It’s all about the people: lessons from Singapore 2016

From prominent head office projects to participatory pilots, the focus at WORKTECH Singapore 2016 was on how to enhance the workplace experience

Forget those standard spatial metrics, benchmarks or utilisation numbers. The big story now is all about workplace experience, according to keynote presenters at the latest edition of WORKTECH Singapore, held 20 September 2016.

Successive speakers emphasised the importance of getting the experience right – none more so than Cheaw Hwei Low, Head of Design at Philips, who described the development of a remarkable new Philips head office in Singapore. This project used the site of an existing semi-industrial building to construct an entirely new office building, split in two, but wrapped together as one and connected by a common ‘street’ and overhead bridges between floors.

‘We did not start with the space, we first imagined the experience we wanted,’ explained Cheaw Hwei Low. ‘Constraints and needs shaped the brief – ambition and imagination shaped the direction.’

The new Philips office is the type of building that you might see in Melbourne or on office park settings in Europe, but it was pleasantly surprising to find it in Singapore. The architectural approach allowed for a collaborative process that has no doubt led to a transformative result for Philips and the neighbourhood around it.

Empowering people

A better experience for employees – to let staff experiment and express themselves more freely – was at the heart of two pilots to rethink its own workspace by workplace strategists and designers M Moser Associates. John Sellery and Audrey Zaimeche from the company took WORKTECH Singapore delegates through a process of ‘empowering people’

Pilots have become increasingly rare in Asia due to space or cost constraints. And if a pilot is conducted, it is usually for a very small group of people and in reality focused on displaying the new furniture rather than what it means to work differently. The M Moser Associates pilots bucked a trend. So did user-centred projects presented by students from the School of Design at Singapore’s Temasek Polytechnic to improve experiences for both visitors and seniors in Singapore.

Typologies give focus

As people spend more and more time in the office, often more than they do at home, workspaces need to respond to different requirements beyond mere utilisation. That was a key point from Primo Orpilla, Co-Founder and Principal, Studio O+A, a practice that is prominent on the workplace scene in Silicon Valley.

Orpilla has developed a series of typologies that support more fluid and integrated use of workspaces. The typologies cover 10 different and clearly articulated workspaces, from ‘The Living Room’ to ‘Shelters’. Each of these is rated on a four-point scale from casual to formal, fixed to flexible, solo to collective, and from focus to explore. When allied to the design details of look and feel, this typology classification has the potential to identify and support preferred behaviours in the workplace.

Attraction of co-working

One of the chief reasons behind the rise of co-working spaces is said to be the superior experiences that they provide. WORKTECH Singapore debated the utility of co-working spaces, which are now in their second wave. Ben Gattie of The Working Capital and Susan Lim of Hassell explored the start-up business culture that seems to thrive in shared and connected co-work environments – and why large corporates might also want to be part of this culture, setting up business accelerators.

A panel discussion on whether co-working will mark the end of corporate real estate focused on how attractive the co-working space option might be to the well-established corporations. Tondy Lubis of Linkedin felt the company was already offering a lot of the co-work space typologies and facilities within its own office space, so the external co-work option is not particularly attractive. It was also important for Linkedin to maintain its culture and values, which may be harder in an external co-working environment.

Will the rise of co-working signal the decline of corporate space?

Anne Uhlig of Deutsche Bank, however, thought a co-work sharing model could be a flexible option when corporate space contracts, despite the security and regulatory issues that still need to be resolved. The panel concluded that they did not predict the corporate office to be replaced by external co-work options, but recognised that it presents a very complementary option for corporations.

One way to enhance workplace experience is through new technologies that make buildings more intelligent and generate the data to continually tweak and refine the performance of facilities. A presentation on the App-centric Workplace by UnWork’s Philip Ross and Meng Chew Ching of Unilever Asia presented a future in which a more desirable work environment is digitally constructed and the building knows exactly where everyone is at any point in time.

Does that sound like Big Brother? It all depends on how office occupants take to being monitored. As WORKTECH Singapore continually reminded us, it’s all about the experience.

Click here for the WORKTECH Singapore Review page.

Niels Kemp Rasmussen is founder and director of Kemp & Associates, Singapore
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