimistic about the coming months. “I think we’ll see a big lift, and I’m hoping that it’s a lift that will help create a new normal rather than the current normal...that no one really likes.” “I think that what Covid has shown us is that we’ve been doing a pretty good job creating workplaces for our clients over recent years. Collaborative space, for instance, is now very relevant. Mental wellbeing is a huge issue. Like a lot of others, I found the lockdown from Christmas really hard to accept. It’s been really tough on a lot of people. “Even the prospect of buying a cup of coffee and sitting down in the place you bought it to chat to someone is an exciting one...”
We were officially informed last week that Alpha Scotland and Alpha Marketing UK have been awarded Platinum Partner status by Steelcase. This is an extremely prestigious event, and we are the only awardee this year for the whole of the UK and Ireland. Furthermore, we are one of only 22 Steelcase Dealers in the whole of Europe, Middle East and Africa to be recognised with the accolade. To meet the criteria of being Platinum Partner, we had to achieve ‘pass marks’ on a number of different areas and disciplines, including meeting our sales target, selling the appropriate mix of existing and recently launched products, co-branding exercises, marketing and social media exposure, financial stability, showroom design and client introduction to the Learning & Innovation Centre in Munich. To have achieved this award during the year we have just come through is testament to the hard work and diligence by the teams involved. This is a proud moment for everyone in the Group, and signifies the company’s strength and growth within the industry. PAUL BLACK CHIEF EXECUTIVE
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WELL is the International wellbeing Institute which aims to create healthier built environments which advance human health and wellbeing. It’s a growing movement, established 6 years ago and now a widely recognised standard across the world. It’s been embraced widely in the US and is increasingly being incorporated into buildings across London and surrounding areas. So what does ‘Well’ mean for architects, designers and developers? Martin from Well Workplaces, a ‘Well’ accredited professional, paid a visit to Alpha HQ this week to share his knowledge, as part of the launch of Alpha and Ten Eighty’s new look showroom in Belfast. Around 60 professionals attended the launch, keen to see how the standard could be incorporated into their own businesses and into client work. Martin explained that we spend 90% of our time indoors, and that buildings have a profound effect on our health. Businesses and corporations are increasingly waking up to the fact that a healthier workplace means healthier employees, and healthier employees work more productively. 90% of the cost of most businesses comes from paying people salaries, so it makes sense to invest in employee wellbeing, and to find ways to help attract and retain the best staff. Martin admitted that it’s a very challenging standard, but also said that the principles were worth applying, even if achieving the full standard wasn’t viable. It is described it as a ‘Comprehensive Approach to Wellbeing’ – covering ten main areas:
We previously held a coffee morning in our new upstairs showroom for CRUK Business Beats Cancer Campaign supporting World Cancer Day. This was something we really wanted to get involved in, with the number of people being diagnosed with cancer in Northern Ireland increasing at a rapid pace. We worked closely with the Vice Chair of the CRUK Business Board who ensured we were well prepared for the event, in which support packs had been organised for the day. These consisted off CRUK bunting, Wristbands and Posters, creating an appropriate theme. CRUK had many wonderful prizes up for grabs including £4,000 worth of vouchers for TUI along with a runner up prize of a stay in a beautiful villa in Portugal and cash prizes also available. This certainly encouraged a lot of people to come and support this great cause and the winners are set to be announced on the 24th March 2020. To be in for a chance of winning these breath-taking prizes you had to purchase a ticket at a suggested cost of £1. Also, we had people selling wristbands at £2 each and a collection bucket set up in the showroom for any further donations that people were wanting to make. Overall, we raised over £3500 with 4 cheques made by Alpha Marketing UK ltd (£1,200), Neueda Consulting (£250) and Morrows Communications (£50). Neueda & Morrows are both customers of ours and there was an additional donation of £1,000 made on the day by one of our suppliers Surefreight Global. We are delighted at how much we managed to raise for this great cause, and we are set to receive a framed certificate with the amount we raised on it, which will we be putting up around our Belfast office. With CRUK Having raised over £40,000 in 2019 to fund life-saving research, we wanted to play a part in overcoming last year’s sum. Reportedly, 51 other companies across Northern Ireland supported the cause, and we are proud to be one of them.
Thursday 10th October 2019 marks World Mental Health Day, a day for global recognition and mental health education, awareness and advocacy against social stigma. First celebrated in 1992, the initiative has grown increasingly important as mental health globally has declined. In total, approximately 70 million ‘workdays’ are lost annually because of mental health problems, this equates to 13% of all sick days and around £2.4 billion for companies. According to charity Mind, one in four adults will experience a mental health issue every year, and one in six will report a common mental health problem each week having a significant impact on working life. The most important steps an employer should take to tackling the issue of mental health in the workplace is to successfully implement a workplace mental health and well-being improvement strategy. This practice should allow organisations to put in place relevant initiatives such as mental health training for managers and tracking and promoting their success in line with other business metrics - putting mental health on the agenda. It is vital to raise the priority given to mental health and well-being in order to move toward a culture which proactively manages mental well-being. At The Alpha Group, we believe that a happy, healthy and engaged person is a more productive person, and by creating an efficient work space, employers can significantly decrease absenteeism, increase productivity, improve employee retention and create a positive work environment conducive to employee well-being. Here are some tangible steps that employers can take to improve the workplace for employees creating a more ‘mental health friendly’ workplace through office design and configuration: Work space Aesthetics By investing in workplace design, you invest in your employees. In recent research carried out by Alpha Scotland, only 1 in 10 Scots rated their workplace as excellent for its positive contribution to their sense of well-being and with the average person spending 90,000 hours of their life working – improving workplace design is vital for employee well-being. Comfortable, ergonomic furniture, good natural light and use of a bright colour palette have all been proven to improve employee’s mood and productivity. Another key way to do this is to introduce Biophilic Design into the office - plants and natural elements are proven to stimulate creativity and reduce stress by up to 15%. Office Configuration How employees work collaboratively and independently has changed; ‘breakout’ areas and co-working spaces encourage better communication, whilst more quiet, reflective spaces enable enhanced productivity. Providing employees with both configurations and enabling them to choose how they work best throughout the working day will boost morale and encourage a more dynamic working style. Designing a mutually supportive work environment improves overall well-being as individuals feel their input is valued, and a carefully designed office will adopt an employee-centric approach to how space can best be utilised. Flexible Working Traditionally our working day was carried out on a fixed timetable from nine to five within a confined office space, but recent studies have shown that both employers and employees can benefit from shaking up the monotony of this routine. By 2025, millennial's will make up 75% of the workforce and as a result offices around the world are already making changes to attract the new talent. One change taking place is the switch from desktop computers to mobile devices such as laptops, tablets and smartphones. The emphasis on mobile technology and a strong WiFi connection means there is less of a need for desks. Workers can move throughout the office, so they don’t have to be at the same work space every day and can also work from home. Having the freedom to work on their own terms leads to a better sense of autonomy for employees, contributing to enhanced well-being. Workplace Culture Workplace culture can be defined as the environment that is created for employees and can play a powerful role in determining work satisfaction, relationships and the happiness of employees. Increasingly, offices are investing in canteen spaces and communal areas which encourage social interaction and inclusivity. By making the kitchen or eating area more welcoming, it stimulates conversation amongst employees in a comfortable, informal environment. Mental health can often be a difficult topic to discuss but improving communication and friendships amongst employees will create a more open and honest workplace. For help and support on mental health issues, please visit: https://bit.ly/30Z44E7
In an urban world of technology and industrial architecture, our fundamental connection to the natural world can sometimes feel all but lost. Biophilic office design is an innovative way to bring the outdoors into the workplace to positively affect the way we feel, work and create; design that connects us to nature is proven to inspire us, boost our productivity and even contribute to a stronger sense of well-being. As mindfulness, workplace wellbeing and staff retention become increasingly important for many companies, the proven positive effects that nature can have on over-all health must be an integral consideration when designing workspaces. This is particularly important in the corporate office, where resulting ill-health and loss of efficiency can contribute to poor performance and increased costs from work-related stress and absenteeism. Not every space can be designed to include all the principles of biophilic design, but the rejuvenating qualities of nature can be replicated in numerous ways – introducing vegetation, including natural wood and stone finishes, providing access to natural light and nature views or through glass partitioning and living walls (a great example is the large moss wall featured in the Sir Alexander Stone building in our recent University of Glasgow project). There is a direct correlation between clever work space design and improved employee mood and performance. Even simple changes to incorporate nature in the workplace can have a huge impact on how employees feel when they come to work, and how happy, creative and productive they feel when they are working. Colour can also have an impact on staff well-being with numerous reports finding that dull colours can have a detrimental effect; a recent study from France found that bright orange had a positive impact, while in Denmark, shades of blue worked best. A UK based study entitled ‘The Relative Benefits of Green versus Lean office Space’ found that workers with an exposed level of contact with nature were 15% more productive, compared to those with minimal contact. This can be attributed to a variety of factors including but not limited to better air quality, greater sense of wellbeing, improved concentration levels and/or a greater choice of work settings, including outdoor areas. Our aim within The Alpha Group, is to to elevate a biophilic approach to the design of work environments higher on to the global corporate agenda. We consider, where possible, the incorporation of nature into the work environments when planning new spaces, to create inspirational and restorative places that connect humans to their surroundings in innovative ways.
Ambition Magazine are running an article this month on The Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce's newly furbished office: http://www.northernirelandchamber.com/ambition/ Ten Eighty Design Director John Roddy shares his thoughts on the project which includes a variety of focused & breakout zones in dynamic colours & textures. We hope the NICC team enjoy their new home! Check out more interior shots here https://www.1080.co.uk/our-work/northern-ieland-chamber-of-commerce/
It has been a busy few weeks for the Ten Eighty team who have been working away behind the scenes on an exciting installation at Belfast City Airport. All passengers flying from Belfast City Airport can now avail of ‘business class’ facilities in the departures lounge with the launch of a new experiential, luxury seating hub with furniture sourced and installed by Ten Eighty. The new hub has transformed part of the main departures lounge with comfortable, ergonomic, stylish furniture more often seen in leading workspaces. The ‘Alpha Hub’ will offer charge points, enhanced lighting and more private seating options for passengers who are seeking quiet spaces to work or simply relax in before travelling. The innovative marketing campaign will enable the business to showcase its product offering to the 1.4m (approx.) departing passengers travelling through Belfast City Airport every year, whilst enhancing the airport’s existing facilities with a more diverse range of comfortable seated spaces for all its passengers. It follows the success of similar brand partnerships at some of the world’s largest airports. Global furniture retailer Made.com has taken over an entire gate area at Schiphol airport to showcase its furniture designs, whilst IKEA has previously launched pop-up showrooms at Charles de Gaulle Airport and Beijing International Airport. Paul Black, Chief Executive of the Alpha Group, said: “This is a really exciting project for The Alpha Group. Many of our customers are leading businesses across the UK and Ireland, and this partnership with Belfast City Airport is enabling us to target this audience group in an innovative way, whilst effectively upgrading the seating facilities in the departure lounge and enhancing the overall travel experience. The Alpha Hub provides an excellent showcase of the type of furniture we offer and is a good example of how we can bring a space to life.” John Roddy, Ten Eighty Design Director, added: “Passengers often have a significant amount of time to spend in the airport, and we are delighted to be offering a more luxurious, comfortable space in which they can sit, relax, work and ‘re-charge’ before flying. At Ten Eighty we are passionate about creating dynamic workplaces that inspire, and the hub at the airport provides us with an invaluable opportunity to let people experience first-hand the wide range of furniture solutions we offer.” Cliona Arthur, Media Sales Manager from Belfast City Airport, said: “In the past twelve months, we have undergone a complete terminal reconfiguration, with our Departure Lounge receiving significant investment to upgrade and increase our retail units, facilities and food and beverage offering. The Alpha Group’s experiential luxury seating hub will further strengthen the comfort and convenience we provide for our passengers and will be the perfect ‘fit’ for our airside environment. It will also raise awareness of the Alpha Group’s brands among our passengers, who are predominantly business passengers, and allow them to experience the brand while they wait to board. This is our first experiential campaign in Departures and I’m sure it will be a great success. “As the UK and Ireland’s most convenient airport, we continually strive to deliver an enhanced airport experience and exceed the expectations of those travelling with us. We understand that ‘out-of-office’ doesn’t always mean that business stops, and that connectivity on the go is vital for our passengers. That is why we’re thrilled to partner with The Alpha Group on this office furniture hub to provide further and much required capacity in Departures, for business and relaxation.” The Alpha Group comprises of Ten Eighty, Alpha Office Furniture and Alpha Scotland and has offices in Belfast, Oxford, Glasgow and Dublin. In operation for almost 50 years, the group specialises in the education sector as well as private and public sector workplaces.