The post-pandemic office: Biophilic design, hybrid work models and other evolutions

Private nap pods and libraries are some new features being incorporated into workplace design to elevate the well-being and mental wellness of employees. PHOTO: SPACE MATRIX

SINGAPORE - The coronavirus pandemic has forced designers, architects and business owners to go back to the drawing board and rethink the future of the workplace.

Last year, "new normal" was a term bandied about to address social distancing at the office, contactless technology and high-tech anti-microbial materials.

But this year, with the more virulent strains of Covid-19 sweeping across Asia, those initial solutions are not enough, say architects and designers.

Property owners across industries from banking to the services sector are coming up with more cost-effective and creative ways to redesign workplaces, factoring in uncertainties such as the community spread of virus mutations which could take longer to control.

Employees will expect more from offices when they eventually return after the current default work-from-home arrangements.

Besides safe distancing measures, they want a better work experience, where designs facilitate meaningful interaction, with more spaces for greenery and, most importantly, greater safety.

"Despite vaccinations kicking in, people will continue to crave safety and peace of mind at the workplace," says Mr Arsh Chaudhry, chief executive of design firm Space Matrix, which is based in Singapore.

"The hybrid work model will be the way forward for organisations - with bespoke workplace strategies and customised solutions that meet the needs of today's workforce and ensure a safe working environment," he adds.

Mr Chaudhry's firm has designed more than 5.9 million sq ft of office space since July last year for clients across Asia, keeping in mind "post-Covid-19" design principles.

He says companies have been studying how their employees have been performing in the last year and how work has changed for them, and are taking the opportunity to holistically redefine - and refine - their workplace ecosystems.

"Our engagement with leadership teams has shown that employees are looking for meaningful experiences at the workplace," says Mr Chaudhry.

He adds that the pandemic has prompted organisations to reassess what really matters, such as the importance of company values and work-life balance.

Employees to whom he and his team have spoken value an "elevation" in the work experience. This can include biophilic design, healthy food choices at the cafeterias, zero-waste experiences and mindfulness practices such as empathy and caring that are embedded in the organisation's ethos.

Biophilic design uses elements of nature - natural materials, natural light and vegetation - to provide respite and boost moods in a modern setting.

Mr Chaudhry adds: "There has been a shift in mindsets because employees feel the office needs to be a place where the work experience is positive, so this in turn boosts their productivity and helps build thriving communities."

Professor Keat Ong, president of the Society of Interior Designers Singapore (Sids) agrees.

Clean, green and safe are buzzwords for post-pandemic office redesign, and he advises companies to take a step back and reimagine the work flow of each department before making major modifications to redesign offices.

"First, there should be proper segregation, proper social distancing and hot-desking arrangements," says Prof Ong.

While many are questioning the existence of physical work spaces, especially when most tasks are being accomplished in cyberspace, he says a brick-and-mortar presence remains key.

"There is always a place for offices as there is work that requires on-site coordination, and there are still people who need face-to-face meetings," says Prof Ong. "Also, having more green spaces, commonly referred to in the built environment industry as biophilic design, increases the connectivity of occupants to the natural environment."

He says the modern workplace is a far cry from the "cubicle farm" of the 1980s. That design concept has been modified with desks that are farther apart and hot-desking options.

"More than a year has gone by since the pandemic started, and many companies with bigger office spaces are now looking at ways to engage their employees, as well as stay viable through well-thought-out redesigns," says Prof Ong.

Ms Tina Qiu is a senior associate partner at London-based PLP Architecture, which designed the recently launched Park Nova condominium in Tomlinson Road. The firm has also worked with Singapore developers in Europe.

She says businesses are in danger of losing a much-needed culture of collaboration and chance encounters that often spark an exchange of ideas, both of which are vital for innovation.

"Covid-19 has created a forced period of isolation for many individuals, where people interacted with one another only remotely," says Ms Qiu. Her firm designed The Edge in Amsterdam in 2012, the greenest building in the world, according to British rating agency Breeam.

"The sharing of ideas through spontaneous thinking and chance meetings is essential for the growth of our global community," she says. "If businesses want to innovate, they need to promote a culture which allows this to happen and the best place to do this will be in spaces that can bring everyone together."

She says that while the format of office buildings will change and adapt, these spaces will have even more relevance as the world emerges from the pandemic.

"The creation of physical spaces which unite people, giving them a common identity and allowing an exchange of ideas, will be even more essential than before. Buildings will need to be designed to encourage more spatial variety, choice, promote health and well-being, and contain more spaces for innovation and collaboration."

When emerging from the pandemic, organisations can consider a flexible office design that brings people together to collaborate and exchange ideas. PHOTO: SPACE MATRIX

In hindsight, perhaps the bigger question is what has the pandemic taught people about work and life, and the balance of both.

Since designers need to respond to people's shifting motivations and mindsets, could this collective awakening be a sign of how the workplace will evolve?

Adjunct Assistant Professor Wendy Chua of the National University of Singapore's industrial design department believes so.

"The pandemic has normalised remote work and the question of productivity of working from home is no longer a debate," says Prof Chua, who is also co-founder of local multi-disciplinary design practice Forest & Whale with partner Gustavo Maggio.

"In Asian cities like Singapore, we see the opposite effect of working from home where people overwork. Boundaries between work and life are blurred, especially when one has no dedicated space or room to spatially divide work from home life."

She says there has been a global phenomenon of an exodus to the countryside, where one can live with more contact with nature while still maintaining productivity by working from home.

So how do people rethink their workspaces less as a place for focused work, but more as a social space for innovation and ideas to crystallise in informal interactions?

Besides safe distancing measures, employees want a better work experience, where designs facilitate meaningful interaction, with more spaces for greenery and, most importantly, greater safety. PHOTO: SPACE MATRIX

"Video-conferencing is here to stay and the old days of 15-hour flights just to attend a meeting no longer makes any sense, even in a post-pandemic future," says Prof Chua. "Nonetheless, it is widely recognised that something is lost in the efficiency of synchronous online meetings.

"The informal exchange at the pantry or the conversation you have with your colleagues in those coincidental encounters are often the most insightful, leading to new collaboration and sharing of ideas."

One of Prof Chua's favourite quotes is from the late neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, which she says is food for thought, especially during these times.

In his book The River Of Consciousness - published in 2017, two years after his death - Dr Sacks wrote: "The greatest creative achievements arise not only from extraordinary, gifted men and women, but from their being confronted by problems of enormous universality and magnitude."

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