The Big Read: Beyond redesigned office spaces, the future of work requires big changes in both heartware and hardware
SINGAPORE — Whenever employees at DBS Bank’s office in Marina Bay Financial Centre feel like they need to take a break from work, they can head to the 42nd floor of the building, where, tucked in a corner away from plain sight, is a “wellness space”.
This article was written in partnership with DBS Bank.
- With offices upgrading their spaces to prepare for long-term hybrid work, the future of work appears to have come early
- This is because the pandemic has conditioned people’s habits and expectations, and turned hybrid work into the new normal
- Offices of the future are space where workers collaborate and socialise, with individual work easily done at home
- However, there are obstacles that need to be overcome. These include how to foster trust between employees and employers, set boundaries between work and home, and build office camaraderie
- HR experts say that these issues need to be tackled, because like it or not, this new mode of work is here to stay
SINGAPORE — Whenever employees at DBS Bank’s office in Marina Bay Financial Centre feel like they need to take a break from work, they can head to the 42nd floor of the building, where, tucked in a corner away from plain sight, is a “wellness space”.
This space — about the size of a badminton court — houses, among other things, sleep pods where workers can take a short nap, a reading corner with relaxing music and yoga mats in front of a window with sweeping views of the city skyline.
Mr Erwin Chong, Group Head of DBS corporate real estate strategy and administration, told TODAY that this space has been set up in July as an "experiment", in a bid to make the workspace feel more like a home office.
The “wellness space” is to ensure that employees, who may have been used to the creature comforts while working from home at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, can still enjoy similar conveniences in the office, he said.
He added that the space will be up until September, after which his team will work on possible improvements.
As Singapore settles into endemicity, many workers across the island have returned to their offices in recent months. And for many companies, there is greater impetus to provide their employees with a space that offers some creature comforts and helps them feel more at home.
Mr Chong said that the bank's wellness space is meant to make its employees “feel like wellness is part of the culture, and that breaks (from work) are important”.
He added that the space is intentionally situated in an inconspicuous corner so that workers can take their breaks out of their bosses’ sight, and hence without judgment.
“It’s okay (for employees) to take a break … to slip into a different mode to recharge for a while, and then getting back to work,” he added.
DBS is not the only company to have embarked on workspace transformations post-pandemic.
Law firm Dentons Rodyk has revised its office layout to take into account some of the pandemic-induced changes in the legal sector. These include having its lawyers working remotely while Covid-19 was raging, and the emerging practice of virtual court hearings.
Chief operating officer and senior partner Loh Kia Meng said that the workplace underwent renovations, which were completed this month. The new-look office now has rooms which could screen virtual court hearings.
“Now you don’t have to queue for one hour in court, just to have a 15-minute audience with the judge,” said Mr Loh.
“We needed to have virtual hearing rooms, set up with all the computers… and it’s a new thing that we needed to do.”
Over at real estate firm JLL, its response to the increasing trend towards hybrid work is to encourage more face-to-face interactions, which had been lacking over the past two-and-a-half years due to the pandemic.
Mr Darren Battle, head of corporate real estate and workplace at JLL Asia Pacific, said that the firm believes in the value of working from the office, though it is not mandatory for workers to do so permanently.
“We recognise the value of peer groups, teamwork, learning and development, particularly for the new employees… it’s very difficult to deliver that virtually,” he said.
To encourage more interactions between employees, JLL has been organising more workplace social events in the past few months.
These include free beers on tap every Thursday at the company’s Paya Lebar office, which has proven to be popular among the employees.
There are also other social events such as yoga, high-intensity interval training, and Bollywood dance classes where employees can interact with each other.
“Coming into the workplace is not specifically for work, but actually recognising that there are other things that bring people together, and to make sure these things are happening,” Mr Battle said.
The changes adopted by these companies reflect a trend of how organisations are redesigning their office spaces to prepare for a future where hybrid work is a permanent fixture.
This comes as more employees are open to, and at times demanding for more flexible work options, after having seen them working well during the pandemic.
By all accounts, the future of work has arrived early.
Beyond flexible work arrangements and redesigned office spaces, what does it truly entail, now that Covid-19 has upended traditional work structures and arrangements?
Apart from incentivising employees to return to the workspace, it is also imperative that the mindsets of both employees and employers undergo fundamental changes, said human resource (HR) experts. HR policies may also need to be reexamined.
“When workers have already tasted having more flexibility in getting their work done, it’s hard to take that away from them, they enjoy it,” said Ms Angela Kuek, the director of HR consultancy The Meyer Consulting Group.
Whatever employers choose to do, one thing seems certain: Hybrid work is here to stay and firms can only ignore it at their own peril.
“I encourage companies not to push back and think that the good old days will come back again,” said Ms Carmen Wee, founder and chief executive officer of HR advisory services firm Carmen Wee & Associates.
“The earlier they accept it, the better, and it is important for them to shift and pivot… to the new work norms.”
WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF WORK?
When “homeworking” was first forced upon the world after Covid-19 emerged more than two years ago, there was initial pushback from both employees and employers, who had been accustomed with the traditional work-from-office model.
But expectations of the workplace now could not be more different, with many employees clamouring for hybrid work arrangements — where workers have the flexibility to work from anywhere — to be the new normal.
Indeed, because of this push towards hybrid work, the office of the future will no longer be seen as a space for day-to-day work, which many have successfully accomplished from their homes.
In the past, when working from home was a rarity, many offices were designed with the “homogenous” look — with rows of work cubicles and a few meeting rooms.
DBS’ Mr Chong said: “The challenge with hybrid (work arrangement) was that there’s a differentiation between what you want to do in the office, and what you can do at home.”
Today, those who work from home will not want to return to the office just to fulfill a job role that they can easily do at home.
“If our workspaces are just lots and lots of desks, when you come back to the office you’ll wonder, ‘work from home, work from office, what’s the difference?’” Mr Chong added.
Amid the trend of hybrid working spaces, firms are bowing to the demands of their employees in a bid to retain talent.
Ms Wee said: “Even though some Singaporean employers wanted to believe and enforce (returning to the office permanently), it comes with consequences of a spike in staff attrition.”
She said that having an attractive and well-resourced office space is a good first step to get more workers to return to the office, but ultimately there is also a need for critical changes to employee and employer attitudes.
“Employers have a responsibility — don’t just waste the time of employees (by) saying come back (to office) for the sake of coming back,” she said.
Having stipulated meetings or work that requires collaboration would help employees feel like there is value in returning to the office. “Building the human connection will be a thoughtful process that will make it meaningful, then the employee will feel like (returning to the office) is worthwhile,” she added.
Ultimately, the future of work, where employees are granted more flexibility to move seamlessly between the home and office space, will require a large dose of trust for a company to function properly.
Ms Linda Lee, managing director and regional head for future of work at DBS, said that the bank looks to inculcate trust between managers and employees.
The bank is concerned more about whether employees can deliver results, and “not so much about checking an employees' presence and whether employees are coming into the office from nine-to-five”, she said.
“The (hybrid) arrangement means you don’t see your manager every day like you used to, so the trust (between employee and manager) is very important.”
THE FIRST STEP: A REDESIGNED OFFICE SPACE, NO 'ONE SIZE FITS ALL'
In the future of work, the office space has to evolve in order to enhance collaboration among the company’s employees — something which some employers are now cognisant of. But for DBS, the push to increase interactions in the office took place even before the pandemic.
Since 2016, Mr Chong and his team had already been experimenting with how to make the workspace at DBS one that mirrored a “start-up culture”, where employees were interacting more with each other in the flesh.
This was no mean feat for a company with over 30,000 employees.
When DBS’ office moved from Shenton Way to the Marina Bay Financial Centre in 2013, the workspace was an “open concept” with meeting rooms and rows of tables divided by panels, and staff of each department sat together.
“It was still generally uniform, every floor looked the same,” Mr Chong said. “This didn’t fit the image of a start-up culture.”
He thus implemented a concept called “JoySpaces”. He began experimenting with his own team, where employees worked around a large “dining table” instead of their own individual desks.
His objective: To reduce the number of emails sent among themselves, and to bring the team closer through collaboration.
Sure enough, the number of emails sent dropped by 30 to 40 per cent and the interactions between team members increased significantly.
The success of his experiment inspired Mr Chong to scale the idea of workspace redesign across the rest of the bank.
“We wanted to give employees in this space a choice of where to sit. The other principle of choice was that I had to create a variety of different spaces, the dining table wasn’t enough, I still needed to find a corner for people to have calls," he said.
“We needed breakaway spaces which allow for discussions which could be noisier, versus spaces which are quiet. We also needed to cater spaces for people to meet in groups of four or five, or just two people or even just for individuals."
He added that teams were also tasked with defining a theme for their workspaces.
For instance, the HR department has a “garden theme” with plants because the HR colleagues see their role as nurturing the bank’s talent, while the audit team had a Formula One theme because it reminded them of the need to always work as seamlessly as the professional race teams, said Mr Chong.
“Each of these spaces means something to the team, and manifests the values of the team,” he added.
When hybrid work became the norm in DBS due to Covid-19, the spaces that he had created gave employees a good reason to return to the workplace and interact with each other.
Agreeing, Mr Battle from JLL said that the office of the future will need to cater to the missing element during the pandemic — personal interaction.
“There is value in working with teams face to face… and you can’t replicate that virtually," he said. “That face-to-face interaction and social engagement is a critical element in performance."
Apart from having more social events to encourage interaction, there have also been small adjustments made to the workspace that make people feel more at home — or what Mr Battle dubbed as the “homification of work”.
These include having background music, air quality sensors, and even a barista to brew coffee for the employees.
“Those kinds of things help people get a great work-life balance, so that coming into the workplace is not just solely for work,” he said.
Due to the prevalence of hybrid work now, companies have also started to downsize their office spaces.
At Dentons Rodyk, Mr Loh said that its office at UOB Plaza had been pared down from five to three floors as part of its renovations this year.
He added that pre-pandemic, about 20 per cent of the office space was usually not used up due to people who were on leave or lawyers who were out in court. With hybrid work arrangements becoming a norm in his firm, this unused space is bound to grow.
“Instead of previously one central office, we have decentralised offices now,” said Mr Loh, referring to the home offices of the 450 staff at the firm.
“Last time, you would own a cubicle, but now that we have gone hybrid, all the spaces are using clean desks, and you share spaces."
He added that the previous workspace could hold up to 450 people. With the current arrangement and a smaller floor space, potentially up to 650 people can make use of the office in split teams.
“We are downsizing on space, but upsizing on productivity,” he said. “ We used the savings on rent to equip the people for their decentralised home offices in terms of equipment, (internet) connectivity and any infrastructure they need.”
Agreeing with this approach, Mr Chong from DBS said that the way forward is not to just have more collaborative spaces, but to have spaces focused specifically on the kind of work which employees do.
Some office spaces are “quite individual” with separate desks and quieter workspaces, while for job roles which need more collaboration, the “dining table” concept applies.
For example, personal bankers at the firm do not need to collaborate with others as much since they work more independently. In comparison, DBS auditors need to communicate with employees across different departments.
“It is not one size fits all, we look at what the team needs to do, and we try to understand them… how they actually work in the space, then we try to tailor,” Mr Chong said.
When it comes to designing office spaces for the future, the key consideration is to make employees feel like they have a purpose for returning to the office, said interior design experts.
Mr Simon Raper, head of workplace strategy for property agent Savills Singapore, said that the office has to be a place where employees want to go, rather than need to go, because “the need is not there anymore” since work from home for prolonged periods has proven to be feasible.
To draw people back to the office, a company has to sell an “experience” where there is, for instance, better technology or amenities that would make work easier than if it were done at home.
This could consist of hybrid meeting rooms, sound-cancelling phone booths, or larger work screens.
“When we talk about flexibility and choice, it’s not just about working from home, it’s about when you are in the office you have flexibility and choice behind where you work, and what technology you use to enhance what you do,” Mr Raper said.
NEW MINDSETS NEEDED: EMPLOYEES, BOSSES HAVE TO MEET IN THE MIDDLE
While the workplace can change its hardware to attract workers back to the office, the future of work will still have to grapple with the fact that bosses and employees will be physically more distant than ever before.
Hence, the element of trust is crucial for the work relationship to prosper, said HR experts.
To build trust, the yardstick for employee performance needs to be shifted, said veteran HR practitioner Adrian Tan.
Before Covid-19, it was not unusual for companies to gauge their workers’ performance based on their presence in the office.
“(Employers) are basically telling people that (performance) doesn’t matter, just show up (at work). This conflicts with the work from home arrangement, because you literally cannot show up," said Mr Tan. “Companies have to quantify exactly what is expected of the people to deliver.”
For instance, bosses can be more outcome-driven, by assessing an employee’s performance by the quality of his or her work, rather than the number of hours spent in the office.
Agreeing, Ms Wee from Carmen Wee & Associates said that employers also have to be attuned to the changes in their workers’ priorities.
“The pandemic has shifted the needle quite a bit around the priorities that employees want to have in their own personal lives and families… and the family plays a very important part in life satisfaction,” she said.
“It actually behoves employers to be a lot more (family) friendly as they consider the design of the hybrid workspace.”
However, as employers learn to adapt to new working styles, employees also need to be realistic with their expectations, and communicate them clearly as well.
Mr Tan said that for employees who are in firms with less progressive work practices, it is up to them to take the initiative if they want more flexible working hours.
“You have to (make) your case to show to your reporting officer that everything is well planned out,” said Mr Tan, adding that if a person is a good worker, the boss may be more inclined to agree to a flexible schedule to encourage him or her to stay longer with the company.
Agreeing, Ms Kuek from Meyer Consulting Group said that trust is a two-way street and the ball cannot just be placed in the employer’s court.
She said both employers and employees should treat the idea of trust as a “bank account”, where employees need to first prove that they are able to deliver results before asking their employers for benefits such as more days working from home.
WHAT IT COULD MEAN FOR HR POLICIES, EMPLOYMENT CONTRACTS
On whether HR policies and employment contracts will need evolve to keep up with the future of work, the firms and HR experts interviewed had mixed views.
At JLL, its employees are not contractually bound to return to the office as the firm operates "on a trust basis", said Mr Battle.
"For such arrangements to be successful, managers and leaders need to be equipped with skills to manage a potentially dispersed and agile workforce while balancing individual, corporate, team and client priorities," he added.
For Dentons Rodyk, it had introduced several new "hybrid work policies".
These include a monthly "hybrid work allowance" to all employees for expenses related to setting up a workspace at home, and splitting the company into two teams, so that employees can take turns to work from home or office.
DBS’ Ms Lee said that a company-wide survey conducted during the pandemic showed that on average, workers indicated that they preferred a “60:40” office-to-home ratio, where employees spend three days working in the office and two days working from home per week.
She said: “Bonding remotely is not as strong as when employees engage in person. We encourage our employees to be deliberate about meeting people within their own team or outside the team for the 60 per cent of the time when they are back in the office, while work that requires deep focus can be done for the remaining 40 per cent of the time when they’re working remotely."
She added that this arrangement also ensures that employees are conscious about "how they spent their time in the office”.
Although companies certainly need to update their playbook, HR experts are divided on whether the new work practices should be encoded within HR policies and employment contracts.
While some said this will reduce the chances of conflict, others felt that the element of flexibility will be lost if the rules are too clearly defined.
Ms Kuek, for one, said that arrangements for hybrid work should be inscribed into workplace contracts, rather than left to a manager’s discretion.
“You can have different types of benefits in your contract… So why can’t work from home or flexible work be a benefit?” she said “It can, but you (the employee) will have to earn it.”
For instance, a HR policy could state that workers have to report to the office on most days when they first join the firm to familiarise themselves with their jobs. Later, when the manager sees that the workers are proficient enough, they will be allowed to have more days to work from home.
Should these rules not be in place, the work environment could be affected if the manner in which employees are called back to the office appears to be inconsistent, Ms Kuek pointed out.
“If there are different yardsticks used for different employees… there will be a lot of disparity, and people will start to be disgruntled, and it will affect culture and morale,” she said.
However, Mr Tan said that having the various terms behind hybrid work laid out in a contract may be “a bit too rigid”.
For instance, if an employee has to return on a Tuesday based on his contract, but there are no meetings or tasks that can only be fulfilled in the office, he may end up feeling like he’s returning to the office for the sake of it.
“So, there should be an option for them to come back only when necessary,” he said.
He added that the concept of a hybrid workspace is “honestly quite tricky” for employers, as the office space will perpetually be underused and this will affect the company’s bottom line.
“So (employers) have to explore more things like maybe not having an office but renting a co-working space,” said Mr Tan.
As for workplace insurance for injuries sustained while working remotely, then Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad said in 2020 that employers have to compensate their employees for injuries sustained while working from home.
“The key is to ascertain that the injury arose while doing work at home and not while performing non-work activities at home. This is a fact-finding exercise that is no different from all other (work injury compensation) claims,” said Mr Zaqy, who is now Senior Minister of State for Manpower.
OBSTACLES TO REALISING THE FUTURE OF WORK AND WAYS TO OVERCOME THEM
As promising as the future of work sounds, and as exciting as it may be for employees looking forward to more flexibility, there are several practical challenges along the way:
1. Onboarding new hires
According to Savills’ Mr Raper, his interaction with younger, newer employees yielded a surprising insight — some actually preferred to be in the office.
“They are saying that they need to come to the office because we learn by osmosis… (they) learn their craft by listening to what senior (employees) are doing,” he said.
Mr Tan noted that this learning process may not be as simple as just calling a new hire back to the office daily, because other colleagues may still be working from home.
The firm can set aside a budget — such as for team lunches and gatherings — to help new hires to be integrated into the company culture in other ways, he said.
“Those are benefits that the company should finance because it will encourage behaviour that will ultimately lead to longer retention,” he added.
For instance, Dentons Rodyk has provided its employees a "monthly team bonding fund" to encourage workers to participate in group activities such as going for meals, games or movies.
2. Building company culture and camaraderie
While it is important for a strong company culture to emerge, working virtually has made this harder to achieve, HR experts and employers noted.
Ultimately, face-to-face bonding helps to foster the strongest relationships, and this has been seen in different contexts outside of the workplace, such as at schools, said Mr Tan.
“When it comes to bonding, there is definitely merit in meeting face-to-face, you can observe body cues, you may, due to peer pressure, pay more attention (during a meeting)," he said. “If you’re doing remote work… you probably need more virtual meet-ups to compensate for one physical meet-up."
To encourage employees to return to the workplace, some companies have set out to provide benefits such as pantries with free flow drinks and snacks, and even pool tables and gaming consoles for recreation.
While these can help excite employees in the short term, it is not a permanent solution to building a stronger company culture.
“You can give the best perks and a superficial pantry and office renovation, but if the nature of the work doesn't change, it’s not challenging, and there are no opportunities to grow, there is no exposure… employees will make up their minds and leave, it won’t take them very long,” said Ms Wee.
Mr Battle from JLL said that while its beer-on-tap offering had existed pre-pandemic — on a daily basis, not just Thursdays — it found that this wasn’t the ideal way to get their workers to bond.
“We didn’t want to just focus on alcohol… because we were doing a lot more other things as well,” said Mr Battle, citing activities such as exercise classes.
“The key is not to attract them back to the office, it is actually to bring them together when they are in the office."
3. Setting boundaries between work and home
With the future of work likely to feature a hybrid arrangement, employers and workers respecting each other’s boundaries will be key to a pleasant working environment.
Indeed, the apparent lack of boundaries between work and home had been a recurring complaint of many employees as they worked remotely during the pandemic. Many ended up being overworked as they were afraid to say “no” when asked to do office-related tasks during their personal time.
What can be done to prevent this blurring of lines from becoming a long-term bugbear of employees?
Ms Kuek said that it boils down to employees letting their bosses know about the various commitments that they have, rather than depend on the discretion of the employers.
For instance, if a working mother has a young child she needs to put to bed, she can tell her employer that any urgent matter can be settled either before dinner, or later in the night after the child is already asleep.
“If the boss is infringing (on personal time), then it may be time for a weekly or quarterly catch-up… employees have to take the initiative to talk to the boss about it,” she said.
Some firms are already adapting their longer-term policies to respect their employees’ boundaries.
At DBS, for example, mothers who have just given birth can work from home entirely for six months after their four months of maternity leave.
Dentons Rodyk has stipulated “time zones” featuring working hours between 9.30am and noon, and 2pm to 5pm, where employees are expected to be online and contactable.
Outside of these time zones, it is “sort of known that we do not (disturb) each other,” said Mr Loh.
Ultimately, there are some habits — acquired by workers and their bosses during the pandemic — that require a conscious “re-anchoring” if the hybrid arrangement is to be viable in the long term, said Mr Tan.
"The employment contract may say (working hours are) 9am to 5pm, it’s just that nobody respects that nine-to-five,” said Mr Tan. The pandemic has inadvertently blurred boundaries and made working past office hours a new norm, he reiterated.
Employees tend to lose track of their “anchor” because working from home has made it difficult for them to disconnect from their job, which was previously made easier by leaving the office.
“It’s not about changing the anchor, as the anchor is still nine-to-five, but it is about respecting the anchor,” said Mr Tan.
DBS' efforts to create a future-ready workplace
In 2016, DBS experimented with a new workspace concept called "Joyspaces", which entailed moving away from the traditional homogenous office space filled with cubicles. Instead, the concept featured a variety of spaces which are customised according to the needs of the bank's respective departments.
For instance, the dining table concept was implemented, said Mr Chong from DBS, which allowed team members to sit close together across the same table.
Managers and non-managers were not “tethered to a space”, hence removing the sense of hierarchy.
As a result, the number of emails sent within a team went down by 40 per cent.
There was also a 30 per cent increase in the "perception of collaboration".
When Covid-19 struck in 2020, DBS started a future of work task force to understand the new normal for working.
The task force conducted experiments on remote working with 2,700 staff from late-August to end-October 2020, and found that that 60:40 was the ideal work from office: work from home ratio.
In an internal survey in July, 92 per cent of DBS employees said they have adapted well to hybrid work, compared with 84 per cent in February, and this trend was similar for employees who joined DBS during the pandemic.
However, while more employees seem to be adapting well to hybrid work, the bank recognised that "continual refinement is important to ensure that our approach considers new needs, mindsets & leverages opportunities specific to hybrid work".
For instance, DBS removed requirement for new joiners to work 100 per cent from office in the first six months after surveys showed that these hires were just as productive and satisfied with a hybrid work arrangement.
According to its surveys, DBS also found the top three factors that would impact a company's adaptation to hybrid work:
Beyond just setting up robust tech architecture, equipment and cybersecurity, firms should also take into consideration employee experience. For instance, DBS started a delivery system for IT to send over relevant IT equipment to employees working from home to ease any hiccups with technology.
2. Manager effectiveness
Empathy and trust have become even more crucial factors for managers in hybrid work, especially now that they share less face-to-face time with their team, said Ms Lee from DBS.
As hybrid working is new to both employees and managers, DBS has a workshop that managers have to attend to familiarise themselves with new workplace trends and how to manage their teams in a hybrid workspace.
“(This is) to guide them how to best manage their team in a hybrid setting, as it is totally different from how to manage a team pre-pandemic," she said.
From DBS' surveys, employees agreed that work in office is more effective for collaboration, ideation and building social connections, while deep and focused work is more easily achieved when working from home.
DBS' official guidelines now reflect this preference, stating that work in office is for more collaborative and social agendas, while working from home should be for more individual work.
"We actually make sure everybody in the meetings come with a concise agenda… and then make sure we have some decisions (made) in the meeting, so that we make the collaborations in the meeting effective," said Ms Lee.
Related topicsCovid-19 DBS work from home hybrid work office culture
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