13 May 2022
Post pandemic, business parks like One North are looking to transform from dull industrial estates to vibrant enclaves. But this new approach must listen to what the ‘work anywhere’ generation wants, says Joseph Chua, UX Lead (Strategy).
For a moment in time, the business parks of One North felt like they belonged exactly where they sat.
Taking lessons from America – whose 1950s concept for a ‘park full of businesses’ was criticised for spreading concrete blocks of sweatshops everywhere – JTC and Zaha Hadid Architects strategically weaved in retail malls and residential buildings into the sculpted terrains and scenic footpaths of Singapore’s own ‘Silicon Valley’.
Created in 2000, JTC’s vision for the One North precinct considered not just the success of businesses but the people within the buildings, resulting in a work-live-play ideology.
This vision was largely successful. Today, One North houses the business operations and headquarters of big brands including A*STAR, P&G, Grab, Lucasfilm, and GSK. Nestled in swooping glass structures and towering landscapes, the 200ha plot hugs a huge interconnecting park, celebrating the best and most innovative in research, science and tech.
But when 2019 arrived, the pandemic robbed life from business parks like One North, which quickly turned into ghost towns.
Reinventing the office
One could argue that the pandemic was just a blip, and that things have gone back to normal. But even as businesses pick up the pace and people begin to fill footpaths once again, mindsets are markedly different.
The working generation has returned to the office with new digital skills acquired over two years of separation from the office, the foremost of which is the power of teleconferencing. With disruptive technological innovations like Zoom at hand, the new generation has significantly changed their mind about what work, live, and play means. Working in a physical space has become a thing of the past, since Singapore’s large-scale WFH experiment has effectively proven that businesses can, in fact, survive without people sitting at desks in the office.
To be fair, One North relies heavily on research and innovation. Video conferences can only go so far to facilitate conversation and brainstorming, especially where large laboratory equipment is involved. But supporting offices and headquarters have already begun to see lower uptake of rentals and workspace. After all, if workers can accomplish everything from the comfort of their homes, they save travelling time and businesses save on rental. It’s a win-win situation.
The Business of Connection
If work from home is the preferred method, then what can business parks offer in the future to stay relevant? What’s clear for me is that the physical distance we experienced with remote work – and are still experiencing – puts a strain on relationships, both in the office and beyond.
As a social species, we live to socialise beyond just verbal cues. We depend very much on the visual cues: body language, micro-reactions, and even appraising how our colleagues look. The chemistry of an in-person relationship conveys trust far more effectively than that of one over video conference, and trust is the magic ingredient for a fruitful brainstorming session.
Such sessions, and the innovation that arises from them, are incredibly precious to the research, science and tech tenants in any business park.
So what makes sense? It seems the natural next step is to convert writing-desk office functions into incubators for research labs to support a flexible workforce. To spread mixed-use spaces such as eateries and cafes even wider across business parks, and knit living spaces even tighter, to transition between work-live-play even more seamlessly as the ‘work-anywhere’ generation retakes public spaces and 9-to-5 hours vanish.
Gone are the days where business parks solely focused on designing clusters to house businesses in far-flung areas. Aiming to become vibrant enclaves, the business parks of tomorrow will keep on merging work-live-play further and further until all three experiences become synonymous. Such a utopia would be one to long for.
Joseph Chua, UX Lead (Strategy), Singapore Studio
Joseph is an architect turned UX strategist with 8 years of building experience across industrial, residential and commercial typologies. Joseph aspires to produce meaningful architecture that balances user experience, project value and design quality. He believes that purposeful design is empathetic in all aspects – from occupants to the zeitgeist of any given space. Joseph now continues the discourse of architecture and design through photography and travels experiences.