Seated before me is a company chairman who shoots basketball hoops before breakfast, wears black Nike trainers to work and answers my questions with a joyous chuckle. None of this betrays the fact that he is on the cusp of completing the ninth decade of his life.
I am in the 1,228 sq. ft chairman’s suite, on the eighth floor of the Leela Kempinski hotel in Mumbai. The apartment-sized suite is composed of two dedicated workspaces for the chairman and his assistant, a living room, a dining room and a bedroom. The suite’s octogenarian occupant and titular head of the luxury hotel chain, Capt. C.P. Krishnan Nair, decided to have a suite for himself when the hotel was constructed in 1987. His daughter-in-law, Madhu Nair, was involved in the design of the suite since she is responsible for the interior design of group properties.
Nair’s multi-room suite at the Leela in Mumbai has distinct spaces for meetings, discussions, dining and resting.
Inclusive workplace design
My encounter with Nair, who celebrated his 89th birthday earlier this month, is prompted by Work Well : Inclusive Furniture for Older Office Workers, a research report on “inclusive” workplace design “for older office workers”. Published in 2005 by the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London, one of the world’s most respected design schools, its findings are increasingly gaining relevance.
Working hours are swelling; retirement is often a moving target, and post-retirement careers prolong an office-based existence. The report investigated the suitability of modern workplaces for an ageing workforce (designated as those “over 50”) and arrived at an uncomfortable truth: Workplaces are usually insensitive to the physical, mental and emotional needs of older workers. Shortcomings include usability problems in furniture and lighting, inadequate amenities for breaks during office hours, lack of spaces for knowledge-sharing and increased health issues from working on the move.
Plush splendour:(clockwise from top) Nair cherishes his meeting with Gandhi decades ago, and has placed a print of Gandhi in his dining room; a bedroom in the office is one of the fringe benefits of working out of a hotel; photographs of Nair with national and international leaders, and a Buddha statue personally gifted by the Dalai Lama, are among his most treasured possessions; an array of idols line his shelves, each decorated with a flower, lending an aura of tranquillity.
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The report was Europe-based, but its findings are universally applicable, even for a country such as India, with its reputed “demographic dividend” of a youthful population. Our enormous population translates into a sizable senior workforce, 71 million people aged over 60, according to the 2001 census—the second largest in the world. So I decide to visit the offices of one of India’s most sprightly octogenarian chairmen.
How important is work environment in extending individual shelf life? I wonder. An in-depth look at Nair’s workplace suggests it certainly helps. His space simultaneously performs three roles. It is a gentleman’s club for elegant discourse. It is an archive of his accomplishments over the decades. Finally, it is a zen garden of serenity. The roles reflect his personality and profession, and accommodate his needs as elder statesman.
In form and function, the five-room suite resembles a country club, with dedicated spaces for assorted tasks. Important meetings are held in a formal office, which has an assistant’s cabin adjoining it. Architectural plans and marketing materials for new properties can be spread out and reviewed with colleagues on the six-seater dining table, on which Nair also has lunch every day. Informal conversations, such as our interview, take place in the living room. He retires to the bedroom for a short nap after lunch, a practice he began three years ago.
As an upmarket hotelier, Nair’s remit is to entertain world leaders and celebrities, a duty he clearly relishes. Framed photographs with world leaders such as US President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, line the shelves of his office, jostling for space with numerous industry awards and citations, transforming the hotel suite into a museum of his professional history. He shows me a recent curious letter from the maharaja of Kerala, asking Nair for a trained cook, and another from him to Obama, inviting him to visit the Leela properties.
Finally, the chairman’s suite is a shrine to God and flora. “I love to be in the company of gods, even though it’s my workplace,” Nair says. Statues of Buddha and Ganesha adorn the mantelpiece and bookshelf. Each idol is decorated with a single flower, as poised as the trademark silk handkerchief peeping out from his blazer pocket.
Flowers have been a lifelong passion. “Plants can feel, they can hear, they can smell and they can live with you,” he says. Adding, “When (the) New Delhi (hotel in Chanakyapuri) opens I want to get the most exotic flowers from all across the world and decorate it.” Our conversation is punctuated with references to mangroves, tamarind, jasmine, laburnums and “30 varieties of plumeria—from Argentina, Rio de Janeiro, Hawaii, Malaysia, Singapore and Bangkok”.
It takes a suite
For all its lavish “exclusivity”, Nair’s office meets every RCA report criterion for an “inclusive” workplace. Its occupant has been able to personalize his space. Varied work settings facilitate individual and group work, allowing Nair to take necessary breaks. The presence of nature and divinity promote emotional well-being.
The nurturing work environment just happened, however. “I have not related how it affects my life, my work, but I keep doing it unknowingly,” he says. Rather, the decision to invest in such an office reflects Nair’s ability to align physical space with intellectual needs. Daily basketball sessions with his physiotherapist and the Nike New Balance walking shoes, adopted as daily attire 15 years ago, are also examples of how he welds mind and body. The discipline he has retained from an initial stint in the army, 60 years of following the tenets of Ayurveda, and a cheerful disposition are even more critical drivers of his robust constitution.
Nair is fortunate. As company chairman and hotel owner, he has the rare privilege of occupying an entire suite that caters to his specific needs. His office was designed when he was 65, well into his senior years, so it is not surprising that the office space and its occupant are perfectly matched. Sons Vivek and Dinesh, both managing directors in the business, have more conventional offices located on the management floor.
But such a space is rare, and it only highlights how little modern workplaces do to accommodate the average ageing knowledge worker. Ironically, most office design and investment decisions are typically taken by senior management themselves. Must it take a chairman’s suite to guarantee extended working hours?
Aparna Piramal Raje, a director of BP Ergo, meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspaces and working styles.
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