The Future of Workspaces Post-Pandemic: Q&A with Narita Cheah, Co-founder & Director of Paperspace Asia

October 14, 20201:52 pm5297 views
The Future of Workspaces Post-Pandemic: Q&A with Narita Cheah, Co-founder & Director of Paperspace Asia
Image source: Pixabay

Singapore authorities recently announced that more people will be allowed to go back to the workplace from September 28, given the low cases of Covid-19 in the community. Since the outbreak in January, the way we work has changed, thus how can business owners prepare their workspaces for the return of their team members?

Narita Cheah, co-founder and director of Paperspace Asia, recommended that companies take immediate steps to protect their employees’ mental and physical well-being as well as fulfill the new purpose of the workspace. Moreover, Cheah suggested that encouraging creative collaboration among employees in the next normal would be among the utmost importance. On this note, HR in Asia team seeks further commentary from Cheah on this issue to deepen our understanding on how HR and leaders can manage today’s situation better. Read on…

Ms Cheah, despite the pandemic is not over, countries are reopening businesses in order to stabilise the economy, but of course with new safety measurements such as temperature check, new workspace arrangements, etc. In your opinion, how will this new normal impact employees wellbeing?  

Having been through a life-changing experience, employees and employers alike are very much more aware of employee wellbeing. While ensuring your employees are safe and feel safe within the office environment, wellbeing now goes well beyond that and includes providing flexible work arrangements and support in fitting out their homes with ergonomic furniture to prevent long-term health problems. 

How can business owners prepare their office spaces for the return of their teams?

In short, less desks, more collaboration spaces. From our research, individual work thrives when done at home while collaboration has taken a hit when done virtually. Employees look to the office to connect and innovate with their colleagues. Offices should then be redesigned to spur connections with colleagues, and support informal interactions and conversations that can spark creativity. 

One way is to integrate or reconfigure your current spaces into shared workspaces, staircases with seating, and outdoor workspaces to help create an environment that encourages people to work together. Locating desirable amenities in strategic points in the office will also facilitate “casual collisions” throughout the workday to promote teamwork and increased collaboration. Business owners can explore injecting humour into safety messaging put up for new measures. Some cafes have placed mannequins or soft toys where people are not supposed to sit and this creates a point of conversation rather than frustration. 

Although employees are returning to work, physical interactions need to be limited. So how should employees communicate at work? Do you think online communication for in-house workers is effective?

There are elements of working together in person that communicating through a screen cannot replicate – spontaneous interaction, robust discussions and side conversations. If this is what your post-covid office is designed to support, replacing opportunities for this would be ineffective in achieving the intention of the office. Meaningful face to face interaction can still be achieved with safety measures in place. 

The first steps to this is keeping your people safe and then putting your people at ease when they are in the office. From injecting humour into messaging on new measures to providing employees with coloured wrist bands to indicate their comfort levels when it comes to safety and hygiene, these innovative ways can make it easier to have meaningful conversations. 

Prioritising employee safety can be done through zoning measures that restrict movement within specific parts of the office, incorporating plastic screens to facilitate team-to-team interaction, staggered working hours and increased sanitisation of the space. 

What kind of new workplace perks will benefit both employers and employees in the new workplace setting and why those perks?

Support like flexible working policies, stipends to cover costs for ergonomic furniture and technology like monitor screens, wifi connectivity will be beneficial. The intention behind providing support to employees is to convey appreciation by the organisation and to help make their environments as conducive as possible for them to work. This guiding principle does not change, with or without Covid-19. 

In the new research of Future Thinking Workspaces, you commented: Businesses which put people’s needs, such as safety and well-being, before space, can better adhere to short-term regulations and nurture a motivated and engaged workforce for the long-term. They can also set companies apart in the war for talent. Could you please elaborate on what you mean by putting people’s needs before space?

People are the heart of any organisation and the end users of the spaces we design and work in. As organisations approach new ideas about workplace strategy, keep employees’ needs at top of mind and design the space to support these needs. 

In line with the previous question, what are the best steps to put people’s needs before space? Does it include enabling work from home as a long-term strategy?

Having worked from home for an extended length of time, recognise that new work patterns and behaviors have already formed, and expectations of the office have changed. The first step is to understand these changes before working on a strategy. Use these insights to create nimble and purposeful workspaces which could also include a flexible work programme. And before embarking on a long term solution, test and observe smaller scale pilot projects to identify new patterns or solutions. 

We discussed a lot about new normal and workspace arrangement. Yet, a survey cited that employees are unhappy returning to “normal” working life. What Is your best advice for the management team regarding this issue?

There is no one size fits all solution to transitioning back to the office. It all really comes back to what’s working for your employees and what is not. The very first step to approaching return to office is ensuring you converse and engage with employees through regular check-ins between managers, employee surveys and focus groups. 

Lastly, based on your observation, what will permanently stay and continuously change in terms of workspaces? 

While we have adapted well to working from home, the office is here to stay. Its fundamental purpose will look radically different both in the short and long term. Organisations need to rethink their workplace strategies and continually adjust them as required.

Read also: COVID-19 & The International Business Expansion Plans: Interview with Lee Quane, Regional Director Asia at ECA International 

About Narita Cheah: 

Narita Cheah has over 20 years of leading workplace strategy and change management projects across Singapore and Asia Pacific for leading technology, finance and professional services firms. She is well-versed in leading projects that create structural and behavioural changes within organisations in support of their business goals.

Content rights: This exclusive interview content is produced by HR in ASIA. Any redistribution or reproduction of part or all of the contents in this interview is prohibited. You may not, except with our express written permission, distribute or commercially exploit the content.

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