Offices will evolve as employees return

By Valerie Kor / EdgeProp Singapore | October 2, 2020 6:00 AM SGT
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SINGAPORE (EDGEPROP) - For companies coping with the challenges of working from home (WFH), the recent announcement by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong is good news. More employees can return to the office from Sept 28, on the condition that they are only back for half of their total working hours and only half of the employees are in the office at any one time.
Despite rife speculation about offices becoming obsolete, research reveals that the office is still necessary, but will evolve as a result of the benefits and limitations of WFH.
According to a survey by workplace strategy and interior design firm Paperspace Asia, 85% out of nearly 500 employees say that they are able to concentrate well at home. Across the region, 98% also state that maintaining flexible working arrangements is a top priority for them even as they return to the office. The survey was conducted in Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and India.
On the other hand, survey respondents also reflect that one downside to WFH is the lack of face-to-face interaction. For some employees with young families living in small spaces, a pure WFH arrangement is also a struggle as they do not have dedicated workspaces.
Paperwork coworking space interaction space - EDGEPROP SINGAPORE
Going to the office facilitates face-to-face interaction, which is often lacking when WFH (Photo: Paperspace Asia)
Additionally, managers feel that the lack of human connection when WFH may affect younger staff who need daily mentorship, says Narita Cheah, co-founder of Paperspace Asia. Senior leaders have also reflected in the survey that they “miss incidental conversations [at the office] and the creativity that comes out of them”, she adds.
As a result of prevailing WFH policies and government regulations, hybrid working will be the norm in the medium to long term. This means that the office will not be obsolete, but may evolve to become smaller, more flexible, and outcome-driven.

A place to do, not to be

Business owners will come to recognise that workplaces need to enable “outcomes”, not “work modes”, says Toby Rakison, managing director (Asia) at Unispace, a commercial interior design and consultancy firm that counts Coca-Cola Amatil, Carlson Wagonlit Travel and Deliveroo as their clients.
“Moving forward, people will not think about the office as a desk to work at, but a place to socialise and connect. For companies, that means the space can be more efficient by not having as many desks in it,” Rakison says.
Unispace proposes a ‘propeller’ framework for designing workplaces of the future, where employees do not simply sit at desks, but engage in building a community, solving problems, and innovating (Photo: Unispace)
Future workplaces must enable activities such as problem-solving as a team, building a community, and encouraging innovation, which are more challenging when WFH. This means that there will be more open plans, but with privacy booths for employees to focus or take calls, says Rakison. Additionally, the office must have video conferencing technology set up in all the rooms and spaces so that people can talk to coworkers who are not present in the office, he adds.
“Activity-based workplaces have been around for a long time, but there was always a big question of whether employers can trust employees to work at home. Now, it has been proven that they can,” says Rakison.
Different companies will need a customised strategy with traditional companies requiring more advisory, Rakison says. For instance, a legal firm that is administration-heavy and has a hierarchical corporate structure will need help on incorporating technology to take documentation online, as well as a redesign of office space to make it conducive for innovating and solving problems.
There should also be areas dedicated to building a community in the office. “A lot of learning happens symbiotically, over coffee chats in the pantry, for instance. With video calls, it’s very purposeful and might not be as spontaneous,” says Rakison.
Unispace managing director Toby Rakison - EDGEPROP SINGAPORE
Rakison: Moving forward, people will not think about the office as just a desk to work at, but a place to socialise and connect (Photo: Unispace)
Unispace projects that 40% of workers will work from home up to three days a week in 2021. With fewer desks and more collaborative spaces, Rakison believes that offices will become 20% to 30% smaller.
The next question, then, is how companies can work with the same headcount in a smaller space. To do that, commercial interior designers encourage companies to consult their workers.
“Both employees and employers have their own ideas on how to redesign offices. Therefore, workplace surveys are useful for employers to get a pulse of the people, in terms of demographic, age, and working styles,” says Cheah. “This will go a long way to providing an environment that is suitable for employees, whether it is in an office, at home, or in an in-between space like a co-working facility.”
Paperspace Asia also operates co-working spaces in Singapore, Bangkok and Manila under the brand PaperWork.

Measures must put people first

Beyond temperature screening and sanitisation stations, PaperSpace’s Cheah recommends more open atriums and outdoor workstations.
Narita Cheah PaperSpace - EDGEPROP SINGAPORE
Cheah: The implementation of new distancing and sanitisation measures should make employees feel at ease and welcome at the workplace (Photo: Paperspace Asia)
The new measures must offer peace of mind to employees returning to the workplace. If the same number of team members are going to share a smaller office space, there should be restrictions on where each team is able to access. When teams exit and enter, the spaces should be fully sanitised, like in a fitness gym. Cheah also recommends the use of contactless technologies, such as using facial recognition rather than fingerprint digital locks.
Aside from that, the implementation should make employees feel at ease and welcome at the workplace. The messaging put up for new measures should outline the rules clearly but inject humour, in line with the corporate culture. Pointing to how cafes have placed mannequins or soft toys where people are not supposed to sit, Cheah says, “That creates a point of conversation rather than frustration.”
Cheah also recommends instituting a tag system for employees to signal their comfort levels when it comes to personal safety and hygiene. For instance, red can mean “not open to physical interaction” while yellow can mean “open to one-to-one discussions” and green can mean “open to group meetings”.
Limited access to coworking spaces - EDGEPROP SINGAPORE
Restrictions on where each team is able to access and higher levels of sanitisation can offer peace of mind to employees (Photo: Paperspace Asia)
Secondarily, she believes it also pays off to think about whether staff are well-equipped when they are at home and offer benefits such as ergonomic furniture to help their staff work better, even at home.
Compared to the cost of sanitisation and space required for social distancing, the bigger expense for companies when employees return to the workplace could be the cost of frustration, which can result due to a lack of organisation, says Cheah.
“In the long run, it’s more important to ensure the well-being of workers and maintain an engaged and motivated workforce. Companies must quickly figure out and decide how to make use of space, when to welcome staff back, and who would do the organisation,” says Cheah. She advises her clients to experiment and do test pilots when implementing hybrid work arrangements to monitor how effective they are, and tweak them along the way.

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