The future of workplace is hybrid. Last year, the world saw the largest WFH experiment as employees were moving their offices home. The pandemic has forced organisations to think of ways to make employees stay productive despite being away from the office. While WFH offers much flexibility, it also comes with loneliness and communication challenges. Thus, hybrid work arrangement is seen as the midpoint between working remotely and working on-site.
On this note, Kristian Jones, Principal, Design Asia, Unispace is here with HR in Asia to share his experience and ideas on how business leaders can adjust to hybrid work and plan the transition. Stay tune!
Question: Remote work is here to stay. As more employees want flexible, hybrid-working arrangements post-pandemic, the future of physical office space is in for a change. Do you see a similar trend growing across Singapore?
Answer: For many businesses, working and workplace arrangements have become pressing concerns in recent weeks and months, especially as vaccination programmes roll out globally and countries look towards recovery – Unispace’s most recent Client Pulse Survey revealed that nearly a third of our clients across the Asia Pacific expect to return to a “new normal” by the end of Q3 2021, but 43% are concerned about workplace strategy.
Companies are beginning to adopt hybrid working as a result of business and employee considerations. In Singapore, it is important to note that some individuals may have different work-from-home set-ups, affecting the conduciveness of remote working. For example, some may share rooms with siblings, and others may live with extended family, which may make working from home more difficult. Businesses must hence bear these considerations in mind, and ensure that their employees have the necessary infrastructure and tools to work effectively.
Ultimately, the human element is one of the most critical parts of office design. If hybrid working is adopted by a company, programmes need to be put in place to ensure that staff are part of that journey and onboarded effectively to maximise their productivity either at home or in the office.
Question: With the pandemic reshaping the nature of work and employee priorities, what’s the best employers can do to address this paradigm shift?
Answer: Beyond immediate health and safety concerns, other lasting results of the pandemic include an increasingly stratified and dispersed workforce especially as remote working arrangements prolong, as well as an overall uncertain outlook in the short and middle term. As companies continue to deal with the situation, business leaders need to lead by example, coach their teams, and ensure best practices for hybrid working are cascaded across the organisation. For example, this could include guidance on how to use the right infrastructure and technology, encouraging a healthy work-life balance, and empowering and trusting their team to work from home effectively.
Direct team managers should seek to understand individuals in their teams, how they work best, and the ideal motivations for them – for example, if an employee tends to be more introverted, a manager needs to ensure they stay connected when working from home. Managers and HR leaders also need to shape the company and strike the ideal balance between coming into the office and working from home; this will enable employees to maintain bonds with their teams and the overall culture of the brand. To encompass all these elements, a ‘Growth Mindset’ is necessary, and could be fostered through an HR-led initiative – this will help people adapt, change and evolve with the times as necessary.
Question: Despite workers gaining productivity while working remotely, some companies still want to call their employees back to their desks. So, what’s the urgency behind adopting and not adopting WFH arrangement?
Answer: During the pandemic’s peak through much of 2020, many companies were forced to adopt remote working arrangements by default. However, as the situation gradually recovers, it is clear that different companies and industries have polarising views about remote working. For example, tech giants like Facebook and Twitter have allowed all full-time employees to work from home, while in contrast, Goldman Sachs is looking to go back to pre-COVID arrangements with everyone back in the office. Expectations around flexible working arrangements have changed, and more often than not, through the workweek, employees increasingly want to split their time between home and the office.
As a result of the pandemic, we have seen that remote and in-office work each brings varying benefits. Working from home has been praised for flexibility – workers that spend less time commuting have reported increments in productivity. On the other hand, office-based working fosters free and easy communication, and opportunities for collaboration and social interaction throughout the workday – all of which become significantly more challenging to accomplish when working remotely.
To me, hybrid working arguably represents the best of both worlds – employees can complete individual and focused-based tasks at home with greater efficiency, and are still able to head to the office for its best benefits such as collaboration and social interaction. Additionally, as hybrid working becomes more feasible, companies that apply a blanket rule to all staff and mandate the full return to the office can come across as restrictive, and may ultimately impact their ability to attract and retain talent in the long run.
Question: Before switching to hybrid work, what points should be put into consideration? Why do these points matter?
Answer: As recovery from COVID-19 recovery occurs in stages, many companies are likely to adopt hybrid working arrangements as a first step to getting employees back into the office. As such, several factors need to be considered as these arrangements are rolled out.
In the immediate term, employee concerns around hygiene and safety must be addressed. While global vaccination programmes offer some reassurance, herd immunity is still some time away, and health and safety measures must still be upheld in the meantime. Apart from personal protective measures, such as the wearing of masks and rigorous personal hygiene, office-wide regulations should also be implemented. These could include safe distancing, such as the spacing out of work points, temperature scanners at entry points, as well as occupancy sensors for rooms and common areas.
Additionally, companies should also have the technological resources to facilitate split-team working arrangements, as employees’ time will remain divided between office and home through the week. Some of these areas include establishing communications channels and digital tools to facilitate efficient collaboration between in-person and virtual teams, as well as systems for smoother workflows between employees. Without these, teams risk being divided amongst silos, resulting in a disconnect between office-based employees and their remote working counterparts.
Finally, employee desires and preferences should be taken into account as much as possible when determining the scale of hybrid work arrangements. While some employees desire to return to the office full-time, many others prefer the flexibility to determine their work locations on a daily basis. For example, as part of redesigning medical device company Boston Scientific’s Asia Pacific headquarters at the end of 2020, Unispace was tasked to factor in the distinctly different needs of three working groups – namely on-site, hybrid and remote. As such, working arrangements that are able to flexibly cater to differing employee needs can positively impact productivity and morale, and organisations should thus make this a core part of planning.
Question: When it comes to redesigning office space to support successful hybrid work models, what’s the most important thing to pay attention to?
Answer: The goal of redesigning the office space and supporting hybrid work is to foster a true sense of employee-centricity, which will enable staff to do their best work and truly feel satisfied. However, depending on job scope and personal preferences, not all employees will use the office to the same degree. As such, redesigned office spaces must be able to accurately provide for the unique needs of these groups, and balance this with the efficient use of resources.
For example, staff across finance and support will require digital tools to properly fulfill their roles, and as such, would require dedicated workstations and in-office tools to do so. In contrast, employees in sales or marketing would spend a fair part of their day travelling or participating in external meetings; these individuals would likely be able to work largely remotely, and not require exclusive office desks. Beyond these considerations, standard resources and tools should also be available for day-to-day functions – these could include technological such as computers and mobile phones) or facilities for interaction and collaboration, such as lounge areas and breakout rooms.
In our recent redesign of Boston Scientific’s new Asia Pacific headquarters in Singapore, employee needs were placed front and centre throughout the whole process. Before conceptualisation and redesign, a global survey of Boston Scientific employees offered valuable insights into their varying needs – it revealed that a third of employees wanted to work from the office, a third from home, and the remaining third a hybrid of both arrangements. To prioritise and cater to these desires, we ultimately redesigned the office with several functional zones for a range of purposes. This included areas where employees could gather for teamwork or socialisation, quiet rooms and individual workstations, as well as an exclusive training section for product demonstrations and showcases.
Question: In your opinion, why does the physical workplace in the future need to move towards fostering employee-centric practices and experiences?
Answer: While the pandemic triggered a sudden and almost-complete move to remote working through 2020, employees were presented with unparalleled levels of freedom and control over their own schedule. Even amidst this, they could, in many cases, maintain productivity at previous levels or even exceed them. This consistency in employee performance and output, no matter the physical location, has now made in-office presenteeism obsolete, and signals the rise of an increasingly self-managed workforce.
In this post-pandemic era, the physical workplace needs to have a greater purpose. It should not just respond to employee functional expectations through new technologies, but be a place that brings people together, fostering community culture and collaboration. Physical workplaces that can do so will empower employees to do what they do best, which will translate to greater happiness, mental well-being, and ultimately, also contribute to overall talent retention.
Question: As a workplace design specialist, can you share some office design strategies that can anticipate and meet new and changing employee needs?
Answer: With the shift from Activity-Based Working to Experience-Based Working, companies are gradually adopting a new mindset – employees that come into the office post-pandemic will want to do so for a specific purpose, rather than for the sake of routine. The physical workplace should therefore be redesigned to foster such functions, and enable employees to be fulfilled and bring greater value.
Through extensive research, client surveys and executive interviews, we conceived a hybrid office model that combines the best of working from home and working from office – the Propeller framework. This framework was built around three key areas: problem solving, where employees and partners are empowered to work together to create something more meaningful and innovative than what they could have achieved alone; innovation, which fosters the exchange of ideas and concepts that drive transformation; and community building, which commits to mentorship and camaraderie, with a collective sense that like-minded people are there to do great things together.
In recent months, we have redesigned workplaces that utilise and adapt the Propeller framework in line with individual company objectives, and we are continuing to have discussions with other companies on doing so. For example, our recent redesign of Boston Scientific’s Asia Pacific hub office incorporated zones for interaction and community building, such as the collaboration lounge and training centre.
Finally, as COVID-19 is expected to become endemic in the coming years, overall well-being and safety for employees will remain important, and workplace design can foster this in a variety of ways. Companies can look to create healthy working paces by incorporating elements of quality airflow, natural light and biophilia. Enhanced technology will also be highly useful in streamlining operational functions, such as digital booking systems for office facilities, touch-free access panels and tools for monitoring air quality.
As the lead designer for Unispace in Asia, Kristian Jones has worked on projects across China, South East Asia, India, London, and Dubai. Apart from corporate workplace design, Kristian brings a deep understanding of brand and user experience design to evolving new thinking and workplace approaches. Kristian is highly skilled in creative direction, workplace and retail strategy, concept and technical design, user experience design, branding, client management, and managing teams.
Connect with him on LinkedIn.
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