Talk of demise of offices is greatly exaggerated, but how firms will use work spaces is set to change in post-coronavirus world

By Cheryl Arcibalcheryl.arcibal@scmp.com / https://www.scmp.com/business/companies/article/3087131/talk-demise-offices-greatly-exaggerated-how-firms-will-use-work?utm_medium=partner&utm_campaign=contentexchange&utm_source=EdgeProp&utm_content=3087131 | June 9, 2020 10:49 AM SGT
 - EDGEPROP SINGAPORE
The coronavirus pandemic is forcing companies to re-evaluate safety in the workplace, as a new normal emerges with the end of lockdowns and work-from-home arrangements.
Property managers, architects and designers have all proposed various initiatives to help companies safely re-enter their offices following weeks and months of lockdowns.
"A lot of companies are looking at re-entering the workplace, [and] now they're asking us to help them look into it and set it up," said Cynthia Chan, the Shanghai-based regional managing director of the North Asia office of Singapore-headquartered design firm Space Matrix. "We're also approaching our clients and telling them that this is something you should be looking at."
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The success of work-from-home arrangements has sparked talk of office buildings eventually being abandoned globally, as more employers allow remote working arrangements on a permanent basis.
An internal survey of clients within the region and the United States by Space Matrix, however, showed that companies were still looking for "face-to-face interaction and collaboration".
"I can't see offices becoming obsolete, but how they're going to be used may change eventually. Their purpose, style and design principle " that will be consistently modified," Chan said.
The company has come up with a plan it calls the five-point path to the new normal, which takes into account materials used as well as company culture, among other aspects, and a platform called SpaceDX, which helps companies visualise social distancing and plan for capacity and space requirements.
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Chan said one of the company's recommendations was putting up "nudging graphics" on walls or floors, to remind employees about keeping a safe distance from each other, or to wash their hands regularly. Another recommendation was that companies replace high-touch surfaces with glass, white boards or materials that are easier to disinfect. Hygiene stations with disinfectant wipes and hand sanitisers that employees can easily access should also be set up. Plants that repel insects and help in purifying the air should also be considered. Technology that allows touch-free control, such as facial recognition, is also recommended.
Employees should be encouraged to walk around the office clockwise all the time, according to property consultancy Cushman & Wakefield's Six Feet Office project.
"Walking clockwise in one direction minimises employees coming into contact with each other," said Jun Sochi, Cushman's head of integrated facilities management and asset services in Asia-Pacific. "In the new normal, companies will prioritise social distancing measures to ensure the safety and health of their employees."
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Cushman recommended the increased frequency of cleaning and maintaining social distance. Personal protection equipment such as surgical masks should also be provided against any residual hazards, it said.
The return to offices should be in gradual phases, ideally with employees split into two teams. At Cushman's Singapore office, Sochi said they will start "with 25 per cent occupancy in the initial four weeks", and that the phases will be revised as required.
Other options available to companies included rotating shifts and staggered starting hours and lunch breaks. As for lifts, a number of buildings in Asia-Pacific were allowing a maximum of four persons each time. Others were encouraging people to face away from each other, or face in one direction, to avoid catching droplets that might carry the coronavirus.
Physical barriers, such as acrylic shields, should be a last option, Sochi said. "Social distancing and personal hygiene play a bigger role compared with installing shields or sneeze guards," he said. "It is still too early to tell whether offices will go back to cubicle-type workstations, [but] it is certain that the density of offices will change."
US-based private-equity firm Daulat, which invests in real estate, among other sectors, said it had implemented social distancing, according to its chief executive, Rick Mirza.
"We have large open offices. So now there's one person sitting in a row versus three people before, so that we're six to eight feet apart from each other," he said. "We also make sure that there's nobody waiting in the bathroom, and we've put in a sign so that people know we're trying our best to be able to do as many [social] distance requirements as possible."
Temperature checks are also part of the company's protocols, Mirza said. In the long-term, he said he believed that skyscrapers across the globe will become vacant as more people will be allowed to work from anywhere.
Cushman's Sochi, however, said the pandemic's impact will vary depending on the industry. "What is key is we will see companies using space differently. There will definitely be more flexibility in how we work moving forward. Agility will become a key consideration, as the workforce will be looking at performing different tasks in different workspaces," he said.
This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2020 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
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