The future of work is now

2020 changed everything we thought we knew about work…or did it?

December 08, 2020

With the backdrop of a global pandemic, the future of work quickly transformed into a new standard of work. Offices closed their doors as the scale of COVID-19 became clearer. Employees switched to remote working arrangements, and technology enabled a level of connectivity previously thought unachievable.

Employees across Asia Pacific have adapted to extensive work from home arrangements, but why has remote working been successful? Most obviously, in the age of COVID-19, it worked because it had to work.

At the height of the pandemic across Asia Pacific, an average of 68% of employees surveyed regionally worked from home. According to JLL, 61% of the same respondents working remotely said would favour a hybrid model combining more flexible work arrangements in the future.

Viewed from angles of employer and employee, landlord and tenant, these practices appear destined to become normal, but will they serve as a new work model beyond COVID-19?

JLL and the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) recently organised a webinar on the sustainability of the future of work and Singapore’s readiness to adapt to this paradigm, even if temporarily. The session featured a panel of real estate, workplace culture, design and people experts.

While there are a lot of theories about what constitutes the future of work, a common denominator remains: how the employee mindset has changed and how business continuity is being assured in the future of work.

A new model?

Debates about the future of work existed before 2020, but the conversation took a more practical and purposeful turn this year. Technology and globalization have transformed the labor market and allowed for the continuity of work in good times and challenging times. As a result of a more open mindset to remote working, supported by the digital tools, the office was remotely transitioning pre-pandemic. The onset of COVID-19 has accelerated this shift to more flexibility and companies are rearranging their portfolios accordingly.

The introduction of social distancing, health and safety regulations and a growing acceptance of flexible working of the past few years, has already impacted how space is used. COVID-19 will merely accelerate this shift.

In respect to physical office design, panelists were asked whether they saw dedensification coming to the fore.

According to the experts, dedensification has already been happening and will become a bigger theme in the future of work. The driver is straightforward - why we go to the office is different than in the past and there has been a change in company policies around remote working that wasn’t embraced previously. Closer to home, many companies in Singapore were caught off guard and were forced to go to close to 100% remote working. On the flipside, companies that had elements of flexibility pre-COVID adapted better.

Given that the future of work is now – the model, the environment and culture is clearly tethered to technology. Technology is allowing companies to hire from a broader talent pool, and Singapore has stood to benefit due to its diversity. But foremost, as a result of an accelerator event like COVID-19, work is less about a place as opposed to a purpose. And due to technology, work means a home office or a physical office.

Irrespective of organizational, design or technology upgrades, remote working is unchartered territory for many in Singapore, but much hinges on the resilience of a company’s culture for dislocation of space and premises to function.

The relevance of regional headquarters

In the age of remote working, questions have rightly been asked about the viability of maintaining regional headquarters in Singapore or elsewhere. While, in theory, flexibility allows for the ability to fulfill regional roles from any jurisdiction, there are larger regulatory factors in play than do point to continuity of the regional headquarter model, at least for the time being.

When it comes to regionalization and talent mobility in the age of COVID-19, there are numerous factors at play. Governments such as Singapore’s needed to move swiftly and allow for work agility to ensure the continuity of business. However, while it is difficult to define how long these policies will last, remote working policies won’t remain indefinitely as they are.

According to panelists, a significant majority of organizations have caps on remote work due to larger considerations. In other words, tax, immigration, social security, compensation and health and wellbeing are all major considerations of any cross-border mobility – and these factors impact both the length and scope of any remote working policy in a regional headquarters capacity.

While the optics of hub headquarters may present differently, the model is ingrained and will not substantially change in the near term. Furthermore, the regional headquarters blueprint will continue to favour markets like Singapore that global players have long embraced and will enhance existing supply chains. Why is this? Singapore’s government has been at the forefront of disruptive trends, has upskilled the talent base proactively and implemented technology enablement tools that support remote work. Many corporations took advantage of this philosophy pre-COVID.

The big question that remains though is whether regional headquarters will increase or decrease? Only time will tell.

The office as offsite location

A timely question posed in this session was whether the future of regional headquarters was more akin to an offsite as opposed to onsite location for work?

While there is an element of work digitization that transcends the lockdowns and has been an accelerator due to COVID, the office of the future will no longer serve simply as a place to sit on your laptop. The model and design of the office will inevitably change quicker to meet new expectations brought to the forefront by COVID-19. Foremost, there will be more investment in collaboration spaces and wellness amenities.

In globally minded locations such as Singapore, arguments are brewing that increasingly, regional headquarters will be seen as an investment in culture, people and that everything is centered around activity-based working. According to the diverse panel of experts, there will be more hubs and mixed-use spaces in non-traditional CBDs like Paya Lebar.

At the conflux of a new work-life balance and corporate culture debate accelerated by COVID-19, the idea of the “15 Minute City” will become a louder conversation in Singapore. In the simplest terms, the concept of a 15 Minute City, pioneered in urban centres like Paris, is providing residents heightened access to services like workplaces, schools, retail, food and beverage, healthcare and outdoor facilities within a 15-minute walkable radius.

As a result, more questions will be asked in what makes a location right, and more frequently, it will likely come down to flexibility and headquarters becoming more of a collaborative space.

In order to allow the future of work to exist and thrive in the present, companies will need to curate their policies and employee engagement experiences. Questions on how we ensure work remains meaningful and can we operate on permanent remote work will not go away. But with more interactions with the end user, there is no reason to think that the future of work is already the here and now in Singapore. 

Find out more

In our latest research, Reimagining Human Experience, we analysed an online survey of 2,033 office workers across 10 countries spanning all major industries. The goal was to understand employee sentiments about how workforce preferences are shifting workplace priorities.

Key insights include: the impact of remote work, an imminent opportunity for employers to sustain and reinvigorate employee engagement, and a growing importance of human connection despite the increase in digitally connected work.