Designing offices for resilient companies

/ EdgeProp Singapore |
Artist's impression of the headquarters of Hana Financial Group, one of the first offices to be fully designed after the pandemic hit (Picture: NBBJ)
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SINGAPORE (EDGEPROP) - It has been three years since Covid-19 arrived unwelcome at the shores of Singapore, significantly impacting the way we live, work and play. While the pandemic brought about an abrupt switch to working from home for many, last year saw a new tipping point as social-management measures were eased and 100% of employees were allowed to return to the office at the end of April 2022.
This shift has brought a return towards pre-Covid norms and away from the hybrid work agenda. A survey conducted last June by UOB found that almost half of Singaporean workers are now required to work full-time in the office. This development runs counter to employee preference as the same survey found more than 80% of respondents prefer some form of flexible work arrangement. Dean Tong, UOB’s head of group human resources, acknowledged that the survey showed a “disconnect between employers and staff”.
In any case, organisations have had to rethink how their offices are designed, as this now plays a much more pivotal role in enticing employees to return to the workplace. In its 2022- 2023 Global Workplace & Occupancy Insights report, CBRE notes 69% of occupiers surveyed have revisited their workplace design standards throughout the pandemic.
In January 2022, American architecture and design firm NBBJ published a piece in Harvard Business Review emphasising the importance of designing an office that people want to come back to. “The pandemic raised the stakes for companies looking to retain top-tier employees and build thriving cultures,” the firm wrote.
NBBJ, whose work in Singapore includes high-end condominiums The Sail @ Marina Bay and Gramercy Park, has carved a track record for office design and workplace strategy, working on projects including Amazon’s 3.3 million sq ft corporate campus in Seattle that opened in 2018 and Samsung’s US$300 million ($400 million) North American headquarters in Silicon Valley completed in 2015. In Asia, notable projects include the 270,000 sq ft headquarters for Tencent in Shenzhen, China, which was completed in 2018.
More recently, NBBJ worked on the headquarters for South Korean banking firm Hana Financial Group. Located in Cheongna, the 16-storey, 700,000 sq ft building is targeted for completion by 2025. NBBJ also designed the Shenzhen headquarters for Chinese technology company Vivo, which is also slated for completion in 2025.
NBBJ designed the headquarters for South Korean banking firm - EDGEPROP SINGAPORE
NBBJ designed the headquarters for South Korean banking firm Hana Financial Group in 2020 – one of the first offices to be fully designed after the pandemic hit (Picture: NBBJ)

Offices that reflect company values

Robert Mankin, head of workplace design at NBBJ, says the Hana project put the firm in “an unusual position”. “We were hired to design the headquarters during the very period when the pandemic was forcing business leaders to rethink the purpose of the office,” he says. NBBJ was appointed as the architect for the project in February 2020, which means the headquarters is one of the first offices to be fully designed after the pandemic hit.
Despite navigating unchartered waters, Mankin says that Covid-19 reaffirmed trends that were already known. “We often say that the pandemic didn’t create new workplace trends so much as it accelerated those that were bubbling under the surface for years: a preference for more flexible environments, improved connectivity to nature and deeper integration with the neighbourhood,” he explains.
Mankin: An ideal office is a happy and healthy office that people want to come back to (Picture: NBBJ)
Mankin argues at its heart, the trends underline a desire to create workplaces that reflect the values of a company. To that end, it is often where he starts when it comes to designing an office. “At the beginning of every project, we determine the main values that would drive the client’s long-term success and resilience,” he observes.
For the Hana project, the goal was to create a restorative environment where people can leave the workplace feeling better than when they arrived. As such, NBBJ incorporated elements aimed at enhancing well-being and community, through the provision of flexible, inspiring workspaces and places for collaboration.
As a result, a key feature of the design is a 12-storey “ribbon park” that traverses the entire building, weaving greenery and public pathways into the workspace. The park provides a diverse collection of spaces that cater to a variety of experiences, be it a quiet spot for solo work and reflection, or a discussion area for team meetings. At the centre of the building, a large atrium decorated with curved surfaces and wood elements offers an inviting environment for collaboration. The building’s unique design garnered NBBJ an Innovation by Design Award from business publication Fast Company last year.
The design for Hana Financial Group’s offices incorporates a “ribbon park” and a central atrium that provide a diverse collection of spaces (Picture: NBBJ)

Addressing the needs of employees

Providing a variety of environments, such as those incorporated in the Hana office, are now an important building block of office design. “Offices of the past were fixed and insular. The future office puts more emphasis on flexibility, human-centric design, holistic workplace experiences and designing for the community,” Mankin says.
By providing spaces that cater to different needs, companies are giving employees agency over how they want to work, thus making their time at the office more meaningful and productive. For Mankin, flexible and dynamic spaces are a product of companies listening to what employees want in the workplace, especially in a post-pandemic world. “For most organisations, reverting to the status quo won’t be an option. People will expect more flexibility, better technology, and incentives to come to the office, and companies must heed that call,” he asserts.
The multi-generational nature of today’s workforce further emphasises the need for a broad spectrum of spaces. In Mankin’s experience, each generation exhibits strong individual preferences when it comes to office design. “The most senior-level employees and the most junior level want the same thing — in-person connection. In contrast, it’s more mid-career and people with young families that want to be more hybrid,” he observes.
Because of this, companies have to be cognisant that this spectrum exists, and build spaces “that are flexible enough [for all generations], ones that eschew the one-size-fits-all approach,” Mankin says. For example, for its design for Vivo’s headquarters, NBBJ focused on multigenerational usage by providing a blend of workspaces, private and informal group settings for group work and socialising, and quieter relaxation areas.
Artist’s impression of the Shenzhen headquarters for Chinese technology company Vivo (Picture: NBBJ)
As attitudes towards offices and the role it plays continue to evolve, Mankin highlights that it’s important for companies to remain flexible, listen to what employees want and implement changes that support those needs. It is a constant process of testing and refinement — one that helps ensure the satisfaction of employees and by extension, the long-term resilience of the company. “To me, an ideal office is a happy and healthy office that people want to come back to,” Mankin concludes.
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