How corporates in Singapore can welcome employees back into offices

By Chris Fossick, CEO JLL Singapore and Southeast Asia

May 27, 2020

Anticipation is running high for June 1 when Singapore’s Circuit Breaker is set to lift.  Earlier this week, the government’s Multi-Ministry Taskforce announced that the exit will be “a three-phased approach”, starting with a gradual reopening of the economy with activities that do not pose a high risk of transmission.

This gives us some indication that the journey back to the office for corporates will likewise be a careful and calibrated one, even if businesses ranging from those in the IT, financial and manufacturing sectors are allowed to resume from June 2. The government has further stated that all firms and services must put in place safe management measures in their workplaces.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that it is possible to work from home, but it has also revealed that it is neither a sustainable nor an optimal solution for everyone. For many employees in Singapore, smaller and busy homes shared with extended families mean working from home is often less than ideal for long-term adoption.

We recently carried out an online survey of nearly 200 employees of our corporate clients and found that only 4% of respondents said they wanted to work from home full time, while one-third want to return to the office. The majority replied they prefer flexibility to work from either home or the office.

With many still wanting the option to work in the office at least part of the time, we need to ensure that our people are working in safer, healthier environments as Singapore gradually prepares to resume activity in the workplace.

A safer, better office

In my discussions with our corporate clients and with colleagues in other parts of Asia which have already gone back to the office, employees will need to get used to new ways of working as we continue to contain Covid-19. There are additional policies and procedures in place affecting different corporate functions from Human Resources to Facilities Management. Singapore’s MOM’s safe management measures clearly stipulate what you can expect – these include regular and rigorous cleaning, the implementation of contact tracing and the mandatory wearing of masks among employees.

Many corporates are also taking additional steps in the meantime to review elements such as office configurations as well as employee experience. In JLL’s newest report, Re-entry: A Guide for Workplace Design Considerations, we examine employees’ need for safety through workplace designs that take hygiene and safe distancing into account. These could be in the form of private enclosed pod-style seats and having stickers or signs in meetings to label where users should sit.

Employees’ health and wellness will be a key priority. We can expect corporates to extend more medical as well as mental health support and programmes such as telemedicine consultations, well-being webinars and access to meditation apps.

In addition, there will be a need to exercise greater flexibility and empathy. Employees might have concerns around the daily commute on public transportation, safe entry into office lifts, exposure to crowds at lunchtime, and the discomfort of wearing masks for the entire day. Childcare arrangements are another issue as schools continue with home-based learning as part of Phase 1’s efforts.

The effect on real estate

The drag of Covid-19 on the global and Singapore’s economies in the immediate term could result in a contraction in demand for office space in Singapore as some businesses cease operation. Others are downsizing in response to reduced business opportunities, or shelving expansion and relocation plans to avoid incurring additional expenses.

There may be some downward pressure on rent as the market adjusts. But in the medium term following the containment of the pandemic, Singapore’s sound market fundamentals will support moderate rent growth especially considering there will be limited completions of new office developments for the next 18 months.  

Given that work from home will continue to be a reality for some time, we can expect CEOs to re-examine corporate real estate strategies. They may consider recalibrating the amount of space dedicated to traditional office space upon lease expiry, or even before. In the short-term, we predict that most corporates will take a measured approach in making adjustments to their real estate footprints. They are unlikely to take on more space to keep costs down.

Looking further towards the medium and long-term, we do not expect a major shift in the demand for office. Business leaders and employees understand the important benefits of having a physical office. The office will remain essential to employers’ occupational strategies even as the way people view and use offices evolves.

Ultimately, the needs of employees will shape the evolution of the office. Employers in Singapore must be ready to welcome them safely and continue to be receptive to concerns about their well-being and health.

This article was previously published in The Business Times (Singapore) on 23 May 2020.

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