Making space for work as the city adjusts to WFH

By Valerie Kor / EdgeProp Singapore | April 30, 2020 6:00 AM SGT
SINGAPORE (EDGEPROP) - On the weekend prior to the start of the circuit breaker on April 7, crowds of Singaporeans rushed to Ikea, the DIY furniture specialist. While some simply wanted a last taste of the popular Swedish meatballs before complying with stay-home rules, many of them actually needed proper tables and chairs to work and study on.
This is because until recently, work was mostly done in offices. With non-essential services suspended, companies have had their employees work from home to keep businesses going. At the same time, schools switched to home-based learning. The implementation of these arrangements meant parents had to start working side by side with their children who also needed extra space or even a new monitor to communicate with their teachers and classmates via Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
working from home singapore - Lynnette Chia had to bring home a monitor screen from the office and converted the children's study table and shelf into her worksplace (Photo: Lynnette Chia)
Lynnette Chia had to bring home a monitor screen from the office and converted the children's study table and shelf into her worksplace (Photo: Lynnette Chia)
Content producer Lynnette Chia was one parent who had to make quick adjustments after the “circuit breaker” measures kicked in. She brought her 27-inch monitor screen home from the office and converted the children’s study table and shelf into her workspace. Her children do their home-based learning on a makeshift mahjong table in their bedroom. Thankfully, they did not have to buy any new IT equipment or furniture.
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She says, “They are on individual laptops by 8.30am on weekdays for their lessons. My husband and I occupy different areas of the house because if we have overlapping conference calls, we will not be able to concentrate on the meetings with both of us talking."
Joshua Li, a media practitioner, works from his en suite master bedroom, which is spacious enough to fit one king-sized bed, two single-person study tables, a built-in closet and a bookshelf. He already had his Macbook Pro and separate monitor set up in the bedroom to work from home. In the living room, his six-year-old son uses a Macbook Air on the dining table for the daily morning chat sessions with his kindergarten teachers.
Li says, “I prefer to work from the office. At home, I have to barricade myself in the room but that does not stop my son from knocking incessantly, pleading to play together. My heart would just melt and I would cave in and open the door.”
For many working parents like Chia and Li, the work from home situation will continue until June 1 since an extension has been announced by the multi-ministry task force to slow the local transmission of Covid-19. Schools will continue with home-based learning until May 4. Preschools have also been closed, only offering childcare for children of essential service workers. Primary and secondary schools will break for the mid-year holidays from May 4 to June 1.
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To be sure, working from home is not a new concept. In fact, employers from the tech industry are known to offer work-from-home arrangements as a perk. Glassdoor reviews reveal that companies such as Google and Facebook allow working from home once a week, depending on teams. The take-up rate of work-from-home is relatively slower in traditional workplaces where supervisors still prefer to manage by presence.
Now, working from home is put on a nationwide trial. If companies can still function as per normal through online communication platforms, this may lead to a rise in flexible work arrangements that could generate cost savings for firms in terms of rental costs.
Desmond Sim, head of research at CBRE, says that two existing trends in the office leasing space are likely to quicken pace during this period. The first is a hub-and-spoke approach to renting offices.
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Sim says, “The hub-and-spoke strategy is already something that big corporations, such as banks, have been using to equalise rent. They would have a front-facing office in the CBD and office spaces in the suburban areas, where the non-revenue trading departments would operate from. In today’s context, this approach is useful for social distancing as well given firms are realising that it is not good to place everyone in the same place.”
“The second trend that may become more prevalent is the core-and-flex, which is used by smaller enterprises. The core team reports to a permanent office. Teams that are transient and more mobile, such as salespeople, journalists or insurance agents who are constantly on the move, can report to co-working spaces when required, hence the term ‘flex’,” he adds.
Sim says that flexibility is the biggest selling point for the agile co-working space market as firms can increase or decrease the office space they require easily. But at the end of the day, he believes that businesses will probably still need a corporate location, even as working from home becomes more viable.

Separating work and rest

Since a decade ago, property developers have been marketing small office home office (Soho) apartments in response to a growing group of entrepreneurs and consultants who were increasingly working from home. Usually, these Soho units feature a loft for a bed, leaving the main area below free as a workstation.
midtown bay loft option - The 3.2m-high ceiling in upcoming Midtown Bay's units allow for a loft platform to be built (Photo: GuocoLand)
The 3.2m-high ceiling in upcoming Midtown Bay's units allow for a loft platform to be built (Photo: GuocoLand)
When the term Soho first gained popularity, it created some confusion for property agents and buyers because it does not indicate an official planning status. According to URA, a unit has to be either an office or a home, not both. A development that has been approved for office use for business purposes cannot be used as a residence, and vice versa.
However, URA allows small-scale businesses to be operated within residences if registration has been done under the Home Office Scheme introduced in June 2003. Owners of private properties should apply to the URA while those of HDB flats should apply to HDB. It will be approved if the business does not cause inconvenience to neighbours and does not employ more than two non-residents.
Even as developers have been discouraged by the URA to use the “Soho” term, they have continued to incorporate flexible spaces into the units in response to a growing demand.
Dora Chng, general manager (residential) at GuocoLand, shares that wherever possible, the group’s latest developments have incorporated flexible spaces that allow residents to create conducive workstations.
At the new launch project Midtown Bay located opposite Suntec City, every unit comes with a ceiling height of 3.2m. The larger duplex units are dual-key with two full floors that are also 3.2m-high. Chng says that such a layout is quite rare in Singapore currently and allows investors and owners to have a lot of flexibility.
duplex units in midtown bay - An illustration of how the lower floor of the duplex unit in Midtown Bay can be used as a home office and the upper floor can be kept for residential use (Photo: GuocoLand)
An illustration of how the lower floor of the duplex unit in Midtown Bay can be used as a home office and the upper floor can be kept for residential use (Photo: GuocoLand)
Chng explains, “We foresee three scenarios. First, if an investor is based overseas and visits Singapore occasionally, the first floor can be rented out to a tenant and the upstairs unit can be kept for own use. Later on, if there is a need to accommodate a family in Singapore, the investor or owner can occupy both floors instead. The third scenario might happen when the children are older and the owner needs an office space to work from home. The lower floor can then be converted to a small home office.”
Meanwhile, other than the usual swimming pool and gym offered in residential developments, developments such as Wallich Residence and Midtown Bay offer corporate event venues and meeting rooms that can be booked by residents. The lobby also comes with a concierge service that serves beverages and receives parcels. Such facilities have been well-received in Wallich Residence.
The Connect boardroom is one of the most popular facilities in Wallich Residence (Photo: GuocoLand)
The Connect boardroom is one of the most popular facilities in Wallich Residence (Photo: GuocoLand)
Still, even if not living in an apartment with flexible spaces or corporate facilities, one can also create dedicated “home offices” away from rest areas in regular floor plans. However, challenges arise when many family members live together and there is a lack of space in the typical three- to four-bedroom apartments that most Singaporeans live in.
Additionally, for multi-generational families, physical space is not the only issue. Working from home often means grappling with a myriad of tasks that compete for mental space. During the circuit breaker, parents with school-going children have to toggle between caregiving, home-schooling and working. As the boundary between work and home blurs, many face distractions and may end up clocking longer work hours.
A recent Bloomberg article highlighted that according to data from NordVPN, in the past six weeks, employees in European countries ended up working two hours longer when working from home, while US employees clocked an additional three hours per day. Anecdotal evidence suggests that in the US especially, people are “overworked, stressed and eager to get back to the office”.
CBRE’s Sim says, “It could be that during this period, people might realise that they cannot work from home after all.” As such, he believes that due to space and domestic demands, whether this period of working from home will impact actual office demand remains to be seen.
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