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Designed for resilience

With business continuity a core concern as staff around the world are forced to work remotely, the need for an agile workforce has become critically apparent. In Hong Kong, teams which are now returning to work should consider how redesigning their space could be beneficial, both for improved health and wellness, and to be able to better manage such crises in the future.

Planning for healthier offices in a time of COVID-19

The days of the cubicle and the corner office may be long-gone, but workplace isolation has started to creep in once again. Facemasks and teleworking have become the norm for many businesses. Office amenities like kitchens and window access were already standard, amid the COVID-19 outbreak, health and wellness have become a matter of business continuity. Good design allows companies to put staff retention, health, productivity and wellness front and centre – when executed well, this can also lead to operational cost savings. A holistic approach to workplace culture and communication – covering everything from technology infrastructure, furniture placement, and employee engagement programs – can also help offices to weather the storms of health crises and daily stresses alike.

Even before the outbreak, an increasing number of studies in recent years have focused on workplace design – particularly ‘Indoor Environmental Quality’ (IEQ) and its impact on productivity and worker satisfaction. Research shows that a significant amount of time is lost to poor building design, and this has a major impact on the wellbeing of millions of people. Lack of natural light, cramped quarters and lack of interaction are still common, but workplace designers also need to consider the unintended side effects of open plan offices, such as a lack of privacy and the inability to focus on a task without interruption. At present, many workers report feeling alienated or lacking in morale or motivation.

There is a greater reliance upon technology for continuing the bond that exists between teams. There are a lot of required adjustments which organizational leaders have had to consider. Companies with a culture of presenteeism may struggle as this indicates a lack of trust and accountability. When people work in an empowered culture, working remotely shouldn’t have a dramatic impact on the business.

In many ways, the COVID-19 outbreak has served as a health-check for company culture. Those businesses where there is a lack of trust have suffered the most – many employees in Hong Kong have complained that their managers have insisted that they ‘check in’ every half hour with a photo of themselves working at home, to ‘prove’ that they aren’t slacking off. Colliers’ resident wellness expert Victoria Gilbert says this is unlikely to be effective and is probably counterproductive. “It comes down to mindset – for knowledge workers, it would be wrong to assume that if you are not at your desk you are not working,” she says. By contrast, companies that have already implemented flexible working arrangements by default will be better positioned for any kind of emergency or contingency plan that requires people to move to a different location or work remotely. It also forces managers to create incentives and motivational strategies that function independently of their ability to look over someone’s shoulder – which in turn boosts morale and engagement, even during ‘normal’ times.

Finding your flow

The notion of ‘flow,’ or intrinsic motivation, indicates a state of complete immersion in an activity resulting in optimal engagement – whether one is performing a musical piece or rattling off a quarterly report.

While a company’s culture and habits may take time to adapt, current technology like video conferencing and cloud-based infrastructure have eliminated the practical constraints of workers being located at fixed desks. Meanwhile, traditional signifiers of status within an organization have become less relevant. Getting a promotion still means taking on more responsibility, but as management structures become “flat” and have less formal hierarchy, a person’s job title is less likely to be associated with an entitlement to a physical space. The trend towards activity-based working means that today’s ‘knowledge workers’ already prefer to be mobile. In fact, research from Steelcase shows that 96 per cent of highly engaged workers can move freely and change postures throughout their day. Whether they are collaborating on a project and need access to presentation tools or need a quiet corner to focus on a report, having appropriate facilities is a prerequisite for high productivity.

Designed to move – part of the furniture

From sit-stand desks to single-person booths, features that were once considered quirky novelties are now regular features in today’s offices. One practice that is now a global standard - but which is new to many Hong Kong businesses - is the concept of area or activity-based working, with its lack of fixed desks.

Some co-working spaces have implemented activity-based working as a part of their flexible operating model; members store their belongings in lockers, while task-specific furniture, signage and partitioning designated areas for collaborating, concentrating, or other types of work. Different teams may also have specific needs, though, and require their own place to keep shared resources – a UX team may need whiteboards that can stay up, or a tech team might need specific hardware. As such, some companies – including the Colliers Hong Kong office – have implemented zones or neighborhoods for each department, designed around their needs.

Modern research shows that environments have a direct impact on our health, which in turn can affect productivity. “People are wired for social connection,” says Gilbert. “We’re not created to do things alone all the time, but also need to work as teams. Stress levels have been increasing recently, and when there are expectations coming from someone who can’t see you, or if you can’t go out and see your clients – now is the time to ask, how do we remain positive, reduce stressors, and learn from this experience?”

As work forces start coming back to the physical office, the opportunity has come to look back and take stock of pre-existing behaviour patterns and consider how our spaces could be used more effectively. Though it might seem insignificant, empowering your staff to move about freely could be a small step towards building the trust and accountability needed to make it through difficult times in the future.


Nigel Smith

Managing Director

Managing Director's Office | Hong Kong