The Big Read: Mass telecommuting will shake up S’pore’s CBD, end work and office life as we know it
SINGAPORE — Before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Mr Rahul Raj had never quite entertained the idea of working from home.
SINGAPORE — Before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Mr Rahul Raj had never quite entertained the idea of working from home.
The director of Prudential Public Accounting Corporation, an auditing firm, said that employees rarely requested to work from home, and there was no reason for him to implement an official company policy on telecommuting.
“I mean if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Nothing really happened which told me (our working style) was a problem,” he told TODAY.
However, when the Government announced last month that non-essential companies like his would have to implement telecommuting during the circuit breaker, Mr Rahul’s hand was forced.
He moved to make the company’s virtual documents accessible outside of the office and purchased printers to help his staff work from home.
Despite his initial apprehension, Mr Rahul, 45, said he had come around to the idea of telecommuting.
“I do intend to see how best we can utilise work from home. If you know your job and you do your job efficiently, there is no reason why you need … to sit at the table from 9am to 6pm,” he said.
His employees have also started to embrace the new arrangement despite some initial hesitation.
Ms Kastury Ramasamy, a 38-year-old senior auditor at the firm, said that despite her initial scepticism, she has found that she is more efficient at her work without any distractions at home. She said that she will continue to work remotely if the top management permits.
When it comes to telecommuting, the proverbial needle has finally been moved, as the pandemic compelled firms to overcome inertia and fully embrace the idea.
With over 80 per cent of the Singapore workforce currently telecommuting, the Government has signaled that this work arrangement is here to stay for the long term.
Earlier this month, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said that working from home will continue to be the norm even as circuit breaker measures are eased, to ensure that the numbers in community spread remain low.
The multi-ministry task force on Covid-19 reiterated the message earlier this week, saying that workers are expected to work from home as much as possible even as Singapore gradually exits its circuit breaker after June 1.
Veteran human resource (HR) practitioner Carmen Wee said that such measures signal a “new norm” in Singapore. In the face of future pandemics, companies are expected to ensure the health and well-being of their staff by putting in place telecommuting arrangements.
Citing a recent survey which found that eight in 10 employees in Singapore want to continue working from home after the circuit breaker, Ms Wee said that Singaporeans had seen the benefits of working from home, such as more time with family.
The survey, which received responses from 2,700 people was done by human resources technology start-up EngageRocket, the Institute for Human Resources Professionals and the Singapore Human Resources Institute.
Ms Wee, who has been in the HR industry for over 25 years, noted that following the Covid-19 pandemic, job hunters will also seek out employers who have policies which prioritise their health, such as telecommuting.
The widespread adoption of telecommuting is expected to have huge ramifications across all sectors — from public transport, retail and food and beverage to manufacturing, just to name a few.
Employers can no longer manage employees on the premise of face time. Peak-hour transport may soon be a thing of the past. The office space, if it continues to exist at all, will not necessarily be a place of work.
In Singapore, the impact is likely to be most visible in the Central Business District (CBD).
With the circuit breaker in full swing, the financial heart of Singapore, usually bustling with office employees, is now lined with shuttered shops and empty streets devoid of workers. Even when the measures are lifted in phases, the general consensus is that a large proportion of people in Singapore will continue to work from home.
The shift towards mass telecommuting will have profound implications across Singapore society: Will firms continue to stay in the CBD, and what does this mean for the office rental market in the area which has been on the upswing over the last few years?
How will telecommuting change the face of the CBD? And what will the shift to telecommuting mean for office culture and business productivity in Singapore?
TODAY takes a look at some of these issues.
DOWNWARD PRESSURE ON OFFICE RENTS
While the office rental market has been on the rise over the past few years, the latest projections show that there is likely to be a dip in office rentals.
Data from Colliers International in the second quarter of last year showed that Grade A office rents in the CBD hit a 10-year high at S$9.93 per sq ft per month (psf pm), driven by take-up from technology and flexible workspace firms.
Grade A buildings are new or recently-refurbished office buildings which are located in well-connected areas surrounded by amenities.
At that time, the real estate research company had projected office rents to grow by 5 per cent in 2020.
However, Ms Tricia Song, who is Colliers International’s head of research for Singapore, said that its revised forecast sees office rent in the CBD falling by 5 per cent in 2020, after accounting for a projected economic recession and the impact of Covid-19.
Ms Song said that demand for CBD office spaces from technology and flexible workspace is expected to slow, and affected businesses — especially in the tourism, aviation and transport sectors — are expected to downsize their office spaces.
Several property analysts agreed that there is likely to be downward pressure on office rents in the CBD in the short term, with companies expected to fold or downsize in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
National University of Singapore (NUS) professor Sing Tien Foo, who heads the university’s Department of Real Estate and is also the director of NUS’ Institute of Real Estate and Urban Studies, said that telecommuting will play a part in a company’s consideration to retain its office space.
Current designs may not cater for remote working arrangements or facilitate the interaction of teams which may be working at different locations. As a result, companies may realise that they need facilities such as tele-conferencing rather than big office spaces, said Prof Sing.
Amid the changing business environment, some companies may thus find it worthwhile to relocate from the CBD to a more decentralised location, said property analysts.
Property consultant Karamjit Singh reiterated that a work-from-home culture will mean that companies do not need as much office space as before.
As a result, there may be lesser demand for office spaces, not just in the CBD, but also in areas such as business parks and industrial properties. Companies that fold during this economic downturn may also give up their office spaces, leading to further reduced demand.
Nevertheless, some companies which have multiple office locations — in the CBD as well as in decentralised areas where backend staff are based — may also choose to let go of their office spaces outside of the CBD.
Such arrangements could see backend staff work remotely, even as the company retains its “image and client-facing part of the company” in the CBD, said Mr Singh, who is the chief executive officer of Showsuite Consultancy.
Like how job seekers will look for employers which prioritise their well-being, Dr Fu Yuming, dean's chair in the School of Design and Environment in NUS, noted that companies could also start to demand for spaces which can offer better protection for their employees’ health.
“In the past, the trend was for companies to go for green spaces which conserve energy. Now, the trend will include an increase in demand for aspects such as more spacing and ventilation which protect the health of workers, or those where you do not have to touch doors or elevator buttons,” said Dr Fu.
REDEFINING THE OFFICE SPACE
In addition to how much space they need, companies here are also starting to think about how they will redesign or repurpose their office spaces.
With the need for safe distancing, companies will have to increase the area allocated for each staff, and put up partitions between desks and rooms. More contactless technology could also be introduced in offices to maintain hygiene standards, said Ms Wee.
Property analyst Ong Kah Seng said that with telecommuting reducing the need for office workers to work the standard 9-to-5 routine, companies may seek to optimise their existing office space by arranging for a team to work on the premises outside of the regular hours.
This will reduce the need for the companies to lease additional space to accommodate staff, he added.
Mr Wilson Lee, a partner at Ian & Son, an accounting and corporate services firm along Upper Cross Street, said that his company, which has 10 staff, is planning to limit the number of people in its office to six after the circuit breaker ends.
With fewer people in the office, he may choose to remove some desks to create more storage space, and repurpose the conference room to host clients. It is currently used by part-timers who come in to do data-entry work.
Mr Lee said that while the company has no plans to leave its current location, it may do so if business gets worse and there is a need to cut costs.
However, he expects the rent at his current space — he pays S$1,600 a month for just over 400 sq ft — to stay the same or “have room for negotiation” when the company’s lease ends next year.
Mr Rajneesh, who goes by a single name and is the Singapore country manager for hospitality tech start-up Zen Rooms, said that with telecommuting taking hold, his firm will benefit from co-working spaces which have facilities to support remote working. These include teleconferencing facilities or spaces with larger rooms dedicated to conferences and meetings.
The company has a total of 35 staff in Singapore, of which 16 carry out central functions such as finance and revenue management. This group currently works at Ucommune, a co-working space located at OUE Downtown along Shenton Way. The remaining staff are deployed in hotels.
A MORE DIVERSIFIED CBD IN THE LONG RUN
Beyond office spaces, analysts said that Covid-19 will accelerate plans by the Government to rejuvenate the CBD area.
With the CBD typically quiet after office hours, the Urban Redevelopment Authority said last year that it will tap on vacant state properties for short-term use to boost footfall, and incentivise developers to convert ageing developments for residential or hospitality use.
While such conversions are already ongoing, as in the case of UIC Building in Shenton Way, Prof Sing said that with rentals expected to drop in the CBD, more developers could step in to convert older buildings into higher-end residential areas as well. However, this could take a decade.
Dr Fu from NUS’ School of Design and Environment said that people’s fear of commuting to their work places due to a risk of infection would also mean that they will want to live in the CBD area. As a result, more residential spaces are expected to pop up, including smaller apartment units for white-collar workers, particularly those in the service sector whose offices are in the CBD.
As recreational and leisure activities resume post-circuit breaker, Mr Ong, the property analyst, believes that with telecommuting becoming the norm, more people would feel the need to leave the residential areas after they are done with work at home.
This could result in increased footfall in retail areas in the CBD such as Marina Bay on weekday evenings and weekends.
Mr Ong expects this to happen as soon as the fourth quarter of this year, when people have adjusted to work from home, and are looking to unwind towards the end of the year.
IMPACT ON CBD RETAILERS, F&B OUTLETS
Should Mr Ong’s prediction come to pass, it would spell good news for retailers and F&B establishments in the CBD.
But for now, these businesses, which have been severely hit by the circuit breaker, are gritting their teeth.
For example, the owners of several gyms in the CBD told TODAY that they expected to see a fall in visitors compared to pre-crisis levels immediately after the circuit breaker is lifted.
Nevertheless, Mr Anil Chugani, the country manager of gym chain Fitness First, said that the shift to telecommuting could mean more members visiting its fitness clubs during traditional non-peak hours on weekdays or weekends.
Mr Chugani, 46, said that typically, members will visit its outlets in the CBD either before or after office hours. However, with the shift to remote working, people will likely have more control over their work timings, he noted.
“That’s going to create some shift in usage patterns in terms of which clubs they go to and what time of the day… As a result they are willing to be flexible about the hours in which they choose to exercise, and we can see them exercising at 10am or 4pm,” he added.
In the case of F&B establishments, those that TODAY spoke to admitted that they are worried about the impact of lower footfall in the CBD on their revenue.
The Providore expects its outlets in the CBD to become “quiet” even as footfall increases in its cafes located in areas such as Paya Lebar Quarter which are near residential areas.
Grain Traders said that while the restaurant currently has no plans to leave the CBD, it will relocate if the area proves to be unprofitable in the longer term.
All the F&B establishments interviewed said they have turned to or expanded their delivery services during the circuit breaker, and they plan to maintain these services even after the circuit breaker has been lifted.
However, Mr John Hatherley, chairman of Tadcaster Hospitality which manages several bars and cafes in the CBD area such as The Exchange at Asia Square and Molly Malone’s at Circular Road, said that after-work drinks will be a thing of the past in a post-Covid-19 world.
“The days of people finishing work at 6pm and going down to the pub to chill out — that’s a trend that won’t come back. Things are more family-oriented now, and people will prefer the family experience rather than go down to a pub,” said Mr Hatherley, 55.
He said that F&B establishments such as his will have to find activities such as indoor mini-golfing, or pub quizzes to give people a reason to return to their premises.
Still, property analysts felt that F&B establishments in the CBD will be able to sustain themselves in spite of the lower footfall.
While there will be a “painful period” for these businesses, there will still be a need for such establishments to cater to the working population — albeit a smaller one — who will eventually return to the CBD, said Mr Singh of Showsuite Consultancy.
Mr Desmond Sim, head of Southeast Asia research at real estate firm CBRE, pointed out that higher-end restaurants will likely remain in the CBD because of the demand from their corporate clientele.
On the retail front, analysts noted that retailers in general have already been facing competition from e-commerce for some time, but the expected lower footfalls at those located in the CBD would make things worse.
Mr Sim said that landlords across Singapore will have to find ways to integrate both online and physical shopping to attract customers.
For example, retailers which offer a “click and collect” option could place collection points in the parking lots of retail malls so that customers can simply drive through to collect their purchases, instead of alighting from their vehicles to visit the physical store.
For retailers in the CBD, Mr Sim said that a major challenge is the operation hours, which are usually limited to office hours. In order to see more customers in the evenings and weekends, there would need to be a greater residential population in the CBD as well as special activities, such as Car Free Sunday which is held in the civic district several times a year.
DEMISE OF OFFICE CULTURE AND CAMARADERIE?
Beyond changing the way people work, the shift to telecommuting will have a huge impact on relationships within companies, said both employers and employees.
Among other things, there will be changes to how staff are managed and assessed, they said. Office culture and workplace camaraderie will also be harder to foster.
HR practitioners and employers agreed that with more staff telecommuting, bosses will now have to manage employees based on their outcomes, rather than their face time in office.
This will require employers to trust that their employees can be just as productive while working from home, said Mr Santhosh Viswanathan, a managing director at tech giant Intel Corporation.
Speaking to TODAY, some employees said that despite the initial kinks, they found that they are able to achieve that, as there was less pressure and more comfort at home.
Ms Kastury, the senior auditor at Prudential Public Accounting Corporation, said that without distractions at office including chats with colleagues during breaks, she has found that she can focus better on her work and achieve a better work life balance than before.
Mr Kishore, a 34-year-old IT product project manager at a bank here, was even tempted to work beyond official working hours as “the computer is just there”. He declined to provide his full name as he was not authorised to speak to the media by his employer.
However, several employers felt that productivity had taken a hit, through no fault of their staff. Nevertheless, they said they were not opposed to offering telecommuting as an option for their employees in the long run.
Mr Rahul, the director of Prudential Public Accounting Corporation, cited the example of how he was used to reviewing documents in physical files as part of this work. Having to view multiple files on a laptop screen has “bogged down” this process, he said.
Likewise, Mr Lee, the partner at accountancy firm Ian & Son, said that productivity had dipped a little because while employees could previously “turn their chair around and ask questions”, they now had to set up meetings with each other to clarify doubts.
Mr Alvin Ang, founder of recruitment firm Quantum Leap Career Consultancy, said that with remote working, it will be harder for bosses to assess the soft skills of employees which may be useful to the organisation.
He gave the example of a salesperson who may not be the best at closing deals, but is nonetheless strong at team-building which adds value to the organisation.
Such skills are harder to assess when employees cannot be observed in a physical environment, Mr Ang pointed out.
However, other employers felt that there are ways to assess their employees holistically through remote working.
Ms Ginny-Ann Oh, director of public relations firm Asia PR Werkz, said that she assesses the soft skills of her employees during their online interactions.
“There is a lot of brainstorming and discussion virtually which lets us observe leadership in the team or initiatives that are taken,” said the 46-year-old.
“I don’t think it is any harder to assess (employees) on other aspects when they work remotely.”
Camaraderie was another issue raised by employers and employees alike. Many said that they missed having meals with colleagues or simply chatting with someone in the pantry.
In this regard, some companies, such as Asia PR Werkz, have virtual team bonding sessions where staff will get together to play games, or attend corporate training workshops.
Ian & Son’s Mr Lee also said he makes it a point to check regularly on how his staff are doing, and not limit their conversations to work.
He added that even if his company switches to remote working in the long run, he will still insist that staff return at least once a week to have lunch together and bond with one another.
On whether office camaraderie is still relevant in a world where people work away from the office, Mr Lee said he believes so, as it helps to create an intrinsic motivation for employees.
He also noted how it has been harder for him to ensure that his new hires who joined in March and April feel the same sense of belonging to the company as they have yet to meet the team in person.
After the circuit breaker ends and non-essential workers are allowed to return to their offices, Mr Lee said his firm will rely on a booking system for those who want to go to the workplace and make use of its facilities.
As employers and employees in Singapore contemplate the pros and cons of telecommuting and the extent to which it can be implemented at their workplace, there are those like the Financial Times’ columnist Lucy Kellaway who mourn the loss of the office.
In a recent commentary, Ms Kellaway called the office the linchpin that lends meaning to otherwise meaningless work.
“Without an office, without a body of people beavering away at the same place and time, it is hard to know how a company could ever create any sort of culture or any fellow feeling — let alone anything resembling loyalty,” she wrote.
The office also helps “keep us sane” and creates a barrier between work and home, she added.
“One of the beauties of the office is its artificiality — it demands a different way of behaving, a different wardrobe and even a different language.
“Having two selves with two different outfits and two ways of being is infinitely preferable to having just one: When you get tired of your work self, return to your home self.”