Exploring workplace design trends

This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 16, 2020 - November 22, 2020.
DiGi.com’s headquarters is an open paperless office (Photo by Veritas Architects)

DiGi.com’s headquarters is an open paperless office (Photo by Veritas Architects)

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Work culture has changed over the years, with flexibility being the main theme. This, in turn, has changed the design of the workplace from traditional and compartmentalised to open and flexible.

Instead of having an individual cubicle or room, many workplaces now have a more relaxed atmosphere, where employees can sit anywhere they want to work. This is known as the hot-desking culture.

Other companies allow some of their employees to work away from the office. Thus, fewer desks are provided, as not everyone comes to the office.

Flexible workplaces and working outside the office, or remotely, are not new phenomena. But these approaches to work are increasingly being explored and practised now because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has forced people to work from home.

It has resulted in the realisation that work can be done anywhere. “We used a lot of space before and, now, we can optimise the space [for something else], as we can work using electronic devices. Meeting rooms need not be big anymore because there is the option of video conferencing now,” notes SNO Architects Sdn Bhd founder Saifuddin Ahmad.

Before the pandemic, he noticed a trend in which some companies had a dedicated floor for meeting rooms. So, whoever worked remotely would return to the office only to use the meeting rooms for appointments with clients.

Besides working from home, the pandemic has also taken flexibility to another level, where workplaces should require less built-in infrastructure, says Veritas Architects Sdn Bhd director Lillian Tay.

“In a health crisis, tables need to be moved apart, but there are the cables to think about. So, going wireless is very important, as tables can be pushed apart without the worry of tearing off wires,” she adds.

Tay believes furniture should be portable enough to be moved apart as well. This kind of flexibility will allow offices to operate at a 50% capacity instead of resorting to a total shutdown, she says.

GRA Architects Sdn Bhd director Boon Che Wee sees no major changes to workplace designs post-Covid-19 besides temporary adjustments such as space sequencing in layout settings and additional dividers to comply with back-to-office standard operating procedures.

Everyone can work at any desk or space that they choose (Photo by Veritas Architects)

Work-from-home and workplace design

Saifuddin believes the work-from-home arrangement may continue after the pandemic, depending on the nature of the work. “You just need a good laptop with all the data in it and internet connection, and you can work from home or anywhere,” he says.

As such, he says, the size of the workplace may shrink, as employees no longer need a permanent space in the office. “For instance, you have 10 employees, and maybe you just have five working spaces and the rest of the staff will work from home. So, space planning will be different.”

Tay sees more companies opting for hot-desking. “You do not need to raise money and rent a half-empty office. Normally, people can work anywhere they want and meet weekly for discussions.”

The work-from-home arrangement is not necessarily due to the pandemic but is also because some work can indeed be done from home, and it is a good arrangement, especially for working mothers, she says.

“Work-from-home should be encouraged, as it will encourage mothers to remain in the workforce without being a disadvantage. Hopefully, this can create more gender equality in the workplace,” she adds.

Tay cautions, however, that it would be claustrophobic to just work from home. “We should not go overboard and work from home only. Face-to-face interaction is still valuable; relationships are still built on it.”

She agrees with Saifuddin that workplaces may become smaller because fewer people will be working in the office. “But companies will have to spend more on IT infrastructure for the employees. So, cost of rental will be shifted to IT allowances for people to have the capability to work outside the office,” she notes.

Boon concurs with Tay. “The work-from-home arrangement will continue but it will be limited to those who are equipped with essential support, which is the IT infrastructure, and firms that have obtained positive outcomes.”

Workplace design has changed from traditional and compartmentalised to open and flexible

Modern workplaces that focus on employees’ well-being

There has been a lot of talk about employees’ well-being in the workplace. Offices such as Google’s are a good example of places that offer a work environment that is relaxed and casual, and furnished with sofas, beanbags and slides. There are dedicated areas to wind down and have fun as well.

This type of office can also be found in Malaysia. In the early 2000s, Veritas completed DiGi.com Bhd’s headquarters, which is an open, paperless office. All desks provided are of the same size, even those used by the management team.

Moreover, every employee has a mobile phone, a locker and a small toolbox, allowing everyone to work at any desk or space that they choose.

According to Tay, a naturally ventilated atrium was included in the design and it has become a community-gathering place for staff.

“That is where they hold their townhalls. They never asked us to make a space for their townhall sessions but, because the space was there, they started holding it there. The CEO would stand on one of the bridges to talk and people would give performances on the bridges while others mingled around the atrium,” Tay explains.

This kind of open-plan workplace with balconies and bridges allow people to see each other. “It has what we call the ‘bumping factor’, where people bump into each other and have some engagement,” she adds.

Common spaces are important in a workplace as well, she says. “In the Digi building, there is a de-stress room with punching bags and squeezy balls. There is also a war room, where everyone goes to brainstorm for big projects. This sort of communal space is needed more.”

Such fun workplaces with common areas are the way forward, Saifuddin says. Sometimes there is a need to mix seriousness and pleasure, but he cautions that a line needs to be drawn between what is formal and what is informal.

“I think this kind of workplace is getting popular in Malaysia. Our population is quite young and, if they are used to this kind of casual working style, we should be looking into this. I think it will be a trend moving forward,” he observes.

For large firms, it would not be difficult to incorporate this workspace arrangement in their offices, as they have the space. For small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that work from a shophouse, however, it would be problematic because they do not have the space to make it happen, Tay notes.

Therefore, this is where co-living and co-working — environments in which the facilities and common areas are shared — come in. “It is a trend that already exists and will continue to exist for the sake of affordability. It is affordable for people to start up without having to rent an office. I think it will continue to be a strong trend,” she says.

Google Malaysia’s office is an example of places that offer a work environment that is relaxed and casual (Photo by Soophye)

Boon looks at workplace well-being in terms of the environment. “The quality of the workplace environment affects human performance. It is considered high priority in terms of invisible aesthetic and visual impact, which blend together to form the total aesthetic,” he explains.

Invisible aesthetic refers to the uplifting of employees’ spirits through sensory experience such as lighting and placement of windows.

He adds that the workplace should also focus on the employees’ comfort and functionality in addition to possessing an eye-pleasing design to create a healthy and happy environment.

The pandemic, other than redefining flexibility, has also prompted the evolution of workplace design to ensuring the health and well-being of employees. The new lifestyle adopted today may become a design trend in the near future, says Boon. “The trend will see human-centric design as the main focus in creating a comfortable, healthy and safe environment.”

As space sequencing is an important aspect to limit droplet spread besides providing privacy to individuals, spacing for individual occupancy might be reconsidered in the context of social distancing.

Apart from that, flexible or mobile workstations and simple, effective ideas for easy maintenance to mitigate contagion via surfaces will be a design consideration too.

“Forward-thinking design solutions and health safety are crucial in redefining the approach of using workplaces in the future. I believe the healthy design movement will carry on to set a future trend in environmental design, including workplaces,” Boon says.

 

 

How working from home affects the office market

 

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, people have been forced to work from home to stop the spread of the virus. This alternative way of working is not new, says Rahim & Co International Sdn Bhd real estate agency CEO Siva Shanker. Instead, it is a natural progression that has been speeded up by the pandemic.

Now that many employers have realised that work from home is doable, will it become a permanent arrangement? How will it affect the office market?

JLL Malaysia country head Y Y Lau says that, while people may prefer to have the possibility or option to work from home, for it to become permanent in totality is very unlikely.

She says: “Some sectors can rely on virtual connections but others still value direct interactions and human connection highly. For many employees, being cooped up for a long period of time may interrupt their social and mental well-being.”

Lau adds that various requirements for work effectiveness and productivity are not available in people’s homes, for example, a conducive environment without disruption from family members as well as work facilities and utilities.

Siva concurs. “Unless you are a very disciplined person or your job is quantifiable or measurable and deliverable at a certain given time, it would be very difficult to work from home.”

Lau notes, however, that there are benefits to working from home. So, it could point to work flexibility instead, where employers may allow more workplace flexibility for their employees on a short term or temporary basis. This may include opting for flexible office space as opposed to traditional offices.

In the short term, some employers may allow employees the flexibility of working from home on rotation. So, hot-desking will be practised.

As such, there might be a reduction in office space for some companies but low to no reduction for most companies, says Siva. This will happen over a period of time, as there is the tenancy contract to consider.

He also believes that the reduction of office space will, to a large extent, be mitigated by economic and population growth and more people joining the workforce.

Meanwhile, Lau observes that many companies are implementing safety measures such as a rotating system among the employees that are in line with their business continuation plan and social distancing.

“As such, these practices will result in de-densification of the workspace in the short term and may result in companies looking to redesign their offices to accommodate the new norm. This may result in larger space requirements,” she says.

Currently, JLL has yet to observe a significant downsizing of office space requirements. “Most companies are reviewing their space requirements to adhere to standard practices in ensuring the safety and health of their employees in the current time,” says Lau.

Office rents are generally cushioned from the direct impact of the pandemic because, for instance, the tenure of office leases is at least three years, she notes.

Siva observes that the office occupancy rate has fallen to 79%. “Companies looking to move into new office buildings will delay their decisions. Those looking to take up more space will also put their decisions on hold because of financial uncertainty.”

This situation, together with the imminent completion of more office buildings, means the occupancy rate is expected to fall, he says.

Covid-19 is an unprecedented event and more data will be needed before further judgement can be made on the office market, Siva adds.

“For the market to improve by itself, the economy must open and people must be brave enough to start living a normal life again. Then, we may be able to see a lot of the slack taken up — not just for commercial but also residential.”