Published September 21, 2012

The way you work may change soon

Alternative workplace strategies help utilise office spaces better

By zeinab yusuf saiwalla

SHARED desks, smaller work spaces, increased diversity and other alternative workplace strategies could become the norm in Singapore within the next seven years as the demand for creative office spaces increases.

With Singapore's population density one of the highest in the world, reducing the amount of space allocated as a cost-saving measure is almost impossible. The only way to go, according to Peter Andrew, is to improve the way people work.

"The point is, on any day, about 15 to 25 per cent of staff do not walk in through the front door. That is space that can be put to better use," he said.

Mr Andrew is director of workplace strategies with CBRE's Global Corporate Services (GCS) where he provides real-estate and design consultancy to clients.

But besides improving space efficiency, incorporating alternative work strategies can help empower individuals in the workplace - majority of whom are savvy users of technology.

"We have new technology, people who think and work differently yet we are still building offices that we used to build 20, 30, 50, 70 years ago. That does not sound right."

With laptops, for instance, the work and the employee need not be confined to a single desk. A group of people within an organisation can share a set of desks to save costs, a simple version of alternative working known as hot-desking.

Alternative workplace strategies, which essentially help organisations design work environments and practices that give people more flexibility and resources for varying their routines, have their origins with IBM in the 1970s, explained Mr Andrew.

Cultural variance

At that time, the main issue was one of ensuring a consistent global strategy that accommodated regional cultural variance.

"IBM was expanding internationally and wanted a global workplace strategy that could be used in offices in different countries," he said.

By the 1980s, workplace strategies focused on how to manage efficiency by reducing hierarchical levels in real estate. This was because people were moving within and between organisations fairly rapidly and the traditional office spaces proved challenging to move staff around. This then led to the creation of open-office concepts. In the 1990s, as the idea of alternative workplace strategies received more traction, "we saw the phenomenal rise of elaborate pantries and coffee corners as part of a drive to improve workplace collaborations", Mr Andrew explained.

Now, according to Mr Andrew, alternative workplace strategies are being incorporated with the primary purpose of aligning business strategies with the physical working environment to drive better performance, a trend that is catching on with banks and financial institutions in Australia, the Netherlands, the United States and even Singapore.

International banks such as Credit Suisse, HSBC and Standard Chartered, for example, have incorporated alternative workplace strategies in their office spaces across their various international locations for staff to carry out different tasks.

This activity-based working is driven by a careful examination of the work practices of the teams involved and then creating a diversity of work settings to support a variety of individuals, collaborative and focused work spaces, explained Mr Andrew, who has provided consultancy on a number of such projects.

The purpose of such an approach is essentially to empower employees to work in a mobile way through the right technologies and choose from the range of spaces available what will make them most productive on any particular day. Other than improving work efficiency, a workplace revamped in accordance with an organisation's mission and vision can also help communicate a stronger sense of identity.

Google work spaces, for example, have become synonymous with fun because of the conscious effort made to incorporate a college atmosphere with the office infrastructure.

"We live and work in physical places and because it is important not so much what people do when they are out of the office but what they do when they are in the office, the office environment should enhance the organisations's culture," Mr Andrew said.