June 2 marks the day when Singapore cautiously initiates its first phase of reopening after the end of the circuit breaker. For the majority of the workforce, it is status quo as working from home is still encouraged.
But for those set to return, the office – as with other aspects of life pre-Covid-19 – will not be the same. Working hours will change as you’re asked to come in later, to avoid rush hour congestion. And before you even step foot into the office, you will need to check-in using SafeEntry and have your temperature taken.
At your desk, the colleague who usually sits next to you, and whom you have not seen in person for nearly two months, is unlikely to be there since most companies will be splitting their employees into two teams – one at the office and the other at home. Some chairs in the meeting rooms, too, are likely to have a big red cross taped over them.
Workplace designers predict this to be the new normal, perhaps indefinitely, with office design going through three phases, just like Singapore post-circuit breaker.
SOCIAL DISTANCING FIRST
The first step is to ensure the office stays safe and clean, which is where social distancing comes into play.
David Calkins, regional managing principal, Asia Pacific and Middle East for Gensler, the world’s top earning interior design firm says, “regardless of what the size of the company or its office is, social distancing requirements can be accommodated through creative scheduling.”
This can mean having two teams coming into the office on alternate weeks. “Other clients are considering a longer working day in the office, with half of their team working in the office from 6am until noon, and the other half working from 1pm until 7pm with an hour of deep cleaning from noon until 1pm.”
Abel Ariza, Sodexo’s segment director of corporate services for Singapore and Vietnam, and country president for Korea says, “Right now, offices will need to adjust the workplaces they have today with physical distancing, such as moving or deactivating desks and chairs, adding barriers, converting small meeting rooms into private offices and enhancing safety and cleaning measures.” French company Sodexo is in the business of improving quality of life in different industries.
Co-working space Found8 is reconfiguring its team rooms. Its growth marketing manager, Laura Fitzpatrick explains that the capacity for its team rooms will be halved. Hot desks will still be available, but changes will be made to their layouts, and desks that fall within an 'unsafe’ distance have been marked with red tape.
Even with fewer employees returning to work, “companies can reduce the density of the workplace by spreading workstations out and minimise sitting face-to-face without a barrier by closing off some desks, or rotating them 90-degrees to face in different directions,” says Brendan Khor, managing director of interior design firm, Conexus Studio.
Companies can also consider putting up cardboard partitions between desks, such as those from local design firm Paper Carpenter. Its newly launched foldable cardboard partitions to be placed between desks, also come with a clear film option and cost less than S$20.
Using tape to mark out spaces in an office is quick and effective, but designers all agree that there are better ways to do that. “Firms can rearrange the carpet tiles to demarcate prohibited areas. Or they could even cut their carpet tiles into shapes or letters – this is a bit more work but it’s an inexpensive exercise compared to renovations and it can be amusing to think of clever solutions,” says Derek MacKenzie, managing director for dwp Singapore.
Space Matrix relies on what it calls “nudge architecture”, which CEO Arsh Chaudhry explains as “suggestive architecture that guide people to do things better.” He says there’s no need to use biohazard stickers because that can put fear into people’s minds. “Environmental graphics help achieve the same object.”
Another suggestion is to use biophilia to demarcate or separate spaces. Stephen Lyon, regional director and head of office for Singapore at M Moser Associates says, “Using plants or green walls is sustainable and aesthetic. Plants bring calm and natural beauty to spaces, and they give an increased perception of wellness. Biophilia is a growing movement and it will move up the corporate priority list.”
TAPPING ON TECHNOLOGY
Mr Lyon says that stage two will be to “improve physical aspects of the office including installing touchless fittings in the pantries and bathrooms, automatic doors, having UV light and increased filtration systems in air-conditioners, and auto hand sanitizer stations/temperature monitoring.”
Property technology company Distrii has already been tapping on technology for its co-working space in Republic Plaza. Its CEO Jo Hu says that even before the Covid-19 outbreak, members were already using its app to access the buildings, lifts, offices and also meeting rooms. Ms Hu says Distrii will introduce facial recognition software that also offers temperature taking, following what its co-working spaces in China have been doing.
Mr Khor adds that entry and exit points need to be touchless, so biometric fingerprint systems will need to be replaced. He suggests alternatives such as facial recognition, QR codes or an app to open doors. “Consider changing manual doors into motorised ones - such retrofitting can be done over a weekend,” he says.
BEYOND THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE
Over the last few months, workspace interior design companies have been doing research and surveys among their staff and with their clients to come up with plans on what offices post-pandemic will be like, which takes them into stage three of office design transformation.
Conexus Studio came up with a Design Guide which includes planning for wider corridors, installing antimicrobial table surfaces, having hygiene stations around the office, maximised daylight for high interaction areas, and having more spaced out work stations.
Space Matrix surveyed 1,000 clients to find out what they missed most about work and their concerns about returning. It then came up with a Workplace Reboot programme, to see what clients are lacking and used its proprietary system to see how existing offices could improve on their layouts. The top concerns are phased entry, hygiene and social distancing.
Gensler’s survey asked questions such as: how is work changing; what is easier to do at home versus at the office; what do employees miss most from the office now and what do they think they may miss from their home working environments when they return. “The longer we work from home, we will discover new habits and new ways of working, which can turn into additional benefits. We have completely embraced new ways to collaborate virtually, which will without doubt continue when we return to the office,” says Mr Calkins. “Companies that were once skeptical of remote working, now see how well it can work. We should embrace the best of these new habits and encourage them to flourish.”
He cites the example of how virtual collaboration is now a new normal, so conference room design will need to provide for a combination of both virtual and in-person collaboration.
Mr Lyon says M Moser Associates will soon conduct a follow-up survey across its Asian offices on the success of telecommuting, to see if working from home is as comfortable as working in the office. “This will help inform long term planning,” he says.
He says that if employees are comfortable telecommuting, companies might, in the future or when their current lease is up, want to reduce their office footprint, or consider setting up smaller offices in several locations to minimise any risk of cross contamination.
DEDENSIFICATION OF THE WORKPLACE
Inside the office, companies will have to rethink how work desks should be arranged and whether or not concepts such as hot desking should be continued.
Mr Chaudhry says, “dedensification of the office is likely to happen, where companies will no longer try to pack as many desks as they can. Instead, there will be more spaces besides desks for social distancing. But it doesn’t mean that companies will need more floor space, as regular remote working may continue and become more acceptable. Fewer people will be in the office at any one time, so there can be fewer work stations too.”
The open plan office is likely to stay. “It is now well proven that natural light and views help people to feel better, be more productive, and open plan offices can make natural light and views more available to all. Open plan can also help to express company values like openness and transparency,” says Mr Calkins. He adds that hot desks may need to be used differently until the Covid-19 threat is over.
Based on its long-standing experience in the development and design of solutions for environments in which people work and live, Swiss furniture company Vitra has published a series of e-papers on the return to work. In it, one of its suggestions is to consider desk sharing for two people on different shifts with thorough cleaning in between them. Each employee has a personally assigned chair that is safely parked in a reserved space during the times they are away.
Vitra also suggests that meeting rooms in the future have a lower maximum capacity, by having fewer chairs in them to allow for social distancing. Companies with existing small meeting rooms where social distancing is not possible, might want to convert them into single-use activities such as focus work or phone calls.
Designers agree that the days of offices with high partition cubicles will not return. “Post pandemic, cubicles (now called pods) will be mandated within planning solutions to provide private spaces. I’m sure their design will become even more interesting as time goes on,” says Mr MacKenzie.
Raphael Gielgen, a trendscout for the future of work for Vitra says, "it may be that cubicles return as an ad hoc response. However, I believe it can only be a temporary solution as such concepts are not sustainable in the long term. This type of work is neither a preferred future nor will companies with these concepts survive the competition. Innovation will become a permanent mode. Thus, learning will be an essential part of our daily work. The cubicle represents exactly the opposite."
THE OFFICE IS HERE TO STAY
While it is certain that offices will look physically different, designers say they are here to stay, not because they are in the business of designing them.
According to the Space Matrix survey, in response to a question about what they miss most about the office, 85 per cent of the respondents say they miss face to face interaction, and 58 per cent miss physical collaborations. “Only by being in the office and with face to face interaction, can a company build culture,” says Mr Chaudhry.
While many of us are getting used to working from home, partly because we save time on commuting, such an arrangement in the long run may not be suitable for everyone. “Telecommuting does not suit everyone and every country. For example, India does not have the resilient Wifi that Singapore enjoys so their challenges are how to get people back safely. In Singapore, some homes are small, and some live in multigenerational homes, where there may not be designated space for work or a quiet environment, so long-term telecommuting will be difficult,” says Mr Lyon.
Mr Khor says that “as many forward thinking companies already understand, the office of today serves as more than just a space to work, but as a space to foster corporate culture, spark conversations, and to allow people to achieve more through collaboration. This will definitely become a stronger rationale for having an office, and there will be more of a focus on designing a space where community, culture and collaboration thrive, as opposed to just somewhere to physically conduct your work.”
Mr Gielgen adds, “Working from home means freedom, but freedom alone does not fulfill us as humans. We long for belonging. After the pandemic, companies will look to reinvent themselves. The crisis is leading to a new clarity of thought and decision-making.”