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COMMENTARY

The workplace of the future is versatile and digital

At the heart of Coca-Cola's regional office in Singapore - a nearly 30,000 sq ft space overlooking Keppel Bay - sits what its designers term an "oversized pantry". It is an unapologetically spacious communal area that plays host to company town halls, yoga classes and digital showcases. It also houses a large meeting room that can be fully opened or closed, cleverly designed to maximise the use of the area.

This "oversized pantry" is one of many new and trendy office features that point to the future of workplaces: versatile, space-optimising, catering to diverse generations of employees and working styles, and, most importantly, enabled by technology. With the advent of digital technologies, companies today are increasingly grasping that their workplaces must both embrace and reflect the digital era.

Already, digital technologies are rapidly transforming workspaces. From automation and artificial intelligence (AI) to robots and sensors, digital technologies are swiftly grooming a workforce of digital workers, and dramatically refashioning the work environment, both physically and virtually.

With more mundane and low-value jobs being undertaken by smart machines, human workers are being tasked and upskilled to do higher-value jobs. This is in turn leading to higher productivity for companies, and is creating a more highly-trained, digitally-savvy workforce.

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Technology is also facilitating remote communication, leading to the workforce being able to work from anywhere. Not only is this helping avoid long, costly commutes to get to the office, this flexibility to work from anywhere is also leading to better work-life harmony. This flexibility has led to a major rethinking of office space, spurring concepts such as co-working and hot-desking.

The traditional office model - featuring established traits such as fixed seating and boxed offices for senior management - is disappearing. As more tech-enabled solutions emerge, offices are steadily moving towards "activity-based working", where different spaces are built to facilitate various types of work. Fundamentally, this approach recognises that one size does not fit all.

Instead, it dictates that a myriad of spaces be built in order to cater to the diverse activities that take place within the office. Quiet rooms, for example, are great for private phone calls or focused, uninterrupted work. Virtual meeting rooms enable digital collaborative tasks such as video conferencing. The pantry is for anything ranging from lunches to whirlwind discussions.

Office design impacts a business in more ways than one can imagine. If you think of the office as the single piece of real estate that houses all your employees, it becomes the entity that most effectively nurtures and determines the culture of your organisation and how it represents itself as a brand to the marketplace. How you design this space will have a major impact both internally (on your employees) and externally (on parties such as your partners, stakeholders and investors).

To adopt a holistic approach to office design, one must consider three factors: the Work; the Worker; and the Workplace.

  • The work: This refers to the types of work taking place in the office, which can include job scope, processes, workflows and organisational structure. These affect even the most seemingly trivial things, such as seating. For example, it might make sense to place the finance team next to human resources, or marketing next to sales. If you put functional teams in the wrong spots, you could get a slowdown in communication and thus, productivity.
  • The worker: This refers to the employees. If you understand the individuals' different working style and preferences, you could create a space that is conducive for them to perform their task, and that makes each individual feel comfortable and relaxed. Of course, not all workers are the same. The challenge, then, is to create a space that caters to different working styles and preferences. As outlined above, an "activity-based" working approach would work best here.
  • The workplace: This refers to the physical office space. This should be thoughtfully optimised to profile the company in the most authentic and positive light. Imagine a reception area that is bright, vibrant and bustling, and that showcases the company's proudest works. To a first-time visitor, that would be awe-inspiring. Design really does go a long way in enhancing the company's branding, attracting the best employees, and retaining talent.

Today, the focus on workplace design is more relevant than ever. There is a greater commitment among companies to improving productivity, a bigger global war on talent, and employees are job-hopping more frequently than before. Companies have a critical need to differentiate themselves competitively and create an environment that enables productivity - and this calls for the right kind of office design.

The writer is CEO of Space Matrix, a Singapore-based design and build consultancy focusing on workplace design.