Office crowds thin as Singapore defaults to work from home

F&B businesses near workplaces feel immediate impact of lower footfall on their revenues

Raffles Place was quieter than usual for a working day at about 8.40am yesterday, and so were other office hot spots that The Straits Times visited on the second weekday after Singapore tightened its Covid-19 measures. With companies defaulting to wo
Raffles Place was quieter than usual for a working day at about 8.40am yesterday, and so were other office hot spots that The Straits Times visited on the second weekday after Singapore tightened its Covid-19 measures. With companies defaulting to work-from-home arrangements under the new curbs, most eateries in commercial areas also saw fewer customers and sales.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Peak-hour road traffic was lighter, there were fewer commuters on trains, and lunchtime crowds were smaller than usual for a working day at some places yesterday, the second weekday after Singapore's return to phase two of its reopening.

When The Straits Times (ST) visited office hot spots in Raffles Place and Buona Vista and at Marina Bay Financial Centre during the morning rush hour and at lunchtime, the areas were generally deserted.

With companies defaulting to work-from-home arrangements under tightened Covid-19 measures, most eateries in these areas had no queues during peak meal periods. Only Toast Box at Marina Bay Link Mall had a constant stream of customers and a queue of up to 10 people at any one time.

Following a spike in community transmissions of Covid-19, stricter measures, such as a cap of five people at social gatherings, kicked in last Saturday and will be in place until May 30.

Under the new rules, no more than 50 per cent of employees who are able to work from home should be in the office at any one time, down from 75 per cent.

At Raffles Place and Marina Bay Link Mall, a steady stream of office workers exited the train station, but few were congregating at the open spaces outside.

Some businesses responded immediately to the tightened measures.

Operations executive Serena Lai, 44, who has been in her current job for only a week, said her company immediately adhered to the new guidelines.

"I go in only on alternate days... but my colleagues who were going in on alternate weeks previously now all work from home," she said.

Other companies have been operating at below 50 per cent capacity and did not need to make further changes.

For instance, technology company Verizon, located at Ocean Financial Centre, has since March last year shifted completely to remote work. It allows its more than 250 employees to go to the office only on a weekly rotational basis.

"We do also request that employees come in only if absolutely necessary," said its head of human resources, Ms Betty Wagglen.

Some businesses and individuals found the curbs disruptive.

"You need to adapt to these changes without time to make plans," said a 37-year-old consultant who gave his name as S.J. Phua, and said he will now go to the office four days a month, down from 10 days a month.

Some activities such as research and development are office-or laboratory-bound, and employees involved in such tasks continue to go to their workplaces regularly.

Ms Amanpreet Kaur, 34, a research associate at a biomedical research company at Biopolis, said she continues to work a five-day week at the workplace as she does hands-on laboratory work.

"The administrative staff can work from home, but a lot of researchers need to be in their labs and offices," she said.

Food and beverage businesses have felt the immediate impact of lower footfall, with several eateries ST spoke to facing a significant dip in customers and revenue.

At bakery and cafe chain Cedele at The Metropolis in Buona Vista, sales have dropped by 10 per cent to 20 per cent amid the tightened measures, and the outlet has started reducing its manpower.

Cafe chain Attap House previously had seven outlets islandwide, but shut down three, owing to the pandemic. One of the outlets still standing is at The Metropolis.

"Sales have dropped, but I am not worried because the SGX and P&G offices are nearby and they are still operating at 50 per cent capacity," said Attap House's manager, Mr Gringo Manlongat, referring to the Singapore Exchange and Procter & Gamble offices at The Metropolis.

Ms Chew Lee Ching, a vice-president of the Association of Small & Medium Enterprises, said that SMEs find it hard to adjust to sudden changes but understand the need to do so.

"There have been a lot of stops and starts, and a lot of adjustments to be made," she said. "The greater concern... (is) a complete lockdown."

She hopes that it will not be too long before measures are eased.

"We have been told these measures are in place till the end of May, but we hope it will not be prolonged... this new (Covid-19) variant seems to be more infectious, and that's very worrying... We don't want the situation to deteriorate further."

• Additional reporting by Eleanor Yeo, Sherlyn Sim and Gabrielle Ng

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 12, 2021, with the headline 'Office crowds thin as Singapore defaults to work from home'. Subscribe