Post-pandemic: The office has a future

Random workplace chatter is still highly valued for sparking innovation, even though remote work is here to stay post-pandemic. In the first edition of the relaunched Tech section every Tuesday, The Straits Times speaks to tech giants and experts to get their views.

Many offices remain closed, while some firms have allowed only a portion of their workforce back.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

 

SINGAPORE – Casual encounters in the office cafe, lounge or hallway – or “water-cooler moments” as they are known – have long been associated with the increased collaboration and innovation that contributed to the success of technology firms like Google and Apple.

But when the Covid-19 pandemic struck and the world went virtual, these unplanned encounters were disrupted.

The millions of dollars big tech firms invested in office designs to encourage casual conversation – including the serving of free meals – were no longer paying dividends.

Even today, many offices remain closed, while some firms have allowed only a portion of their workforce back due to safe distancing measures. To compound matters, many workers have adjusted to working from home and now wish to continue to do so in perpetuity, prompting some to wonder if large office spaces are still relevant in a post-Covid-19 world.

The answer is yes, if the recent actions of big tech firms like Google and Facebook, which have among the world’s most enviable workplaces, are any indication of future trends.

Take Facebook, for example. The social media giant signed a new lease in August for 730,000 sq ft of office space in midtown Manhattan in New York. The new lease is in addition to its existing 2.2 million sq ft of space in the same city.

“With these research and development-driven companies, unplanned interactions between people of different backgrounds are important for innovating and creating new ideas,” said Mr Lewis Garrad, career solutions leader for Singapore at American human resources consulting firm Mercer.

“Digital water-cooler moments do not work, in the same way that enforced fun doesn’t work. You say to people: ‘Right now we’re going to have fun and here’s what you will do to have fun.’ That’s rarely a recipe for success.”

Reopening google town
One of the biggest believers in water-cooler moments, and the office space, is Google.

The Google office at Mapletree Business City with safe distancing measures in place on Oct 30, 2020. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

In an interview with Time magazine in September, Mr Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, said: “We firmly believe that in-person, being together, having a sense of community is super important when you have to solve hard problems and create something new, so we don’t see that changing. But we do think we need to create more flexibility and more hybrid models.”

In an interview with The Straits Times last week, Ms Anny Tampling, Google Asia-Pacific’s human resources director, reaffirmed the importance of the company’s global campuses, which are designed to stimulate creativity by allowing members of different teams to bump into one another and strike up conversations.

Ms Anny Tampling at the Google office at Mapletree Business City on Oct 30, 2020. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Socialising often takes place at the cafeteria, game rooms and lounges, which are designed with bright colours and fun themes.

Ms Tampling said: “We have always seen the office as an important part of our culture. We don’t see that changing.”

And, even though all employees are allowed to work from home until July, the firm’s Asia-Pacific headquarters at Singapore’s Mapletree Business City reopened on Oct 15, after having been closed since March.

Google, which has 2,000 employees here, said it is adhering to the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) guidelines, requiring no more than half of its work-from-home employees to return to the workplace at any given time.

It also has split teams, with each team alternating between work-from-home and the workplace on a one- to two-week basis.

The company has resumed its free food and coffee services, a perk Google is known for. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

The company has resumed its free food and coffee services, a perk Google is known for, although these are now cooked and pre-packaged on-site instead of being served buffet-style.

“The health and safety of our employees continue to be our top priority. We are looking to maintain the office experience that our Googlers love and enjoy,” said Ms Tampling. “We will also be looking at the right time to resume other office facilities, such as our gym and nap rooms.”

The future office

This belief in the value of collaboration in an office environment is not just limited to the tech sector.

European energy and industrial automation solutions firm Schneider Electric has kept its Asia headquarters, located in Kallang Avenue, open throughout the circuit breaker from April 7 to June 1 even though only essential staff could go in.

“I’m surprised some companies say that they do not need their employees back in the office,” said Mr Damien Dhellemmes, president of Schneider Electric Singapore.

“You can be productive working from home, but something is still missing,” he added, referring to unplanned engagements that are part of a firm’s corporate culture.

He also believes that collaboration involving various departments will be more effective and efficient when done in-person.

Following MOM’s guidelines, the company is letting only up to half of its more than 1,000 employees in Singapore return to the office. It also has split teams coming to the office on alternate weeks.

The firm is using smart technologies to ensure that occupancy levels are not exceeded. For instance, it has an automated sensor system that tracks the number of people on each floor using a complex matrix, and stops more people from entering once the maximum capacity on each floor is reached.

Like Google, Schneider Electric will formalise work-from-home as an option for all employees, but it is also hoping to have them return to the office for a few days a week post-Covid-19.

On the office’s future role, Mercer’s Mr Garrad said it will be one of social interaction and collaboration, as well as of meeting clients.

“You will expect to be distracted and to engage others… it will be noisy,” he said.

Many more organisations and business leaders will soon question the value of office spaces, Mr Garrad noted, adding that some redesign may be needed.

But what is certain is that many organisations will try to find ways to bring their employees together.

“People will want to be together – not just to be a part of a community, but also because there will be business benefits in doing so.”

“Source:[Post-pandemic: The office has a future] © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction”

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