Tatler Talks: What Will the Future of Office Design Be Like?
Due to social distancing restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic last year, working from home has since become the new normal for many companies. Between back-to-back Zoom conferences and juggling distractions courtesy of nosy family members and pets, many employees have since adapted to working within the comforts of our dwellings.
While we’ve managed to adjust fairly quickly to our new working environment, this then poses the question: how would future workplaces be designed to adapt to these changes? Four industry experts weighed in their opinions during the recent Tatler Homes Singapore panel discussion, as presented by Japanese furniture manufacturer Okamura.
Moderated by Tatler Homes Singapore managing editor Hong Xinying, the informative virtual talk was first broadcasted on Zoom. The participating panellists were: Jaelle Ang, co-founder of The Great Room; Shawn Eng, regional business development director (Asia Pacific) of Okamura Singapore; Naoko Takenouchi and Marc Webb, directors and co-founders of Takenouchi Webb.
Here, we take a look at some of the key takeaways from the panel discussion.
New ways of working
Indeed, the pandemic has spurred many employers to try new ways of working, in reaction to the necessities of the situation. And in the process, companies have adapted to working arrangements that they may have never considered before; remote working, for instance, became more viable than anticipated by many employers.
“As a design office, we didn’t think it is possible to work remotely, because we have so much big data,” says Japanese interior designer Naoko Takenouchi, director of Takenouchi Webb, an integrated architecture and interior design firm. “But I didn’t know that technology is so advanced now. It was eye-opening.”
“More than ever now, I think companies and designers will really start looking at what is work, what are we designing for, what are we solving for,” says Jaelle Ang, co-founder of The Great Room, a hospitality-centric co-working operator. “Work is no longer what we used to define work as. It used to be just sitting in front of the computer and getting things done. But now, it’s not just about the hours (spent) behind the computer and the productivity, it’s about work taking different shapes and forms. That the high-value part of work could be when you’re around the table with like-minded people; it could be about collaboration (and) coming up with ideas.”
A stronger need for flexibility in workspaces
The popularity of telecommuting has also spurred the need for versatile spaces, whether at home or in a more formal working environment.
“People are really looking at flexibility, whether it’s for their growing family (or) for projecting five years into the future. What they’re going to do with the house, or using an office space that could be very flexible to turn into something else. I think clients have always wanted that flexibility, but now it’s even more prominent in requests,” says British architect Marc Webb, who’s also director of Takenouchi Webb. “I think that this current pandemic, we can see an end to it. But the feeling in people’s minds, to be prepared, to have that flexibility, I think that’s something ingrained in people now.”
People are really looking at flexibility, whether it’s for their growing family (or) for projecting five years into the future.
— Marc Webb, director of Takneouchi Webb
This shift towards leasing and flexibility was also a driving factor for Japanese furniture manufacturer Okamura’s chair subscription program. Under the program, companies are able to lease and thereafter return Okamura’s ergonomic chairs after a period of time, if it is no longer needed.
“We’re receiving more and more inquiries with regards to flexibility,” says Shawn Eng, Regional Business Development Director, APAC at Okamura Singapore. “We’re seriously looking into this business model, because it doesn’t only come from one company, but it’s coming from multiple companies. They’re pretty big companies that are going to make a change in this industry. As a company, we’re anticipating that we might have to (change) our mindset towards selling and also a leasing model, to accommodate the flexibility requirement that’s in demand now.”
He adds: “The basic renewal of furniture in Singapore is five years. We decided that since we have good quality products that are going to last for 10 to 15 years, let’s bring them back, renew them, refurbish them with minimal carbon footprint, and make them accessible for people—even local SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises), who didn’t use to even dream about ergonomics,” says Eng. This manner of flexibility also allows for individuals and companies to adapt quickly to changes in their business model and office functions as well.
We decided that since we have good quality products that are going to last for 10 to 15 years, let’s bring them back, renew them, refurbish them with minimal carbon footprint, and make them accessible for people—even local SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises), who didn’t use to even dream about ergonomics
— Shawn Eng, Regional Business Development Director, APAC at Okamura Singapore
Designing collaborative spaces
Touching on the role of co-working spaces, Ang thinks that such methods of working will gain even greater momentum in the near future.
“I’m going to make a bold claim that people will actually stop calling it co-working very soon. This way of flexible working will just be 'working',” says Ang. “Talking about flexible working as a sector, with more business uncertainty, shorter business cycles—pandemic or not—it’s going to accelerate a trend that’s already happening. Flexible working is (currently) about two to three per cent of total commercial office space. It’s forecasted to be at 30 per cent in 2030, which means it’s going to grow ten times in the next ten years. I think this is accelerating.”
Designing open-plan office spaces where social interactions are able to be fostered naturally is key for companies. “We create spaces to allow different kinds of casual collisions and trust that good things will happen to like-minded people when they meet—whether it’s learning to make a cup of coffee from somebody who’s done it before, or the integral water-cooler gossip and chat you exchange—all these spaces allow that to flourish,” says Ang. “We can design some interactions and different levels of intimacy and energy to allow that to happen. I think that all offices need it while recognising that this is an important part of the glue—the social glue, the social capital to build to get real high-value work done.”
“Every personality is quite different. In your office, you have so many types of people who like different things. Having a range of different spaces and different areas would be something that could keep more people happy,” Webb concurs.
“My ideal office would be to have a really nice, big kitchen. I think food is one thing that can really bring people together. It’s something that people in Singapore always talk about, and are always involved in,” he elaborates. “When new members of staff or people come into our office, it takes time; you can’t immediately create a (social) cohesion with everyone. But that kind of daily ritual of cooking and gathering around the table can really foster the feeling of group cohesion.”
We create spaces to allow different kinds of casual collisions and trust that good things will happen to like-minded people when they meet
— Jaelle Ang, co-founder of The Great Room, a hospitality-centric co-working operator
Changing the work culture
Beyond rethinking the ways that offices are designed, it’s important to consider the environment and overall well-being of employees in workplaces as well. “A lot of things are lacking in the working environment for women. For example, in our office building, I have seen a mother pumping milk in the toilet,” says Takenouchi. “In general, as a mother and a working woman, I think the environment is still far (from ideal) and I hope it’ll be (viewed as an) essential one day, soon.”
Ang echoes Takenouchi’s point. “I actually have to re-emphasise what Naoko is saying—that it’s not just a list of things, it’s a mindset. We’re not solving for more bums on seats, we’re not solving for efficiency. We’re solving for well-being, comfort, and an office environment is a place for well-being, comfort, social exchanges, capital and more.” Wellness responsibility is definitely a priority for workspaces, especially more so when it’s fuelled by the current global health crisis.
Eng also draws attention to the importance of social responsibilities in the office. He draws on an example of the plants located at the Okamura showroom, where employees take turns to water them daily. “Rather than getting someone in to maintain them, we want (employees) to take responsibility (by watering the plants); wanting to be a part of this creates a sense of ownership and belonging in the space.”
To get more in-depth reflections from our panel’s experts, catch the entire Tatler Homes Singapore x Okamura discussion below: