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Rethinking the Workplace

Carol Wong • 24/04/2020

 Quarantine Goals - Carol Wong

For most it’s an indisputable fact that COVID-19 has changed not only how they work, but their work itself. For Carol Wong, Director and Head of Workplace Delivery Asia Pacific Cushman & Wakefield her days have never been busier. She is both managing a workplace team remotely, and helping clients navigate unchartered territory whilst understanding and preparing for what’s next.

Here Carol discusses how a workplace expert works remotely during a global pandemic, how COVID-19 will change the way we work and what Cushman & Wakefield’s workplace clients want to know.


Firstly Carol, how are you coping in lockdown? What does remote working look like for you?

Working from home isn’t a foreign concept for me. Prior to joining Cushman & Wakefield I spent more than a decade at Procter & Gamble leading their both Greater China & APAC real estate portfolio, and I worked remotely for most of that time.

Now, with 2 relatively young children, things change a little bit. Balancing homebased learning and working from home has been a challenge, especially with the volume of conference calls throughout the day. Luckily, I have a supportive family system to enable me to focus work as much as possible.  

Trying to maintain a decent work-life balance can be tough. Finding the discipline to stop, unplug and leave your workspace to spend time alone or with family can bring with it a certain amount of guilt. This can be hard to shake.

We are all in the same situation, so I think now more than ever is a time to show empathy, not just to your team, but to your colleagues and wider network. We are all in this together.

Tell me about leading a team remotely? Are there any tips you can share?

To take care of others, first you need to take care of yourself. It’s so important to have a break during the day if that’s what you need. Second, leaders should try to understand their employees both emotional and physical needs, showing empathy and be flexible in their work arrangement as well. More than ever, transparent communication is required. Making employees feel empowered with flexibility and autonomy, and ensuring people understand what is expected of them will significantly increase employee happiness, which of course leads to increased productivity.

I am focusing on output, not hours. As long as the things that need to happen get done, I am not concerned how my team are allocating their working hours. I also try to be mindful of boundaries, as well as consider things like time zones and traditional working hours when setting team calls and meetings.

My other advice is to check in with your people regularly. Even if it is quick, just to make sure they are ok and not feeling isolated. We have so many convenient channels of communication available, we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of a quick message to someone asking how they are.

Here in Singapore, as well as in Hong Kong and China, the work culture has previously been more of a ‘control and command’ style. Due to this, some people may struggle to effectively manage a remote team. Therefore, training or support programme to equip people managers with the appropriate skills to face the situation is important. Supporting our clients and moving forward with them on this is a key component of change management programmes.

What trends do you expect will come out of COVID-19? Will remote working be the new norm?

I think the workplace consequences of COVID-19 and their knock-on effects will be phased.

Many of our clients are still in high alert mode and navigating external factors (for example the further government lockdowns in Singapore) and doing their best to cope with the rapidly changing environment we find ourselves in. We have started to see that clients are beginning to plan return to work programmes, while continuing to closely monitor each market.

In the short term while workplace design, policies and safety protocols are all critical pieces of the puzzle, the most important aspect of return to work will be the readiness of the workforce physically, emotionally and psychologically.

To help employees through what will be a stressful and unpredictable return to work, organizations should also focus on the personal experiences of their employees from a work and life perspective during this enforced home working period.

It’s important to understand how the pandemic has impacted their personal connection to the culture of the organization & to understand if they feel their organizations are caring for them now , as well as how to improve that care during the return to the physical workplace.

Cushman & Wakefield’s return to work playbook "Recovery Readiness: A How-to Guide for Reopening your Workplace," is a comprehensive guide for real estate tenants and landlords on reopening workplaces as stay-at-home restrictions are lifted. Using learnings from across the globe, it addresses these concerns and guides clients through the return to workplace process.

We have created a prototype of what the office might look like in the short term with our concept the “6 Feet Office.” We are using our Amsterdam headquarters as a living lab to test various ideas and we are in the process of testing & evolving this concept in our NY and APAC – Syd, Melbourne, Singapore requirements.

We are collaborating with industry experts & our partners Spacewell to test sensors to monitor movement patterns and with Delos the founders of the WELL Building Standard & the WELL Living lab to test the quality of air, filtration & surface hygiene technologies.

More significantly we are using this concept to work with both our occupier & investor/ landlord clients to assess their current workplaces, apply the rules of conduct of the 6’ office and co create with them the relevant adjustments to provide a safe environment for people to come back to work.

Prototyping is very important as it helps us use design to nudge behaviours from simple devices such as patterns on the carpet that indicate what 6’ distance actually is & to a greater focus on neighborhood centric design & protocols to support bonding & trust across smaller work groups

We will explore materials already used in healthcare which could make their way into regular office design, including ways to reduce the dependence on shared devices and shift control of the workplace environment to each person’s smart device - Leveraging workplace experience apps like our Workplace Edge for food & beverage orders & access to pre packaged food as well as other services to support frictionless experiences.

The 6’ office is a prototype – it is not a finished product. This is particularly important as we plan to test & develop it further with our clients to deal with different jurisdictions, building typologies & evolving medical data on the virus.
6 feet office 6 feet office
Cushman & Wakefield’s Six Feet Office concept is a bold look at how COVID-19 could change the workplace of the future.

What’s next? What will organisations be first to change in a post COVID-19 world? Will office tenants all require less space in the future?

You may ask how does all these short term measures impact our future trends. We believe that these data & evidence (from employees experience with work from home, workspace effectiveness with the social distancing measures) will become our new baseline as we review space typology and workplace experience in the future office.

Long term trend / impact

1. Redefining WFH / Remote Working Program

The most significant outcome of Covid-19 is to finally getting us over the inertia around home working – especially in APAC. Most organization are risk averse and slow to change over the last decade and the virus has forced us into action. Managers now have to trust and empower people. IT has to provide technology to support remote working. People have to use voice & video over physical presence. I see clients mobilize budgets quickly to increase their VPN / network /IT infrastructure bandwidth to enable their people to remote work. Almost 80% of my daily meetings – internally or externally with clients are all video based – which before is unimaginable as we Asians are typically camera shy.

Globally, remote first could be the default work mode and employees only come to office for specific activities such as training / special events / team events, socialising. However, it could be slightly different in APAC as most of the APAC countries either have an infrastructure gap ( e.g poor home network & VPN access) in residential development or employees simply do not have a conducive work from home setup or environment. For example, in my recent work with a Tech / Communication MNC in their HK office, in their survey / interviews findings, most employees still desire to return to office as their wfh set up is inefficient, they are finding it more difficult to maintain work-life balance . Therefore, changes in budget allocation may take place in order to better enable employees to work remotely.

Separately, we observed that although Gen Y & Gen Z – the digital natives who are relatively more adept at seamlessly transitioning from work to home, who are skilled at using tech for their work - they continue to show motivation to return to office as they are eager to learn new things, socialise with others, feel connected with the brand & culture of their company.

2. Redefining Activities Based Working Space / Typology

The office is not going away, while the need for office space might reduce, the demand for other kinds of spaces will increase both within & outside the office. People will always need physical space and will always want to meet face to face. As we spend more time working virtually, the demand for a better quality physical environment and experience will increase. Office space will become more varied, fewer desks and many more spaces to meet, eat, learn, exercise and unwind.

As the traffic to the office reduces, people will need more workplace choices near where they live, such as high street cafes and local community co-working spaces. The virus will show us how much time we waste commuting and give a renewed focus on wellbeing. This will result in an increased demand for better housing, leisure and healthcare facilities. We will rediscover nature. Access to outdoor space will be a lifeline during the pandemic. This reconnection with nature will come back into the office with more outdoor spaces, terraces and roof gardens. To stand out, landlords are increasingly moving toward unique services and experiential offerings. In summary, it will not be just office, but an eco-system to enable people to carry out different activities.

3. Importance of Change Management in the new way of working & partnering with HR In Real Estate

As work has left the office, managing remote communities is a new challenge. Building culture & connection from afar requires new roles such as community managers. Offices are places to build community and reflect corporate values, increasingly those values will be about sustainability and wellbeing. Workplace experience will no longer just be around the amenities / services provided but it will include a holistic well-being program which require Real Estate to work with HR hand in hand.

Separately, with remote communities, coaching the people manager on how to manage a remote team, set up meaningful & clear goals & clear measurement for individual performance will be also critical. In Asia, majority of the people managers are honed to leadership style of “control and command”, it will require thoughtful change management to help these people managers to move away from “control and command” to “true empower and trust”. Therefore, organization do rely on HR and their leaders to drive this change. This transformation will be also become an important factor to attract and retain talent.

In summary, every company will redefine their own people and workplace strategy to support their way of doing business and work processes. Depending on job nature and industry, there will be work that cannot be performed remotely such as lab work, brokerage services where face time with clients is still integral to inking the deals. However, the user centric concept will prevail without any doubt. Therefore, it is important for us to continue to learn through data and evidence and help clients make informed decisions in redefining their workplace strategies and enable a better workplace to allow people to work happily & effectively.

What’s next? What will organisations be first to change in a post COVID-19 world? Will office tenants all require less space in the future?

Organizations who had been adopting activity-based working and building strong empowerment culture will be the one that embrace these changes in a faster way. Everything depends on the readiness of the people, if we are able to enable them through safe workplace, seamless technology and holistic experience, I believe they will quickly settle into the new normal.

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