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How COVID-19 cured an outmoded working culture

The pandemic-driven disruption of how we work has been painful for both companies and employees. But it is also providing an opportunity for us to recalibrate how we want the future of work to look like.

If the idea of bosses holing themselves up in their prized corner office while employees stay glued to their desks nine hours a day did not seem archaic to employers pre-COVID-19, it certainly should now. In one fell swoop, the pandemic has not only hurled new challenges at companies, but also magnified what was already found wanting in organisations and the workplace; ideas around culture, flexibility and optimisation have all been brought to question.

Despite the significant increase in agile workspaces in Singapore since the early 2010s with multi-national companies setting up regional headquarters and importing progressive global work practices and policies, many workplaces here had not yet adapted to the new era of working.

GSK Asia House was designed by HASSELL to be highly flexible with a fully reconfigurable layout. it’s been able to pivot without the need to spend money on physical upgrades during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Peter Bennetts.

“Many workplaces were systemically broken well before COVID-19 hit. There was a high level of disengagement, and there was so much disruption in the way people were learning and seeking out social capital. Social media had entered the workplace, influencing how we feel, think and act as individuals; employees are more concerned these days about what their organisations stand for,” says Tamagin Blake-Smith, principal at HASSELL. He’s calling the current situation we’re in “the greatest reset in history”.

“Habits are changing and our perception of what is productive is changing,” says Dr Caroline Burns, founder and managing director of workplace transformation consultancy Workplace Revolution. “These shifts will start to inform how the office should evolve to support the way people want to work.”

Inevitably, hygiene and safety are key in the current situation and companies need to look into providing safe environments for their staff. Equally important is the psychological safety it brings, which also addresses anxieties people may have about returning to the office. “The level of anxiety may come down faster in Singapore and other places where there’s more trust [in the authorities] and where there’s a sense that the problems brought about by the pandemic can be solved if everyone comes together,” says Burns.

Equally important to address, especially in the mid- to long- term evolution of organisations, are deep-seated cultural issues that have largely managed to evade scrutiny and action on a broad scale thus far.

Arup’s Singapore office features multiple spaces that encourage collaboration and learning, including a lounge-scape in its ‘public zone’ that is also used as a town hall environment. Photo by E.K. Yap.

In particular, the amplified conversation around flexible working arrangements, triggered by the government-imposed work-from- home mandate in Singapore, has been a game-changer across multiple sectors. In tandem with this is a newfound (if somewhat pained) agility in workplaces in workplaces that has resulted from the most rapid digital transformation in history.

Implementing flexible working policies has always been a strategy to retain a segment of talent that increasingly values work-life balance. In the current situation, the stakes just got higher with the majority of employees in Singapore having now tasted the benefits of increased flexibility while still maintaining a certain level of productivity in their work.

In a survey of 20,000 respondents from 127 companies conducted by EngageRocket in partnership with the Singapore Human Resources Institute and the Institute for Human Resource Professionals, over two-thirds of respondents across industries indicated that they would prefer to work from home 50 to 70 per cent of the time.

Geyer advocates experience-based workspaces in which the inclusion of spaces like quiet corners for repose in Total’s Singapore office is not unusual. Photo by Owen Raggett.

Holding (work)space for community

The implications on the workplace arising from the normalisation of flexible working arrangements are multi-faceted and at times competing, ranging from considerations such as office footprint and efficiencies to how workspaces should evolve to support a healthy and dynamic work culture.

“The workplace becomes more a place for community,” says Joanne Morris, studio leader at Geyer. “It needs to be designed for collaboration, innovation and social connectedness with wellness in mind.”

 

“Workspaces can be about much more than fitting mere headcount per square foot, but a modern agora of learning and a social network.” Jaelle Ang

 

As leadership styles evolve towards having greater empathy for employees and an openness to a more human-centric approach to work, there is a higher possibility that strategies around wellness, diversity, inclusion and learning, while not unfamiliar, could feature more prominently in conversations about work culture and the spaces that facilitate it.

“Creating opportunities to align development of talent, collaboration and innovation within the workplace brings more diversity in the way people learn and gives purpose and reason for us to be together and connected physically,” Blake-Smith shares.

Pockets of collaboration spaces in open work settings pepper the Total office by Geyer and were designed to promote interaction and co-creation. Photo by Owen Raggett.

HASSELL’s campus-like design of GSK’s (GlaxoSmithKline) Asia Headquarters was conceptualised from the inside-out to provide such opportunities. The open, multi-layered and completely reconfigurable environment was tailored to encourage connectivity, cross-functional collaboration and agility. Similarly, Arup’s Singapore office, also designed by HASSELL, champions the same collaborative approach in its design and is supported by strong technological and social systems. (Read about the projects in Cubes issue 90 and 95 respectively).

“We think [day-to-day operational] activities could start to reduce in the workplace. Instead, people would look for spaces with deeper, more immersive experiences,” Morris says, introducing the idea of the experience-based workplace (EBW).

For Geyer, the EBW approach has proven successful with projects such as the Total office in Singapore and the Carpe Diem Community workplace in Australia. In these projects, consideration for various personality types (introverts and extroverts, for example) and a focus on community and wellness result in a diverse offering of environments running the gamut from active communal and collaborative spaces to quiet, focussed areas for mindfulness and calm. “Having flexible working also encourages companies to provide the same amenities and experiences in the office that people have at home,” says Morris.

Co-working spaces like The Great Room at Raffles Hotel Singapore not only offer companies relief from long-term leases amidst current uncertainties, but are also incubators of community and energy which are crucial for companies to thrive. Photo: E.K. Yap.

Optimising flexibility and value

Understandably, foremost on the minds of organisations today is the need to cut costs. This, coupled with a smaller proportion of employees being in the office on a day-to-day basis, points to a future where office footprints are reduced in favour of more distributed workspace arrangements. Government-initiated business parks with shared facilities and co-working spaces provide possible ways forward in creating hybrid workspace portfolios that also accommodate the call for more human-centric spaces.

In particular, Blake-Smith calls out the role that co-working spaces could play in the greater scheme of things: “They give corporates greater flexibility rather than entering into long-term leases. We’re also going to see a greater incubation of SMEs (small- medium enterprises) in co-working spaces – they want to get out of terrible buildings but can’t afford to build them themselves. The co- working space is a way for SMEs to look after their employees better.”

Despite how the original value proposition of co-working spaces has generally been diluted, he points to the unique opportunities they provide: “Co-working is not just a space solution. It’s about creating communities.” He shares that this had formed the premise for HASSELL’s design of The Great Room at Raffles Hotel Singapore.

Jaelle Ang, CEO and co-founder of The Great Room says, “Nothing replaces the energetic and exponential burst of ideas during an in- person ideation session or getting the ‘missing piece of information’ from a serendipitous chat. Workspaces can be about much more than fitting more headcount per square foot, but a modern agora of learning and a social network.”

The Geyer-designed Carpe Diem Community workplace in Australia features a community space at its heart for the shared purpose of talks, forums, networking and knowledge sharing – all of which are increasingly important for a healthy work culture. Photo by Richard Glover.

Future-proofing against the unknown

As it stands, the quest to get the best performance out of the least number of people in the smallest workplace possible continues. It is expected as organisations do everything they can to survive during this economic crisis. But as things recover over time, how can companies future-proof themselves and their workspaces against another crisis? In this respect, Burns offers one alternative to the meticulously optimised workspace: “Our pursuit of efficiency is noble and has lots of benefits. But there is a massive trade-off – the more you pursue efficiency, the less you are able to pursue what I call ‘wiggle-room’.”

“While organisations are providing more alternative and choice spaces, general overall footprint and cost-per-person has been shrinking, and maybe we’ve reached a tipping point where it’s shrunk enough. So, for example, rather than drive space-per-person down to 60sqft, maybe 65sqft gives you that little bit of wiggle-room.”

The idea of providing a bit more space to accommodate the possibility of switching up configurations and usage comes with inevitable costs of course. Not to mention, it goes against Singapore’s notorious penchant for efficiency. But, according to Burns, it is one way to give companies the agility to respond to changes. For now, the crisis has provided the best opportunity in decades for organisations to stress test their ability to respond to change – a critical capability for survival in the digital age.

The multiple challenges and considerations that companies now have to contend with are immense. And while the only sensible approach to take now is a measured and empathic one with everything still in flux, there can be no delaying an in-depth rethink about how we want to work in the days ahead.

Photography by various

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