An workspace specialist’s view on workspace evolution

The modern workplace has seen various developments contemporarily, with some organisations preferring a fraction of their employees to operate out of shared spaces, and others encouraging their staff to choose a branch near their homes. With concepts like WFH (Work from home) and WFA (Work from anywhere) doing the rounds, how are organisations moving towards ensuring a comfortable working atmosphere for their people?

In a fireside chat at the Frontiers of Work 2021 conference, Samarth Kasturia,Director, APAC Workplace and Strategic Consulting Lead, Knight Frank, shared his expertise as an architect on businesses coping with the new normal and how the pandemic has accelerated flexibility. The session was moderated by Krishna Baidya, Director and Head of Asia Pacific Connected Work Practice, Frost & Sullivan.

How have you seen the change in the workplace over time?

The change in how people work, guides how workplaces are designed and operated – both aspects contributing heavily toward evolution of businesses and organisation culture.

Our goal is to help occupiers think about work first, space second – as they endeavor to manage operational and occupancy costs. We bring the employee, the business, and culture to the same table and create a solution that works best from there.

We have seen tremendous changes in the last year and a half, with organisation choosing trust, empathy and wellbeing as a key focus on employee engagement and productivity. As the COVID situation continues to evolve, we are seeing a lot of occupiers and businesses consider a ‘hybrid’ way of working which brings together traditional branded offices, flexible spaces and remote working. This, of course is a bespoke solution to meet each organisation’s needs.

For organisations to successfully transform into hybrid and flexible businesses, trust and empathy need to lead the way to a refreshed management.

I think it’s a bit beyond design.

What do you think comes next?

The focus here should not be whether people should work from home, office or a third space — the focus should be on everyone having a choice (within reason). They should have a right to choose where they are most productive, and the management should be able to trust, guide and manage a workforce that has gone beyond the presenteeist notion of productivity.  

The workplace still stays the hub of culture, collaboration focus and brings the company together. For instance, People can come in for meetings — people should come in for meetings, as safety permits, as it has a big impact on culture and how they connect with their colleagues

Similarly, there are functions that are better served at home, and there are functions that are better served in the office. There has to be some component of customized space that has to remain because what works for a testing firm, might not work for an analytics firm, or a real estate firm. 

Earlier, people would just take leases, but that concept has changed now. The modern workplace has shared spaces. In that case, how does one zero down on choosing the workplace?

A lot of standard metrics that were ‘thumb-rules’ in procuring space for your business, have gone through a re-think in the last year. For instance, density (space per person) is no longer a standard benchmark. Remote working plays a role in how many people come, and what they use the space for (and for how long).

At least in Asia, we have been trying to understand what functions people do and activities make employees more productive, and create spaces that services those activities, or encourages them. We’ve been very successful as a community to change cultures in organisations. 

During the pandemic, we were obviously unable to track and collect utilisation data for use of space and link it back to productivity (as people were working from home). We are reliant on perception and survey feedback – we are getting smarter in how we use that information to create a better ‘hybrid’ experience for our colleagues and employees.

My suggestion to many clients has been to keep a pulse-check on your organisation. Keeping a regular understanding of productivity, helps make decisions that stick better, and allows the business to be nimble in changing times. 

How do we define the KPIs for productivity, because it’s no longer just being in office?

That’s a very good question. It’s been a struggle to directly quantify ‘how much’ workplaces contribute to business productivity because the external environment plays a major role in how businesses perform. In order to assess that, one has to really evaluate what you expect first. I can expect people to make double the revenue from 2019, in the middle of a pandemic, but that’s not justified. 

What we need is our employees to be able to be satisfied and engaged with the brand. I’ll give you an example. We recently ran a survey for a client, and we realised that around 55% people said that they were at least 10% more productive at home, but 40% said they were disengaged with the brand. 

Its great to have productive people, but they need to stay with you. At this time, if I were running an organisation, I would retain my best talent, and make sure that they are able to perform at par with what was pre-pandemic, and that would be a great start. 

Now, we have multi-generation folks in the workspace. There is the youth that is promising and enterprising and the older generation that has been doing work a certain way. How do you balance the combination?

Even before the pandemic when organisations would turn away from traditional ways, it was not just space that they were changing — they had to change mindsets too.

Our goal as a community of consultants is to help change mindsets. Technology has changed the ability for people to work from anywhere, leaders need to develop an appetite to allow flexible and productive management structures 

Technology has been a massive enabler of working from home, but where are the areas where technology is failing to support the future of work?

Technology has been the backbone in keeping businesses functional during the pandemic.  The one are where infrastructure need catching up, is how IT systems in businesses are cloud based – a lot of companies hurried to expedite the cloud journey as the pandemic forced us to work from home, but the goal is to go beyond this, and create an ecosystem of technology that allows productivity, anywhere.

On the other side, do you also see some of your clients asking for a better experience for their employees when most of their folks are working from home?

Yes, this is a big focus in my conversations with clients. The conversation is significantly beyond cost savings, this is an ongoing endeavor, but using real estate to enhance experience, create and support culture helps justify retaining space, even if it has been mostly empty for the last year or so.

Could shared offices be a game-changer going forward, as our CBDs get overcrowded?

I wouldn’t say that it would absolutely be a game-changer – shared offices have been around for a long time. And the CBD will need to change, as it always does. I do think that what comprises CBDs might be different. Right now, it’s a lot of traditional corporate, retail and public space. 

Central offices are getting more and more scattered across different places. I think all factors combined, there is going to be an aspect of redesigning CBDs, but I don’t think it’s going to take away the importance of what a workplace is supposed to be. 

To summarise, I would say “Hybrid” – the word of the year perhaps – is a great idea. Not new but still great: as long as we remember it’s not ‘one size fits all’ and needs a significant change in mindset for management and employees alike. Work from anywhere is a good idea, as long as the management knows how to manage a remote workforce, and that is something that I know a lot of people are getting trained up on, and organisations are working seriously towards.