Our Future Cities, Our future workplace – Will we return to office life as we knew it?

It has now been two years since the COVID 19 virus first came to light impacting the Chinese city of Wuhan. It has almost been 2 years since it first took hold in Singapore, impactng the day-to-day operations of the city resulting in the introduction of circuit breaking measures and started a chain of events that would have far reaching effects on how most of us live and work.

This has not been a uniquely Singaporean experience as country after country announced some form of lockdown, suddenly working from home became the new normal. Much has been written about the future of the office. Some forecasted the death of the office, the view that having a physical workplace would no longer be necessary to do business. This viewpoint paints a bleak picture of large multinationals offloading their office real estate commitments and CBD’s being left derelict and desolate. It would not just be offices that face extinction, but possibly cities too. A population shift as significant as that of the Industrial revolution could happen, with work not tying people to cities surely, we would all move to more lifestyle friendly locations. Others were more positive or just more commercially minded predicting that the office would endure but would require a raft of new and innovative products to ensure the occupants safety, security, and comfort. While reading all these viewpoints I refrained from commenting. It seemed all too easy to jump on the bandwagon and speculate on the future of the workplace and how we would all be working post pandemic. Because here is the interesting question: Will there be such an era as “Post Pandemic”?

There is no data or research to support any of these theories they were founded only in the imaginations of their authors and I could find as much probability of an accurate prediction of the future of work in any Sci-Fi novel. Yet, as a result in workplaces across Singapore we have witnessed the appearance of a sea of plexiglass and all kinds of physical dividers to keep people safe, although it must be said many such devices are completely pointless and have no effect on limiting the spread of the virus. These measures are just kneejerk reactions aimed at reassuring people that may do more harm than good if people start thinking they work. Similarly, we are seeing many organization’s jumping on the bandwagon and cutting their office space based on assumptions rather than knowing what they really need.

So, I now feel compelled to open the conversation on what we do or do not know. What is certain is that it is now unlikely that we will ever reach a post pandemic state. If this pandemic ends scientists are telling us that the next one may be hot on its heels. On that basis let us look at the data we have since the start of this pandemic to redefine our offices for the future.

So, what does this data now suggest?

  • Do we still need physical offices?
  • Do people still want to come to the office?
  • What environmental changes can we expect to see in offices post pandemic?
  • Will the way we behave and work in an office change?

Do we still need physical offices?

In a survey carried out by Stanford university in the US Only 51 percent of the survey respondents – mostly managers, professionals and financial workers who can carry out their jobs on computers – reported being able to work from home at an efficiency rate of 80 percent or more.  The majority of people working from home are doing so in less-than-ideal conditions.  Only 65 percent of Americans reported having fast enough internet capacity to support workable video calls. The remaining 35 percent have such poor internet at home – or no internet – that it prevents effective telecommuting. If this is the case in the US, then these numbers will be far worse in other counties where not only internet speed but also power stability will be making working from home difficult for many. This may result in a ticking bomb of inequality. With those with better conditions at home outperforming others. There is also the inequality around who gets to work from home and how often, all of which can be divisive for team morale. Not to mention that the jury is still out on productivity and creativity levels with the majority of people working from home as this is yet to be fully tested and evaluated. So, in the short to medium term the answer is likely to be yes, we still need physical offices!

Do people still want to come to the office?

According to most of the data gathered from surveys in various countries the results typically concur that approximately 70-80% (depending on age group) of employees would prefer to work remotely. However, what none of the surveys seem to ask is how many employees would prefer to permanently work remotely without ever having to go to the office? I believe that the percentage that would favour this would be significantly less. From the work I have been doing and the daily interactions I have had with clients and their teams, the majority of people I have interacted with during workshops on the subject of returning to the workplace all express a strong preference to get back to the office “as soon as it is safe to do so.” So, there is a strong desire to have the choice to go to the office. I believe that most people and businesses derive benefit from employees coming to the office, but people would like the freedom to choose where to work, to best suit their own personal needs. So yes, people still want to come to an office to work but maybe not the same office as before. In a world where people have this freedom of choice the types of working environments we create will need to change.

What environmental changes can we expect to see in offices moving forward?

In Singapore we have a head start on this as many businesses could return to work at least partially during phase 2 of the circuit breaker and now that we are in phase 3 many more companies are allowing employees to return to their offices. So far, we have not witnessed any huge changes to environments provided.  We have been studying the data that we have available to us through the initial implementation of split shifts through total lockdown in phase 1 and the gradual re opening through phase 2 & 3 of what was termed a Circuit Breaker. It was interesting that in phase 2 many workplaces partially reopened, most were still implementing split shifts and a policy of only come to the workplace if necessary. However, the statistics for the virus transmission during this phase were also interesting as transmission in the workplace rose from from 22% before, to 36% in phase two. So, it would seem employees’ concerns are valid.

In another Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggests that workplace transmission of the coronavirus accounted for 48 percent of the initial outbreaks in six Asian countries. (Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam) However the detailed breakdown of this revealed that very few cases were as a result of transmission in an office. With healthcare workers, drivers and transport workers making up 40% of workplace transmission cases[1]. Therefore, based on the data we have available for actual transmission in an office might actually be quite low.

Despite this most workplaces have deployed a plethora of acrylic panels to desks and tables to ensure people are adequately segregated with absolutely no proof that these provide any benefit, other than to visibly demonstrate that the employer cares about their employees and is taking measures to protect them. It has amazed me that less thought seems to have been given to segregation in lift lobbies, toilets, etc. where there is significant transitory traffic and people frequently congregate, do we need to rethink this? Despite the guidelines here, I find myself repeatedly reminding people of the safe distancing capacity of lifts. The common practice of a lift doors opening and for people to crowd in seems to bely any safety precautions. If office workers are so happy to crowd into a lift and stand at best 1m away from a stranger, why would they need a plexiglass screen between them and a colleague they know that is sitting 1.5m away (based on typical office desk layout). It is clear that these knee jerk reactions do not make much sense and what we need to do instead is to give some real thought to how we create environments that actually keep people safe rather than appearing to.

We need to rethink how we design offices to allow employees to confidently return feeling safe in doing so but also to ensure that in the future our offices can remain operational throughout any pandemic or other such event. We must focus on designing workplaces that fully support and enable business. Only this will ensure that our offices do not become extinct. At Contrast we believe we can only drive innovation in workplace design to facilitate this if we have a greater understanding of the behavior of office occupants. Through studying the patterns in how employees use their space. We can develop a fully integrated design solution that can leverage technology and influence workplace policies. To achieve this, we are now partnering with and IOT and Analytics company to allow us to undertake more in-depth research on the usage patterns of space to better inform our designs. We believe that this data driven approach to design will allow us to design more resilient workplaces that are more conducive to both business and the health and well being of occupants. Our partnership with will also facilitate the development of new analytical tools driven by the data needs of design.

Offices will not become extinct, but they will need to evolve to survive these are exciting times in the field of workplace design.

[1] Work-related COVID-19 transmission in six Asian countries/areas: A follow-up study
Fan-Yun Lan, Chih-Fu Wei, Yu-Tien Hsu, David C. Christiani, Stefanos N. Kales