Acceleration towards a decentralised CBD as remote working takes hold

Circuit breaker could be catalyst for new norm, with benefits for urban planning

The planning authorities here have spent decades striving towards decentralising the Central Business District (CBD) by bringing workplaces closer to homes; and now in a matter of a few weeks, the revolution is well under way.

Companies have been forced to quickly discover the viability of working from home.

Thanks to technology, it looks set to be a permanent corporate strategy for some functions within organisations, giving town planners a great opportunity to build on the trend.

Hundreds of thousands of office workers commute to and from the CBD every day, putting undue strain on infrastructure in peak hours. It takes billions of dollars to cater to the three or four hours of peak usage per day, resulting in a gross underutilisation over the remaining 20 hours.

If business premises were spread across different locations, theoretically the redirection of people flow should lead to the levelling of the highs and lows.

This, in turn, should lead to better land use and more resources available for non-transport needs. About 12 per cent of Singapore's land mass is occupied by roads. Reducing the reliance on cars may pave the way for more parks, recreational facilities and cycle tracks.

Multiple strategies have been applied to promote decentralisation. The first was to build the infrastructure so business activity could be located near homes and MRT stations.

The Government reduced the supply of land for offices in the CBD and instead planned regional and sub-regional centres outside the city, such as Jurong, One-North, Paya Lebar and Tampines.

Next was to influence demand, which was a trickier proposition. To the extent the Government could instigate changes, it did so by relocating some ministries and statutory boards out of the CBD.

But reactions in the private sector were mixed. Try motivating someone living in Tampines about the move of their office from the CBD to Jurong, effectively doubling their commute time.

In larger countries where long commutes and staying in rented homes is commonplace, it is not difficult to contemplate relocating to homes closer to new workplaces.

Moving house just to be closer to a workplace is simply not viable in Singapore, given the high costs involved with selling and buying another apartment and the high rate of home ownership.

Robinson Road in the empty Central Business District, in the wake of the circuit breaker. The writer says remote working and decentralised offices would improve pollution, transport networks, and mitigate future risks. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Robinson Road in the empty Central Business District, in the wake of the circuit breaker. The writer says remote working and decentralised offices would improve pollution, transport networks, and mitigate future risks. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Concurrently, the Government is also trying to bring more homes into the CBD. Owners are given incentives to redevelop office blocks for predominantly non-office uses.

There are two main objectives - to inject life and vibrancy into the CBD during non-work hours in the evenings and weekends, while also gradually widening the gap in rents between prime and suburban work space so as to improve the economics of decentralised offices.


Before the circuit breaker, many businesses found the thought of working from home daunting and unproductive. The prospects of having employees out of sight meant a loss of control and discipline for traditionally minded managers.

For office workers, disrupting the routine of getting to work and interacting with colleagues was and, perhaps is, unnerving.

When coincided with closures of schools and childcare centres, working from home poses a challenge for working parents who juggle work, caring for young children and household chores.

Yet there are clear positives. If it took you around 60 minutes to commute to work every day, you have now unlocked two valuable hours. There is some semblance of a work-life balance - more time for family, picking up new hobbies and some Netflix.

With fewer fuel-consuming commutes, pollution is drastically reduced. Countries around the world are reporting their cleanest air quality in years.

Meetings, internal and external, are taking place over phones and online with the help of technology.

Videoconferencing platforms are not new; they have been used by companies with overseas operations for years. Now others are being forced to discover and adopt new practices and habits, which would have taken years if left naturally.

Showsuite Consultancy recently spoke to a number of chief executives of large companies on how they were coping with working from home. After two weeks of adjustment, most are beginning to appreciate the positives out of the negative situation. They have found a new rhythm in handling meetings and decisions, and with them, new efficiencies.

They were asked if they thought working from home could be a permanent and viable strategy.

Most said yes, at least for some functions. It is also seen as a prudent way of mitigating risks and ensuring business continuity. With ever improving technology and most companies going paperless, working from home could easily be adopted for at least 30 per cent to 50 per cent of typical functions.

Does this mean CBD office occupancy and rents could suffer? Somewhat yes, but not entirely.

As an aggregate, demand for business space would certainly drop. High density and high rise buildings would face practical bottlenecks and inconveniences arising from social distancing in lobbies, lifts and food and beverage areas.

On the flip side, office space planning would now require more floor area per staff than before. Companies may likely retain a head office in a central location while back-office functions could be carried out from homes.

Social distancing rules might last for a while, so some form of remote working might remain after the circuit breaker, making it a great opportunity for the authorities and companies to work towards cementing the culture.

The Government would need to redesign and step up grants and incentives, especially for smaller firms, to promote working from home, flexi-work arrangements and complete digitalisation while bolstering cyber security.

Staff who are selected or volunteer to work from home should be given an allowance to equip them with the appropriate office furniture; dining tables and chairs are fine as makeshift arrangements but not ideal.

As working from home becomes a new norm, we should also find a shift in property preferences. New homes have been shrinking in recent years, which was acceptable to households who spend most of their time outside.

Budget permitting, some home buyers may seek older apartments that can offer them an extra bedroom for a home office. Developers may want to capitalise on the new shift in demand by designing homes that offer versatility and smart and adaptive furnishing options.

CBD-located apartments may also be more appealing for singles and couples who need to shuttle between their two offices.

If 30 per cent of office-goers end up working from home on a regular basis, this circuit breaker would have unintentionally been the single largest catalytic event facilitating the decentralisation of the CBD, delivering profound long-term benefits to the transport network and infrastructure.

It would be important for the authorities, companies and office workers to build on this so as not to let this new forced discovery go to waste.

• The writer is the chief executive of Showsuite Consultancy.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 08, 2020, with the headline Acceleration towards a decentralised CBD as remote working takes hold. Subscribe