The Future workplace - a Benoy + Pragma discussion

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Contact Terence Seah, Head of Hong Kong, Singapore and Shenzhen

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Contact Jon Grant, Director, Interiors

As the world emerges from Covid-19, companies are transitioning back to physical working environments. But work patterns and preferences have changed, with some employees reluctant to return to busy urban centres, and many businesses pondering the feasibility of hybrid models.

So how, in the post-pandemic landscape, do we entice people back into the office? How do we design workspaces that promote engagement, collaboration, wellbeing and inclusion? And what does the future workplace look like?

In early March, we convened roundtable discussions in London and Singapore to address these crucial questions. Here are some of the key takeaways and insights from the two events.

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The APAC perspective

Flexibility, amenity and community

To kick-off the Roundtable discussion held in Benoy’s Singapore studio, Terence Seah, Head of Hong Kong, Singapore and Shenzhen, asked participants to consider how the Covid pandemic has impacted work environments in Asia-Pacific. How, for example, has it changed the way developers design and lease office space? 

According to Tay Lim Heng from Keppel Urban Solutions, the pandemic has given rise to a new concept of development”, with developers pivoting away from the traditional way of designing, building and sustaining” office buildings. Today, he said, an asset-light approach” is one way of providing the flexibility and agility companies require. 

David Hutton from Lendlease agreed that the pandemic has accelerated change, but cautioned against extreme predictions. We believe in the future of cities and urban life”, he said that talk of the death of the central business district” was premature. Confirming that there’s still a major role for the modern workplace,” he asserted that healthy, inspiring and collaboration environments” are at the heart of the post-pandemic office. Employees, and younger employees in particular, still crave human interaction. Leading progressive workplaces underpin an organisations culture and play a big role in attracting and retaining the best talent”.

Nigel Ng, from CapitaLand, added that Covid has led to a change in mindset towards offices being more differentiated when it comes to the amenities” and spaces on offer. For example, across APAC there’s a rise in demand for naturally ventilated and flexible workspaces” outside the core office area, with tenant workplace strategies now extending…to other spaces within [and beyond] the building”. To ensure the continued relevance of a building, core workspaces alone, said Ng, are not enough to sustain it a building”; but through complementary amenities such as privately owned public spaces, it can act as a hub, enhancing social connections and anchoring the 20-minute city…hopefully increasing value for the long run”. 

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Microsoft Teams image 170 r 1 compress

Trends in occupancy and co-working

According to Sidharth Dhawan from CBRE, clients don’t need office space for the sake of office space.” Occupiers, he explained, are being a lot more deliberate in their occupancy, and their office footprint is a means to an end – that end being happy, productive employees”.

But companies are finding it harder to commit to long-term occupancy plans. As a result, said Dhawan, optionality of footprint” is an increasing trend. Across APAC, in addition to a core footprint allocation, occupiers are requesting a flexible element”, with a shorter term commitment which they can keep rolling over”. With this in mind, modularity, agility and choice are the big themes” in occupancy according to Dhawan as APAC emerges from the pandemic.

Asked to explain flex space ethos and growth strategy, Elizabeth Laws Fuller from WeWork explained that flex space providers essentially challenge the idea of the traditional space and elevate quality, productivity, and employee experience over a pure focus on price per square foot”. As businesses increasingly engage with flex space models, solutions need to be devised according to individual company value propositions and individual employee profiles and personas. Because divergence is happening”, said Fuller, with some companies wanting to pack in the desks” and others putting 30 people in a 10,000 square-foot floor plan”. Across this wide-ranging roundtable discussion, other topics included: the value of change management and communication as part of workplace relocation; the new alliance between HR and property experts within the employee wellbeing agenda; and the importance of secure and seamless IT in the age of remote working.

And while pre-pandemic, in markets such as China, the challenge was how to enable homeworking, the question now, as in the UK, is how to get people back into the office. Shona Tay from Colliers remarked that one of the key drivers in APAC is selling a vision of where the company wants to go”, rather than selling a building or space.

The UK conversation — Adapting to the new reality

According to co-facilitator Claire Stephens, Director at Benoy’s sister company Pragma, when thinking about workplace design we need to acknowledge that the fabric of the city has changed”. For example, as people have started returning to the office, Mumbai in India has seen a major shift from public to private transport for the daily commute. As Pallavi Navin, Lead Associate at the Godrej Group, explained: 

Public transport in Mumbai is extremely crowded…so the real danger [in terms of Covid] has been how you reach the office, not the office itself. Whereas people previously took the metro or local trains, now they take Ubers or have their own mode of transport, which has led to an increase in city traffic.”

This shift is now being factored into workplace design, necessitating a major rethink of parking, building access points and queuing systems. Design now starts with how people come in, then you design the actual workplace,” said Navin. So the dynamics have changed for us as designers.”

Andrew Link, Head of Operations at FTSQUARED, echoed these sentiments, observing that UK commuters are also concerned about getting back on trains and tubes”. This, he said, could cause a brain drain” away from the city to the regions, where he predicted we’ll see an increase in [the quantity] and quality of offices”. 

Offering a perspective from Canary Wharf Group, Matt Mitchell confirmed that, far from just snapping back’ into shape post-pandemic, cities and corporate centres have changed fundamentally. In building operations, for example, the focus during Covid on circulation and exit points has led to people becoming much more mindful of personal space”. And workplace design, he said, now has to consider how people move around… and how to avoid dead-ends and places of high density.”

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'Employers need to create an atmosphere and environment where people feel they can achieve something better than at home or remotely.'

Kevin Mullen, Facilitate Corporation

Places where people want to be

There are several key strategies for enticing people back into the office. The first involves adapting to recent shifts in employee habits and needs, for instance by expanding the on-site provision of food, beverage and other essential amenities. As Lewis Harman, Director at Hunters Contracts, observed, when people started coming back into London, they would go straight to the office” without stopping for coffee or breakfast. Those companies that have evolved”, he said, “[now offer] a lot more in the way of facilities for eating and drinking, which is drawing staff in and keeping them encapsulated in that space for the day”. 

The second major strategy involves creating places and spaces where people want to be”. And such spaces, as co-facilitator Jon Grant, Director of Interior Design at Benoy, has previously explained, are often achieved through brand-led placemaking and design. Increasingly,” Grant remarked, users of workspace interiors are looking to connect with a brand experience (be it tech-driven, aesthetic, gastronomic). They’re looking for something three-dimensional, sensory and exhilarating – something that goes beyond the functional dynamics of the corporate office environment”. 

Certainly, it’s the intangible elements, such as sense of place, identity and inspiration, that will help to create compelling reasons to return’. As Kevin Mullen, Principal at Facilitate Corporation, opined, beyond sit-stand desks and fancy task chairs, employers need to create an atmosphere and environment where people feel they can achieve something better than at home or remotely”. Tom Hitch, Head of Content at Oktra, concurred, adding that collaboration…autonomy and freedom of choice” will provide the lure” to attract employees back into physical workspace. 

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Microsoft Teams image 170 r 1 compress
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