Flexible working was gaining steam before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has seriously accelerated not just its adoption but also its acceptability. Office staff proved during lockdowns that they can be just as productive when working from home.

The result is increasing demand for hybrid working models that allow employees to work both in the office and remotely. That's changing the purpose of the office. Collaboration, innovation and corporate culture-building could take over as the key functions of the workplace rather than just being a space to work.

Many employees forced to work from home during lockdowns have found they prefer it and employers saw that there was no significant drop in the quality of work. Some major US technology firms now say staff need never return to the office or need visit it for only a few days of the week. Improved internet connectivity, 5G and cloud computing will help companies offer increased flexibility.

For employers, the question is no longer whether to implement flexible-work arrangements, but how.

Many models are emerging. 'Core & Flex' sees core employees working from the office on a regular basis while the rest work from flexible shorter-lease space. 'Hub & Spoke' has a main office in a high-grade building in the central business district and several smaller, lower grade, satellite offices on the city fringes or in the suburbs or business parks. The 'digital campus' suits tech firms whose staff needn't attend full-time.

The economic consideration for employers is to optimise the use of space – juggling desk utilisation, rents and pricing differentials between flexible and permanent premises. But as economies recover, so will demand for offices.

For employees the metrics are commuting times and space per person at home. Companies may help staff set up a home office, but not everyone has the space. During the lockdown, many people discovered that, with two working adults and children doing online classes, working from home was not as convenient as they thought.

The relatively high home space per head in Europe, Australia and the US helps explain the rapid adoption of WFH there, but Asian countries have some of the lowest space per person and their workers are thus more likely to return to the 'comfort' of the office.

Among the major cities in the 10 ASEAN Southeast Asian nations, Singapore is probably at the forefront of this structural shift in work patterns. It has the shortest average commute time – almost a third of employees live within 30 minutes of their work – so are likely to return to offices once headcount restrictions are lifted. Indonesia and Vietnam have the opportunity to plan and build cities and infrastructure with the shift in mind.

But with home now the alternative office space for many, having a more comfortable working environment has led to people improving their home or moving into the suburbs and bigger houses. The distance to central business districts or the age of a building are no longer as important, reversing the past trend of downsizing for proximity to the office and seeking more modern buildings.

First published 22 January 2021.

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