John Henderson is the Asia Pacific Regional Director at Regus, a multinational corporation that provides serviced office accommodation in business centres worldwide.
Gone are the days when we were chained to our desk from 9 to 5. The way we work is changing. The idea of a “Third Place,” a space that is neither home nor office but where people want to spend a portion of their lives, was introduced as far back as 1989 in Ray Oldenburg’s book “The Great Good Place.” Today, thanks to the advent of wireless technology, the concept has evolved from being merely a civic or entertainment space and now also applies to a flexible work space for mobile employees.
So what does this mean for businesses? According to Kyran Sze, executive director of one of Asia’s largest architecture firms, Aedas, the push towards Third Places is gathering pace in Asia, has another idea in mind for the new sort of hubs designed to meet the needs of an increasingly mobile work force. “It’s not too different from love hotels, or a car park,” Sze jokes. “It’s a free space that you can corner for a certain period of time, where business activities can be carried out, and you share common facilities with others as well. It’s a fluid space where people can come in and out.”
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A report issued last year by the technology market research company IDC suggests that Asia will see the biggest increase in mobile workers over the next two years. It was predicted that this year, 1.2 billion people, one-third of the world’s total work force, will be mobile workers, and 62 percent of them will be based in Asia.
The push towards more adaptable working environments will likely come from both the needs of companies and the people they employ. Studies show that at any one time, only 40 to 60 percent of all office space is being utilised.
Therefore, the benefits in terms of efficiency are substantial. According to the Regus Business Tracker survey (BCI 6 of 2012), 45 percent of companies around the world confirm paying for unnecessary office space as a major cause of corporate distress during the downturn, which is also the case with companies in Singapore (54 percent). And hence as a cost-saving measure without compromising growth prospects, companies globally are set to decrease the use of fixed workspace, which is also being adopted by businesses in Singapore.
In Singapore alone, companies regard flexible workspace and flexible working conditions for staff as the key initiatives to concentrate on to secure sustainable growth. As such, the flexibility and cost-saving benefits promised by Third Places are indeed constructive.
The social and professional benefits are also clear for workers. Third Places are more flexible than offices. They are closer to home, meaning less commute time and a lower environmental burden. People find themselves at a greater liberty to alter their work schedule to suit them, with Third Places also tailor-made for the needs of a work force that is increasingly becoming freelance and free-form.
Japan and the United States — not coincidentally two of the three largest economies, alongside China — are at the forefront of the trend. The US work force is currently the most flexible in its use of work space, with 72.2% of employees already having the flexibility to work out of the office, rising to 75.5 percent in by end of 2013.
Managing employees, at first often seems like the most serious challenge that would prevent a more flexible approach to work. However, workplace consultants note that it is ultimately less of a concern, provided appropriate measures are put in place to reward productivity and efficiency rather than merely “face time” in the office.
“If you get it right it is tremendously empowering,” Paul Scroggie the director of workplace management services for Knight Frank, who work with clients across Asia including in Singapore to design their work space says. “Basically what you are saying is I trust you, go and work where you need to, when you need to.”
When implementing a flexible workplace, it is essential that a company first identifies exactly what it aims to achieve. Once this is done, communicating this properly and getting everyone to buy into it is a vital step, work-space consultants say.
“Everybody thinks it’s about space and it’s about cost. But it’s nothing about space and it’s nothing about cost and it’s all about people,” Scroggie says. “If you get the people component right then you do save space and you do save cost. Often companies sell it as a cost saving measure. And people don’t like that.”
To embrace flexible working successfully, companies also have to shift their focus towards measuring productivity, instead of profitability. Those that do so and adequately prepare for a flexible work force in Asia now will be at the forefront of the mobile work movement, and able to capitalise on the region’s shift from a manufacturing base to an increased focus on service industries.
Susan Lim, the managing director of DEGW Asia in Singapore, which specialises in consulting with companies on their use of space, sees two main trends emerging in Asia. The first is that the office is becoming a city, with distinct places for collaboration, meeting, quiet concentration; the second is that the city is becoming an office, with wireless Internet connections making anywhere a possible work place.
“These days, the notion of work can be separated from the notion of the office,” Lim says. “Work used to be a place that you went to. Now, work is a thing you do, not necessarily a place.”
In cities such as Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Singapore, which boast some of the world’s highest rents, there are substantial cost savings from shedding permanent office leases. Other Asian capitals, clogged with traffic, call for more flexible working arrangements to save time.
In Beijing for example, Nokia has chosen to forgo costly and ineffective sales and marketing offices, and instead use Regus’ network of eight business centers across the city as their Third Place. Their on-the-road workforce can touch down at a Regus Business Lounge, take a day-office or use a meeting space if necessary, saving the company a significant investment in real estate.
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In Singapore for instance, startup company Atrix Enterprise has decided to forgo of expensive and unproductive office space and instead utilise Regus’ network of soon-to-be eight business centres across the island as their Third Place. “Our business is mobile social marketing, so a flexible solution fits right in with our approach,” explains Director, Peter Gan. “In addition, we’re a very young company and that means we have to be cost efficient. The fact that we can just plonk down at a Regus business lounge, use a meeting room to host clients or have a video conference with our other office in New York doesn’t just make our life easier, it means we are able to make company huge savings on office real estate.”
However, business cases aside, the fundamental drive behind the Third Place is that, people demand them. As companies move into a new era of flexible working arrangements, the idea of a Third Place will indeed, evolve from being a revolutionary corporate phenomenon into a standard form of working for employees everywhere.