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Is Singapore’s Corporate Culture Heading Towards the Blurring of Lines Between Work and Life?

By Bianca Husodo

Nestled in the leafy suburban area of Robertson Quay, Gather Cowork is designed in a bid to nurture the well-being of its occupants.
 
Katherine Ang
Nestled in the leafy suburban area of Robertson Quay, Gather Cowork is designed in a bid to nurture the well-being of its occupants.

At Martin Road, distant from the corporate hubbub of the city, hides the newly launched co-working office, Gather. Unlike its buzzier peers, Gather is quiet. No background music. No foosball tables in sight. What you’ll find, instead, is a realm that looks like a boutique hotel lobby of a Wes Anderson film. Backdropped by the leafy suburban neighbourhood of Robertson Quay, Gather holds a serene atmosphere that’s almost library-like. The three-level pet-friendly space, designed by Marc Webb of design duo Takenouchi Webb, hones its focus on the “health and wellbeing” of its members. 

“‘Calmness’ and ‘flexibility’ were some of the keywords that I was inspired by,” says Webb, who lists the likes of members’ club The Straits Clan and Michelin-starred restaurant Whitegrass in his portfolio.

The degree of thought and investment that goes into Gather’s terrarium construction is something its occupants are expected to register only as background noise. Its well-considered spatial design shares the floor with a purported philosophy for holistic wellness. The space feels contemporarily modern but not lofty; comfortable but not shabby; detailed but not ostentatious. “I think the wellbeing of employees is becoming more upfront. There’s very much an awareness that you don’t have to just work in a closed-off cubicle,” notes Webb. 

Katherine Ang
 
Katherine AngThe communal area of Gather.
The communal area of Gather.

Most Singaporeans are unhappy in their workplace. It’s a well-established and rehashed fact: In a recent survey, 87 per cent of working Singaporeans reported feeling stressed with a majority of them claiming it to be fuelled by being in an “always-on” environment, where they feel the constant need to be on their mobile phones, staying alert for work purposes at all times. The respondents noted that noticing their colleagues’ stress caused their self-awareness to seep in. Upon seeing others mind-boggled at work, they inadvertently felt more conscious and pressure in managing their own level of stress. They cited a dearth in both mental and physical well-being that largely goes unaddressed by the lack of employer support.

Back in May, the World Health Organization upgraded burnout from a “state” of exhaustion to “a syndrome” resulting from “chronic workplace stress” in its official compendium of diseases. Burnout classically accounts for emotional exhaustion, disconnection and sense of inefficacy. In times when instability strikes whatever and whenever it likes to, the need to perform better has never felt more pressing.

But while internal battles tend to tip the scales when it comes to corporate anxiety, the condition of external environments might just be the culprit. 

Katherine Ang“There’s a coherence between the materials or the patterns that works together,” says Webb. “We use a palette of the same materials in different ways, in different spaces. So as you walk through, you feel that everything ties together somehow.”
“There’s a coherence between the materials or the patterns that works together,” says Webb. “We use a palette of the same materials in different ways, in different spaces. So as you walk through, you feel that everything ties together somehow.”

In Singapore, a sliver of its corporate habitat can perhaps be best glimpsed among the towering skyscrapers in the CBD zone. The downtown core — zoned in from Telok Ayer to the Marina Bay area — is the 9-to-5 (not rarely overnight) home of the white-collar bunch. There, nestled within the concrete cradle of these buildings, the traditional office looks somewhat like this: Surrounded by windowless walls, under bright white LED lighting and on dull-coloured carpeting, cubicles are arranged in a neat row, often partitioned in reflection to the company’s otherwise invisible hierarchy. When the clock strikes noon, employees make a beeline for nearby eateries, their hands glued, still, to their mobile phones. The rest of their post-lunch weekday is then spent listlessly glancing at the digital numbers on the corner of their desktop screens in between frantic work calls; the occasional slow walk to the water cooler tiding over the impatience. This is the dogged wait for “work” to end, and for “life” to begin.

Perhaps therein lies the root of our corporate malaise: the clear-cut division of what counts as “work”, and what as “life”.

The rapid surge of coworking spaces in Singapore is thus inevitable. In a quest for a fluid state of personal and work life, co-working pioneers have posited the question, “Why the detachment in the first place?”, before probing it further, “Why not merge them together, and see what happens?” and building an almost-freewheeling dimension that’s worlds apart from the doldrums of office life as we know it. The co-working giant's real product isn't office space — it’s a new kind of corporate culture. 

Katherine AngThough furnished with cubicles, Gather’s office suites tap into the space’s philosophy for calming openness by overlooking Robertson Quay’s lush surrounding.
Though furnished with cubicles, Gather’s office suites tap into the space’s philosophy for calming openness by overlooking Robertson Quay’s lush surrounding.

What began as a convenient hub for millennial start-ups that couldn’t afford office rental has evolved into plush designer properties, attracting entrepreneurs, small-to-medium enterprises and even bigger companies. Homegrown operator The Great Room launched in 2016, and has now expanded into four different locations around the central district, offering an assortment of services from day passes for hot-desking to dedicated offices. Others followed suit: In 2017, global co-working behemoth WeWork lodged its 200th location at Beach Centre, before adding 11 more outlets in the city, and recently announcing a 21-storey building takeover slated for 2021. Trehaus, which implements a child-minding creche and nursery for working parents, has now launched an integrated pre-school at its new co-office location at Funan Mall.

To Webb, the physical environment of a space has the potential to shape its inhabitants’ behaviour. With Gather, lavish attention is allocated to every detail: from sheer curtains filter and soften the incoming natural light, inducing “a calm feeling as you come into the area” to the long communal marble pantry table that’s meant to be the hotbed of conversations. “But at the same time, you have to leave room for growth for the people who are going to occupy the space,” says Webb.

Gather offers services ranging from dedicated desk memberships for S$750 a month to office suites for an occupancy that ranges from six to 40 people, starting from S$900 a month. There are bespoke offices offering freedom for individuals to customise their own furnishing and layout. Housed on the third to sixth floors of Cathay Organisation’s seven-story building, the hip weekend hole Common Man Coffee Roasters and a yoga studio are just downstairs. And for what remains of life outside the workplace, there are promotional discounts for lingerie at Perk by Kate and Absolute You memberships.

Katherine AngWebb opted for soft materials and a muted colour palette, saying, “They give you this calm feeling as you come into the area.”
Webb opted for soft materials and a muted colour palette, saying, “They give you this calm feeling as you come into the area.”

“I think that kind of clear separation of ‘this is work’ and ‘this is not work’ is blurred in this kind of spaces. You might be working, and there might be an event going on [in the common area], and you have the option to join in if you feel like it,” says Webb. “There’s no black and white kind of difference.”

The fast-expanding co-working movement is transforming the workplace. For one, the enamouring appeal of that work-and-play grey area has proven to attract a diverse crowd. Beyond start-ups and independent workers, big forward-thinking companies in Singapore such as Google are extending individual co-working space memberships to employees who need it. Nurtured in a positive surrounding, employees can, and do, thrive in productivity, maintaining their well-being at the same time.

This newfangled evolution of office culture isn’t a silver bullet that will shoot Singapore’s workplace unsatisfaction in its chest. It is, however, a long-overdue step towards breaking the rigid mould of what a workplace means. All the ostensibly small incremental niceties of a co-working space might just add up to more than the sum of their parts.