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The craft of office management in a pandemic

Charlene Chin

A prototype of the office of the future, called the ‘six-feet office’ by Cushman & Wakefield, which embodies rules of conduct allowing staff to work safely within an office environment (Credit: Cushman & Wakefield)

SINGAPORE (EDGEPROP) - The art of running buildings well has never been more pronounced. On June 2, more workers will return to the office as Singapore lifts its ban for some businesses to resume operations. The office occupancy levels will not return to that of days past, and the workplace has changed, and will change, considerably. “In the short term, there’s going to be a lot of impact on how we run buildings, and also how people use offices and their workspaces,” says Jun Sochi, managing director of C&W Services Singapore, the facilities and engineering arm of Cushman & Wakefield (C&W).

By and large, employees have already had a taste of change even before Singapore announced its “circuit breaker” measures effective April 7, which have seen the bulk of the workforce operating remotely. As early as February, long lines had snaked around skyscrapers in the CBD as staffers queued to get their temperatures checked at the entrances, seeing delays of up to 40 minutes just to enter the office. “Moving forward, all of us will have to accept that there are going to be queues at the workplace,” Sochi tells EdgeProp Singapore in a phone interview.

C&W Services manages Biopolis, a R&D complex in one-north. The firm provides facilities management services predominantly for office buildings, both commercial and government (Credit: Samuel Isaac Chua/ The Edge Singapore)

New ways to work

As a result of the pandemic, crowd management has been a new focus for the facilities management industry. “Think about the CBD, and some of the large buildings that are there. Imagine at the peak hour in the morning, only four people are allowed in the lift at a time,” says Sochi. This, together with related measures like pacing the flow of people entering a building, taking their temperature, and ensuring that individuals keep a safe 1m from each other, would create crowds outside a building.

So, “[the management of] people travelling up and down the lifts is something that landlords and tenants here are going to have to think about,” he says. The solutions could range from staggering start times for offices, to splitting the workforce into teams, or a mix of both. Sochi shares that in Australia, due to the time lost just to enter the workplace, some companies have instructed their employees to spend their lunch breaks in the office.

Building managers and owners will have time to implement and refine such measures. After the circuit breaker ends on June 1, Singapore’s economy will gradually restart in three phases. From June 2, only a third of the workforce — on top of those classified under essential services — will be allowed to return to the office. Specifically, these are firms that run in environments with lower transmission risks, such as those engaged in manufacturing and production, finance, insurance, and IT and info services.

Despite the lifted ban, the government still expects most workplaces to remain largely empty. “Your staff should return to work only if they need specialised equipment and machinery that cannot be accessed from home, or if they need to fulfil legal requirements,” National Development Minister Lawrence Wong wrote in a Facebook post on May 23, urging employers to allow staff who can work remotely to continue to do so. Wong also co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19.

Facilities managed by C&W Services cover a broad range, such as schools, retail malls, townships, industrial sites, and sports venues such as the Singapore Sports Hub (Credit: Albert Chua/ The Edge Singapore)

Safer workplace measures 

Among other considerations for office building management, Sochi suggests planning designated circulation paths where “people would all walk in a clockwise pattern, with arrows on the floor directing traffic”, so there are no crossed pathways, and contact among colleagues can be minimised. This would also mean controlled access, with a building having one essential entry and exit point only.

Already, some companies are looking at sneeze-guards to divide workstations, says Sochi. For large companies with in-house canteens, there are further details that need to be considered too, such as allowing only packaged food to be served.

Some building owners in China and Korea are contemplating leaving the doors open for better ventilation, he adds. “In Singapore, there’s the added challenge [when doing] something similar because of the climate here.”

To be sure, the pandemic has raised the costs of operating buildings. With additional safety measures in place — personal protective equipment, thermal imagers, and a higher frequency of cleaning services — costs in the near term are likely to increase by 5% to 10%, says Robin Leow, senior director for facilities management at Savills Singapore. Sochi says additional staff will also have to be employed to screen building tenants and visitors, while some owners will opt to provide hand sanitisers, wet wipes, and face masks. All these will add to costs.

Savills Singapore’s facilities management portfolio covers about 80% of commercial spaces, including Paya Lebar Quarter offices (Credit: Samuel Isaac Chua/ The Edge Singapore)

Mid- to long-term view 

Overall, experts believe that it is still too early to forecast the impact of Covid-19 on office demand. “It’s going to be a combination of two factors that ultimately determine the overall space requirement for each company,” said Chris Browne, head of Asia Pacific’s global occupier services, Cushman & Wakefield, in a webinar on April 30. While some companies would be more open to a broader, flexible working programme, which would reduce the amount of office space required, others may change their workspace layouts to ensure better safe distancing, resulting in an increase in office space, he explains.

“For C&W employees, we are finding that our workplace experience has actually remained stable during this period. Those of us who have worked flexibly before, find it easier to adjust, but our millenials and Gen Z are struggling the most, as they often lack the space for focused work, with minimal distraction,” points out Browne.

From June 2, only a third of the workforce — on top of those classified as essential services — will be allowed to return to the office

In the medium term, Sochi expects employers to think about how to reconfigure their offices to fit the new normal. “People are already starting to relook at the layout of their offices. So they’ve been engaging our design and project management and facilities management teams to help them through that process as they reopen.” Crucial to spatial planning will also be a rethink of what job roles can, or cannot be carried out remotely.

A survey has revealed that as at May 24, 90% of employees prefer to continue working from home in some capacity. Of these, only 15% of workers expressed a wish to work remotely all the time, while 67% of respondents indicated their intention to work from home for at least half their office hours. The ongoing survey by EngageRocket, an employee engagement software firm, involved 9,000 respondents across almost 90 companies in Singapore.

One of the reasons why some staff wish to return to the office could be the lack of a conducive work-from-home environment. “Shared homes, which is prevalent in Singapore, makes it difficult for many to have dedicated and conducive home workplaces,” noted Tay Huey Ying, head of research & consultancy at JLL Singapore, in a news release in May. JLL estimates that over 80% of Singapore’s households are living in homes with three or fewer bedrooms in 2019, making it hard to carve out specific work zones.

But whether workers eventually get to work out of the comfort of their homes, or return to the hustle of daily office commute, one thing will be for sure — entering the office will no longer just be a matter of productivity and punctuality. With the potential for snaking queues, it will also be a test of patience.

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