The Future of the Office in Singapore
What will the future of the office in Singapore look like?
Besides its breathless finale, another shocking scene in Succession was that there were so many people in the office. Okay, granted that the pandemic wasn’t part of the show’s canon. That said, you’d think remote work would be more popular now, with or without the pandemic. But as you take the MRT to work and from work nowadays, it feels like the commuting crowd is back to its full crescendo. That’s a telltale sign that more and more of us are back in the office, and the era of social distancing is over. Then, what do we do with all our office space and office buildings now, what with the hybrid model and remote workers? How do we maximise every square foot of the physical office now? Here’s our take on the future of the office.
Remote Working in Singapore Now
There seems to be a mismatch between employers and employees when it comes to remote working in Singapore. Remote work became the norm with the onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic. As we got used to video conferencing from the comforts of our own homes, remote working experienced a short-lived renaissance as the pandemic slowly subsided.
Those working in a tech company are still enjoying the working out-of-office trend, there are still plenty of challenges for remote working to take hold in Singapore as employers here prefer their workers in the workplace. After all, the Ministry of Manpower reported that the number of job vacancies that offer remote work opportunities dropped from 31% in 2021 to 21% in 2022. Not only that, only 19.4% of respondents in a Cisco report feel their employers are ‘very prepared’ for a hybrid working future.
The Future of Work
You can’t talk about the future of the office without talking about the future of work. And the results are clear: employees want hybrid work. But it’s not all about virtual reality: the digital infrastructure isn’t going to replace the physical one. You’d be hard-pressed to find an organisation that is still fully remote. (Maybe our hopes for more work-live housing won’t be futile after all)
According to Cushman & Wakefield, a mix of in-office and remote work options can enhance performance across the board. People are getting tired of working from home, even if some of us have a private office at home. Because everything needs to become a virtual meeting; you can’t just go up to someone’s desk if you have a question if you’re not in the office after all. That gets real tiring, real fast. What’s more? We’re already moving out from under the COVID-19 Crisis. Video conferencing may well give way to in-person meetings again.
Meeting someone over the Internet cannot compare to meeting someone in real life. It’s just not the same. So it’s no wonder that in-office workers tend to be more innovative and creative. Asking people for ideas over a video call doesn’t always work. The creative process is and always will be ephemeral, and it’s just much easier to get the spark when you’re all in the same room. So it’s no wonder co-working spaces in Singapore are on a rebound too.
How We Got into the Office
To answer that, we need to look at why we started working in the city. Before the industrial revolution, high-rises were only built for royalty and religion. At most, they were honorific structures. As we moved towards the industrial economy, and then the knowledge economy, we needed the office to carry out our work.
The earliest versions of the ‘Western’ office we can look at are the coffee houses of London. These were the co-working spaces of yore, where playrights and journalists worked alongside members of the public. So, dear hipsters with laptops, you’re not hip after all. Organisations began working in a concentrated space because it was just easier to manage and maximise a growing amount of workers.
Then, governments were the first organisations that took advantage of the office. The British Navy processed the paperwork of its naval-based colonial empire out of the Old Admiralty Office, where naval officers first crunched there in 1726. In the United States, the customs houses helped the federal government process trade tariffs in the early 1800s. One example of that is Schermerhorn Row. Built in 1812, its office spaces housed the burgeoning bureaucracy that oversaw the nation’s new shipping companies.
As for the private corporations, historians often look to the Larkin Administration Building for the birth of the modern office. Designed by the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright, it hailed innovations such as central air conditioning, built-in desks and furniture, as well as suspended toilet partitions and bowls.
The rest, as we know it, is history. The world moved more and more into the knowledge economy. The office had to make way for large machines that tabulated accounting records, and physical cabinets for all the filing involved. Then came mainframe computers, the Internet, and then personal computers. With that, the office became a place where employees came in and connect with each other’s social and cultural identities. Business leaders came to realise that employees aren’t just replaceable drones anymore.
The Office We Knew: Where We Looked to
As we get back into the office, how do we make up the physical spaces there? How do we create an office environment that is inviting, an environment that considers the various needs of the workers as they get out of virtual reality and back into reality? Physical workplaces are the crux of human interaction in a company after all.
In some sense, we’re already on our way. There had been a lot of talk about creating an office that drives social and cultural connectedness, and flexible spaces that encourage community. When the Googleplex was completed back in 2004, analysts hailed it as a vision of the future. It captured the public imagination with all its onsite perks and amenities: free laundry rooms, multiple (yes, multiple) sand volleyball courts, massage rooms, and eighteen cafeterias with diverse menus. When Google opened its offices in Singapore with the same amenities, the public gushed. The prime minister visited too.
But perks do not make for a good office. Even Google knows that—it just cut some of its iconic perks this April. So the corporate office now needs to move beyond being the extension of the corporate culture and reflects the need of the work and the employees. Instead of cubicles and assigned desks in open-plan offices, employees need office spaces that are flexible and adaptable. Modularity had already taken hold of the architectural imagination nowadays, so why not take it to the office too?
The Future is Modular
For decades, office design and office layouts were confined to the hardware that carries out the work. Think typewriters and landlines, papers and pens. If you didn’t have your own desk, you’d be lugging around all your office stationery around. With that, the office experience was kind of like working on the factory floor, where managers and higher-ups would overlook the entire business.
The hybrid workplace will be modular. Instead of having set workstations, the future workplace involves features like moveable office furniture, operable partitions, flexible workstations, efficient storage systems, and modularity. All of that will help promote a more collaborative to nurturing company culture, keeping employee engagement high as they’re more likely to work with each other to find business solutions.
The physical office space is now a paradigm of community and the free exchange of ideas and perspectives. So there has to be an intention behind the different physical environments in the office. There should be spaces dedicated to a wide range of business functions. Perhaps one example of a high-performance office that we can look to is the auspices of Vitra, a Swiss furniture brand.
They are pushing the extremes of office layouts. Vitra has filled its headquarters in Birsfelden, Switzerland with its own line bespoke office furniture, allowing for different office configurations. They call the line ‘Club Office’, allowing a diverse range of workspaces that employees can design on their own. Perhaps there are innovation centres with bright colours to spur creativity and vitality. Or, quieter environments with muted tones that encourage focus, allowing employees to get into a flow state. The possibilities are endless.
But with flexibility, there needs to be more active management to maximise the potential of face-to-face interactions. So leadership and management have to actively plan and dictate in-office team meetings. It can be done with the help of software to manage and reserve office space. Or, managers can mandate attendance in the office on certain days of the workweek. If you’re a fun company, company leadership could plan events and retreats to continue nurturing fruitful relationships between colleagues.
Getting People Back to the Office
We’re still in the early stage of our post-pandemic comeback. As much as there were some conjectures about the demise of offices, most of them turned out to be half-true. In Singapore, leading developer CDL reported that its office occupancy dipped in Q1 2023. But, its office portfolio in Singapore is comparatively high, at 94.3 percent, and it’s even higher than Singapore’s overall office occupancy of 88.8 percent. Singapore’s office real estate and commercial office spaces are still enjoying robust demand, as office rents grew for the sixth consecutive quarter in Q1 2023, where the core Central Business District leading the charge for office demand in Singapore.
The rest of the world is still staunchly advocating for hybrid work arrangements. Office occupancy rates in North America only reached 47.5% in September 2022. Most European capitals are barely seeing their office occupancy rates above 70%: Paris CBD (66%), Madrid (65%) and Stockholm (60%).
But Asia is bucking the trend, Singapore especially so. Given Singapore’s relatively small landmass, commuting to work takes an hour or so for most of us (unless your office is on the other side of Singapore’s map). So it’s no wonder why most employers prefer to see their employees in their own physical office space. Even the Singapore National Employers Federation have cautioned against going back to pre-pandemic work arrangements. Singapore’s high rents may stop companies from decentralising and operating from different office locations, like satellite offices or the hub-and-spoke model.
Then why not craft spaces that invite people back to the office? Commercial real estate needs to rethink what it takes to build the office of the future. Employee engagement should play the obvious role in designing spaces in the office. After all, commercial office spaces can be designed by Zaha Hadid and still turn up empty. All that glitters is not gold.
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