Workplace culture to look vastly different as economy reopens - and that includes an end to group lunches

Workers in the central business district may not be able to go out to lunches in groups as they used to. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - Reduced density, flexible work arrangement and more frequent cleaning are some immediate practices that employers can implement in their offices as Singapore gradually reopens its economy in the coming months, said design and architecture experts.

On Friday (May 29), the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said all companies should adopt working from home as a default option, even for those resuming operations in the first two phases of the economy's reopening.

But experts say most companies will likely continue with telecommuting for most employees, with only select people returning to the office where essential, while adhering to safe management measures, even after rules are relaxed.

Dr Sing Tien Foo, director of the Institute of Real Estate and Urban Studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said those who go back to the office may wear masks and face shields, coupled with more regular disinfecting of work stations to keep up hygiene conditions.

He said: "Staggering work hours and having staff on different shifts could also reduce the risk."

Dr Jeffrey Chan, an assistant professor at Singapore University of Technology and Design's (SUTD) humanities, arts and social sciences faculty, said some habits ingrained in the office workplace culture here may also be immediately impacted.

For instance, workers in the central business district (CBD) may not be able to go out to lunches in groups as they used to, and some may choose to eat alone, said Dr Chan.

"The local culture of reserving your table with a packet of tissue paper is likely to be challenged as one would prefer not to place anything on high contact surfaces. Take-outs instead may become permanently entrenched in our work culture, which does not bode well for our waste storage limitations in Semakau," he said, referring to Singapore's only offshore landfill.

Dr Chan, who specialises in design theory, said the coronavirus pandemic has turned what was "once very desirable office real estate" such as skyscrapers with good views and climatically controlled environments, into "high-risk zones".

"Most, if not all, of our grade A offices are mechanically ventilated (via air-conditioning). Many offices also reside deep within tall buildings that do not have operable windows," he said.

Instead of relying on air-conditioning in an open-plan office which recirculates air within a confined space and could potentially be a way for virus to spread, experts say more thought should be given on how best to introduce natural ventilation back into office buildings.

Dr Yeo Kang Shua, associate head of architecture and sustainable design pillar at SUTD, said: "Architects, planners, engineers and policymakers have to rethink the way we view office spaces. There might be more commercial buildings that have naturally ventilated common circulation routes with air-conditioned units (in the future)."

Natural ventilation would also reduce the carbon footprint and the load on air-conditioning, he added.

One such development is Star Vista, said Dr Yeo, referring to the open-air shopping mall in Buona Vista whose building design leverages cross-ventilation for a naturally cool environment.

Mr David Calkins, regional managing principal of Asia-Pacific and Middle East at global architecture firm Gensler, said while it is too soon see the impact on corporate work culture, he believes that open-plan offices will not disappear entirely post-pandemic.

Companies would likely modify aspects of office building infrastructure and operations to adapt to a "new normal" in the short term. But in the long run, offices could operate vastly different from what people are used to, he said.

"The future is going to look like touchless everything - from elevators and doors to bathrooms and lights. Essentially, a frictionless space where people won't have to touch anything to make something work," said Mr Calkins.

"Through this pandemic, the world has been reminded that healthy communities are the basis for creating and maintaining economic activity. This has been true all along but deserves special emphasis now."

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