As the world anxiously awaits a cure for COVID-19, what was once an unfamiliar order — telecommuting, has now been normalised with safety measures set in place by the government, and many organisations. Singapore’s circuit breaker between April to May alone saw about 85% of the workforce working from home. Whilst some workers have easily adapted to this lifestyle, some others are still finding it difficult to do so. The rise in mental health issues is increasingly seen as a key concern by experts as stress levels grow with workdays seemingly bleeding longer, and weekdays blurring into weekends, especially with the concept of work from home remaining as the default option for the majority of organisations up till today.
The pandemic has recalibrated everything: Work, Life and Play. Even as rules eased through Phase 1 and 2 in Singapore, with leisure activities slowly resuming alongside strict public safety measures in place, and workers increasingly seeing flexible working as an option, the core challenges society needs to tackle next is the shift in people flow, and continuous urban regeneration. While crowds return to popular eateries and shopping malls, and the empty seats in Singapore’s public transport fills up again, the control of people flow in public spaces is key.
How should society cope as we move to focus on livelihoods beyond the pandemic?
Reshaping the Future of Work and People Flow
With many organisations forced to fast track their digital transformation agenda to boost their work from home capabilities, work today has been made more fluid and interconnected. This is seen through the rise in adoption of digital technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Robotic Process Automation, Internet of Things, and more. However, as we progressively adapt to new working models and integrated technologies to support remote working, working from home may just be a temporary solution to tide over the pandemic.
The physical work environment will continue to play an irreplaceable role in facilitating face-to-face interactions; core to building lasting relationships and fostering deep collaboration. Whilst more employees may have the option to work from home on a semi-regular basis in the near future, the potential decline in working from the office will pose as a chance to rethink the concept of future offices and people flow, as the number of workers commuting into the city changes as well.
The post-pandemic era calls for open-plan offices to be redesigned, and office cultures redefined, all with the common denominator — flexibility. Businesses need to re-think “compact offices” and decongest office spaces, while taking into consideration new social distancing norms. But beyond social distancing, health, wellness and socialising will become an intrinsic part of the long-term re-architecture of our workplaces. Elements of hospital and healthcare design such as disinfection infrastructure and air-conditioning technologies such as High-efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters that kill bacteria and viruses will have to be incorporated to ensure higher and predictable levels of cleanliness.
Additional space in offices means more specialised areas can be built to foster greater collaboration, boosting productivity. New office spaces will involve decisions around where these workspaces should be located. With people-flow decreasing in the central business district area and with an eye on decongesting public transportation during peak hours, we will probably see businesses and commercial activities decentralise and spread out.
Post-pandemic decentralisation in Singapore
As a reaction to the impact of the pandemic, we will continue to see several waves of change, and a new ‘back-to-work’ is just the first. With shifting line of sight in work arrangements and social interactions, Singapore needs to rethink its urban development to include new greater decentralisation efforts and density management.
Singapore has always centred its urban development around maximizing high-density development while keeping a sustainable and green city. As a result, many public services are designed to be managed by a single organisation. The surge in demand for those services caused by COVID-19 has exposed how painfully vulnerable such centralised organisations can become, in times of a crisis. In 2003 during the SARS outbreak, Singapore was forced to close three of its key hospitals as it fought to contain the disease. During a crisis, decentralisation can reduce the point of failure that makes centralised systems vulnerable.
To support the current plan to decentralise in the URA Concept Plan, Singapore needs to increase its incentive to decentralise by keeping rents attractive and reducing the rent gap. Singapore should also continue to focus on mixed-use development formats that can cater to both physical offices and lifestyle destinations. This format will not only increase flexibility but enable businesses to have a cost-efficient alternative in the presence of other commercial amenities.
Real transformation is enabled through conversations, engagement and building trust. More open discussions with Singaporeans should also be developed, allowing them to play an integral role on how living spaces can be best built to suit their needs, and create an efficient and productive space for them to live, work and play in. This ensures that evolving end user needs are matched alongside future smart city developments. This will be the new normal and we need to be prepared to reimagine, reshape and rebuild the future of Singapore’s smart urban development.