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Eastern block?


13 October 2011


by Niels Kemp Rasmussen


Building design and agile working were the hot concepts at Worktech 11 Asia this year. Held 
in Singapore on 
29 September, the conference had the theme ‘Connected buildings, connecting people and agile working’.


It drew a sizeable crowd of corporate real estate representatives (CREs) and suppliers to the new Marina Bay Sands hotel and conference centre to discuss the latest workplace trends.
The presentations and panel discussions were grouped into five areas in which different perspectives were shared:
-  Connected real estate
-  Digital clusters
-  Connecting and collaborating
-  Working finance
-  Attracting and retaining talent

This allowed participants to hear about developer challenges and the digital focus of connecting ourselves with our workspaces, with references to various workplace solutions in the world of banks and technology. Interesting research and facts were shared too, especially in the context of what the researchers in furniture and interior design companies are doing and how they see the world of work. Challenges were also thrown out to the delegates about inter-generational conflicts. They were asked: ‘Is the death of the owned desk finally approaching?’

What, no Asia?

The conference was managed professionally and most of the presentations were valid and interesting. However, it was disappointing that there was not more of a focus on Asia, especially since the event was being delivered in the middle of South-East Asia. Only Unilever presented in full on its ‘Agility at work’ project in Singapore. Other Asian examples were only drawn upon through the panel discussions, with references to two major regional banks and brief examples of Cisco and SAP’s workplace initiatives. This 
meant the conference saw more of a sharing of generic viewpoints than any Asia-specific perspectives.

This allowed for only snippets of discussion regarding how Asia differs to the rest of the world. One example was that projects in the US may focus on decreasing footprint, whereas in Asia the discussion is on how footprints may have to increase to deliver collaboration areas in already dense office spaces.

Perhaps the most interesting presentation was Accenture’s case study involving a recent project in its Houston office. The cultural differences between Texas and Singapore are enormous, but nevertheless the journey on which the company embarked with its Houston collaboration project – including  getting the necessary leadership buy-in for the radical change required – was just as relevant.

Otherwise, while new ground is apparently not being cut in Asia, it certainly is in Sydney, where ‘activity-based working’ is in place at a major bank. That is indeed an impressive evolution, especially for a bank, although architecture practice Woods Bagot was probably right to sound a note of caution against blind copying of such initiatives in other sectors. The matching of both client culture and desired outcome may have been unique in this case.

Worktech Asia’s organisers did a great job of getting the CRE community engaged and sharing their learning. However, I can’t help find it puzzling that in spite of more than two decades of intense workplace strategy development across the globe, the ability for organisations to get engaged with what happens in their workspaces still seem to be lacking. CRE professionals and their suppliers know the themes intimately, yet we never seems to be able to move the agenda beyond what happens to the real estate and its space. Costs and management buy-in are still big parts of the debate.

Lack of leadership
Where are the chief executives and heads of HR? Haven’t they seen the light? Are we quietly pretending that we represent their views in full or are we ignoring the possibility that they don’t really get it? Either way, we could all do with more involvement of top-level decision-makers. After all, the panel of Bank CREs agreed that good workplace projects start with business transformation, which enables the workspace change.

Why can’t we hear about how the workplace enables business change from the other perspective? The workplace is a powerful place and it rightly calls for attention by the most senior members of any organisation. Let’s hear their views next time, too.

Niels Kemp Rasmussen is founder and chief executive of Kemp Associates Pte, Singapore