The article has been amended for clarity.
Singapore is one of the most overworked cities in the world.
This isn’t just because I spend more than 9 hours in the office on a regular day. A recent study by tech company Kisi ranked us at 32 out of 40 for work-life balance. You don’t need even more studies to know that Singaporeans are incredibly stressed, and that this affects our quality of sleep.
But young adults these days expect office life to be more holistic.
We are demanding more flexible working hours, the ability to work remotely, and gravitate towards chic co-working spaces that provide free acai bowls. This is less about being entitled, and more about understanding what work life balance truly entails: more hours clocked don’t equate to more productivity, and being stuck behind a desk in stuffy cubicles isn’t always the best way to work.
At the same time, none of this is new. What if I told you that the principles for flexible, more holistic work have existed and been implemented since the 90s?
It sounds mind numbingly simple. But in a world once dominated by standardisation and factory-style education systems, perhaps companies and organisations haven’t yet caught on that the cookie cutter employee doesn’t exist.
ABW is championed by Dutch company Veldhoen + Company—since the concept was pioneered by their founder Erik Veldhoen in 1989. They offer office-based solutions to companies looking to implement ABW. (This is not a sponsored post btw)
“But it’s not about design, it’s about catering to the needs first. The design merely complements the needs,” says Iolanda Meehan. She’s the managing partner for Veldhoen + Company in Asia.
She recounts a project she visited when a space was designed and meant for collaboration. One small problem: the space was for a group of research scientists who constantly needed their computers in front of them. The tables in the space were akin to coffee tables, far too low to use without becoming the hunchback of Notre Dame.
Iolanda stresses that designing for ABW is about providing enough choices to the various organisations and their employees—whether they are banks, pharmaceutical, or tech companies—and supporting them with the right environment.
But physical infrastructure is not enough in our information age. With ABW facilitating greater flexibility in mobility and employees often working remotely or in different areas of the space, digital strategies have to complement this shift. Communication and keeping teams connected with regular updates will be more important than ever.
And managerial culture will need to change as well. Iolanda explains that it’s no use having beautifully designed, extremely functional meeting rooms when no one will use them because the manager expects to see them at their desks.
“Productivity should be measured in terms of results, and not hours in the office,” she says.
But if your entire office is open plan, how are you going to focus? You’re constantly multitasking, being distracted with emails and calls, and people popping by your desk. The space should be segmented to suit one’s needs—whether you need peace and quiet or rooms for meetings.
Productivity requires deep focus. Iolanda reasons that if you can focus, you finish your work faster, you can get to your other tasks, and you can get more done with shorter days.
Maybe with ABW, Singaporeans can finally stop working overtime.
They are aptly situated in One North, the Silicon Valley of Singapore.
From the window, I can watch the foundations for Grab’s new campus being laid. In the distance, Shopee’s six storied behemoth lurks. Sennheiser is luxurious compared to RICE’s humble abode, but it’s still a fledgling amongst these corporate giants.
Cedric Wceke (Brand Communications & PR Manager) and Alex Lim (Head of Marketing) are my tour guides of the premises to show me how ABW principles are applied in an actual office space.
The bulk of the offices are shared rows of desks, with a desktop attached to each. Besides the designers who have to stay in place because of their iMacs and other specialised equipment, all the seats are on a first-come-first serve basis. Hot desking is alive and well here.
There are different areas for different functions. The Evolution Zone—decked out in plush blue couches and a whiteboard on wheels—facilitates loud discussions and collaboration. If you need some quiet, there’s the Library, with dim lights and a relaxing ambience for those who need to be hyper focused.
If you need to discuss something in private, there’s a suite of meeting rooms that can be booked, from as small as a two-person cubicle to the spacious board room complete with a conference table for weekly staff meetings.
Other miscellaneous areas include the showroom hosting an array of Sennheiser products, and a confidential R&D section where yet-to-be released products are being tinkered with. But it’s at Team Connect—the communal lounge with a pantry, foosball table, and $26,000 coffee machine—where I sit down to chat with the duo.
Understanding this is crucial in the sense that through understanding the scope of jobs in Sennheiser, we can see how the space is utilised.
As a manager, Alex often has to work across departments even though he’s part of Marketing. In the past, he—or his employees—had to constantly go in and out of his office whenever work needed to be done. Now with the open plan hotdesk layout, he can just sit himself right next to whoever. Today it can be with Finance and Marketing, the next day next to the folks managing the Service Center.
Cedric himself is constantly having meetings out of the office as someone in PR. Even when he’s back in the office, he might be in a booked meeting room. So having a fixed desk of his own would be under utilising the space.
This is in stark contrast to the original office, which was akin to a warehouse. Situated on the ground floor, it was mostly concrete and had no windows. Employees worked on desks with partitions, and higher management had their own rooms. It was ill suited to Sennheiser’s vision of being a modern tech company.
Even the presence of natural light can do wonders in boosting employees’ morale.
And with the managers and employees now working in the same space, there is less disconnect and distance. The higher ups become more sensitive to sentiments on the ground, fostering a genuine sense of unity in the company.
Alex shares that he was initially resistant to ABW. The shift started when their Managing Director first went over to Sennheiser’s offices in Australia, skeptical of ABW’s efficacy. After looking at its success overseas, he proposed that Singapore adopt ABW as well. The leadership continuously discussed the implementation of ABW in Singapore until they were all on the same page.
“Then everyone will align with the company’s vision,” Alex says.
“Culture is set at the top and trickles down,” Cedric concludes.
Alex feels that the essence of ABW is in the people. Design and the environment can only get you so far. In the end it’s about the human touch, in the activities done together and the relationships forged. A workplace can only thrive when there is a strong sense of company culture.
Thus, digital infrastructure is the cherry on the top. Every company has their own preferred array of tools—RICE uses Slack, Sennheiser uses Skype. On top of that, they have Microsoft Outlook and Teams which is fully integrated with their hardware.
In order to transition smoothly, Sennheiser brought in an external company to conduct a workshop on learning the technical skills—how to scan documents, book rooms—so that even the most tech unsavvy employees could keep up.
Going digital also allows the possibility for remote working and flexible hours—as long as you can best execute your deliverables and meet your deadlines.
“It’s not so much work-life balance anymore, but work-life integration,” Cedric muses.
I originally suspected the reluctance to change was a sentiment only held by the upper management in their cushy, private rooms. But the inertia was company wide. People had gotten used to having their own desks, the luxury of piling up untouched paperwork, and the traditional way of working.
Now, every employee is afforded a locker for storage. And for day-to-day activities, they have a single tray with their essential documents and stationery.
“This forces us to focus and be decisive. To be more directed towards what we believe is more important,” Cedric asserts.
Thus what ABW fosters is discipline, ownership over one’s work, and a Confucian work ethic.
These buzzwords are as obvious as the platitudes in a self help book, but do we actually take these values seriously? When you look at your own workplace, do we take these concepts to heart and apply them to become more productive? Or do we just slog day in and day out, scrolling through Facebook and procrastinating over reports?
A more balanced working life does not lie in a generational gap, but the willingness to act on some very common sense principles: that our systems must support our needs, and that an organisation’s values have to resonate in all its members.
There’s no need to look any further. The revolution you’re looking for in office life is already here.