Good Riddance To An Anachronism

There’s only a day left to the end of Singapore’s circuit breaker and like much of the nation, I’m about to head back to the “normal” life of being in an office. The prospect of going back to an office like existence brings me back to a letter I submitted to the Today Newspaper, which they subsequently rejected.

The letter in question was a response to a commentary by the FT correspondent Lucy Kellaway, who had praised the concept of office and said that we would miss the office when it died. Ms. Kellaway’s commentary can be found at: [LINK]

I think Ms. Kellaway has hit the nail on the head in her description of offices as social places. Think about it, we spend at least a third of the day in an office and most of the people we probably spend more time with people in the office than we do with our families. Offices are great melting pots and I’m surprised that our social planners seem focused on creating the imaginary “kampong” (Malay for village) experience in housing estates when they should be focusing their efforts on offices. Offices are effectively social places masquerading as work places. My only joy at returning to the office is that I’ll have a reason to leave the house for a few hours each week.

However, with the exception of its social value, I don’t miss the office and I believe that far more can be achieved outside the office. Offices are generally bad for productivity both for the business and the individual.

I have had two stints working in an office and I’ve found that my happiest moments in both stints came from doing task that required me to be outside of an office, even if it was just for 15-minutes. Leaving the office was when I actually did productive and meaningful things. If one looks at the eight hours a day that one is obliged to spend in an office, one has to question how many of those hours are actually spent on doing productive things. Contrary to what you may be told about an office being a place to do work, the truth is that an office is often a place where people indulge in petty power plays and ego building.

The main case against offices is that they are often vanity projects and focus a corporation on paying for the vanity rather than actual work. I think of the common complaint that clients had against advertising agencies, which was they expected 50 cents on the dollar of advertising spend was wasted, they were just not sure which 50-cents was wasted. Big agencies are known for having big offices in the swanky parts of town. Advertising isn’t the only industry where the big players need big offices.

The need for offices, particularly the big ones has made landlords very rich. This is especially true in places like Hong Kong and Singapore, where land is scarce and the service economy is larger than in other parts of Asia. With the exception of Li-Ka-Shing who ventured into ports, telecoms, retail and technology, the great fortunes of Hong Kong and Singapore have predominantly been made from owning office space. Think of Lee Shau Kee of Hendersen Land in Hong Kong and the Ng and Kwek Families on Singapore.

Having worked in liquidations in Singapore in the last five-years, I did notice that the landlord was inevitably one of the largest creditors in most cases and the business that went down was inevitably paying rents that were forming a high percentage of the actual revenue.

Hopefully, the “home-based” work that was forced on us by Covid-19 will get businesses to question the high rents. Why do you need to pay millions a month for office space when the revenue is generated by people working from home? Hopefully land used for office space will be used for more productive things like residential property, hospitals and schools. One should also hope that the tycoons like Lee Shau Kee and the Ng’s of Far East would then focus their money in more productive technology industries.

The other issue that I have with offices is that they encourage tribalism. As was often discussed in anthropology, humans have a tendency to define their identity by finding opposites. In the old days, race and religion were the usual tools of forming identity. These days, its increasingly about profession and being in the right office.

While there is nothing wrong with being a working professional in itself, the problem with offices is that they give you a false sense of the wider world. They encourage you to sort yourself out according to profession (accountants, lawyers, architect, PR professional etc) or by department (finance, marketing, HR etc). You are obliged to spend the day with “your people,” which gives you a sense that your people are the only people around and that only function in a business is yours.

Lucy Kellaway talked of the great office romance, where people fell in love with the people they met at the office. I guess this is to be expected, that one meets a future mate from one’s immediate social circle. However, isn’t that the crux of the problem, that we only meet and mingle with the people from our industry and organization. This is a form of intellectual inbreeding, which like other forms of inbreeding is distinctly unhealthy.

Let’s not mourn the office and celebrate freedom from the right to inbreed with our own kind.

 

Tang Li

*Although I’ve been based mainly in Singapore for nearly two decades, I’ve had the privilege of being able meet people who have crossed borders and cultures. I’ve befriended ministers and ambassadors and worked on projects involving a former head of state. Yet, at the same time, I’ve had the privilege of befriending migrant labourers and former convicts. All of them have a story to tell. All of them add to the fabric of life. I hope to express the stories that inspire us to create life as it should be.

 

 

 

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13 Responses to “Good Riddance To An Anachronism”

  • Irene Vanessa Wan Pat Pat:

    Long winded. Today already ceased physical publication. But they still consider themselves top puppy. Internet news break even more quickly. They also have no office. Save on rent if everyone works from home.

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  • Top Money for Top Talents:

    Dear Tang Li,
    For once, you speak sense.

    Hopefully, the “home-based” work that was forced on us by Covid-19 will get businesses to question the high rents. Why do you need to pay millions a month for office space when the revenue is generated by people working from home?

    With remote technologies maturing, Business can lower their cost by saving on office space and pay lower salary for staff to work from home.

    This is a facts. But lazy and unmotivated and 10 years series templated Singaporeans still trapped in old thinking of “working in office”

    GE2020.PAP.Guarantee.Win.All
    $PAP$ Tua Kee; Majullah $PAP$; $PAP$ Huat$ Huat$ Huat$
    Singaporeans must be Cheaper, Better, Faster.
    Workers must accept wage sacrifices to keep businesses going.

    GD Star Rating
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  • oxygen:

    BUSINESS IS ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS OUTSIDE AND ITS CULTIVATION, the office is constantly reminding me of (past) imprisonment within the confines of like-minded closet thinking/dependency and politicking – a sense of powerlessness of dependency on the corporate skeleton for survival.

    In general, one learns a lot more interacting with the outside world of different discipline and field thoughts but only those truly competent of self-survival skills on their own can gainfully engage and participate. The rest? Better hide behind the corporate skeleton and shelter of corporate slavery and bowing to insanity of servitude because they want and need that end of period paycheck.

    With social distancing, a lot will be forced to work from home because office space will become exorbitantly expensive to maintain to accommodate all. Manpower cut is inevitable. Inefficiency will creep in, every thing move at a snail pace and difficult of co-ordination. Some practices will be abandoned – i.e. check payment settlement refused AND CONFIDENTIALITY OF CLIENT INFORMATION AND BUSINESS COMPROMISED (can you imagine Ah Kow’s banking details and deposits can be seen by visitors to Catherine Lim or Tan working from home without the banking boss awareness??)

    I believe only essential staff will be retained in office, most of the rest will work from home/or in rotation of office space if they are not retrenched.

    Commercial office space demand will fall and Commercial Office reit will fall into oblivion of no investor’s interest sooner than most imagine. Commercial real estates will be repriced severely downward, inevitably and ECONOMY, WHITE COLLAR EMPLOYMENT AND INCOME WILL SLOW DOWN in its wake.

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  • patriot of TUMASIK:

    Seems that the Tagfastic Liar and spinner spins well enough for TRE to accept his shit…so be it!!!

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  • Concerning military oligarchy:

    A soldier is an anachronism of which we must get rid.

    - George Bernard Shaw

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  • NWO:

    Covid-19 pandemic will usher in a new world order in terms of economic restructuring, jobs scope, aviation & tourism industries overhaul etc as fear of infection permeates the whole world till a vaccine is available to rein in the virus!

    Every govt will tread carefully to open the economy while controlling mass events & activities resulting in loss of rental revenue as use of big venues like stadium, exhibition halls, street circuit for F1 racing etc are restricted & reduced office space as in SG Dorscon Orange is still switch on which means employees are encouraged to WFH!

    Eventually it will end up with controlling an individual as CONTACT TRACING is key to control future virus spread which the health experts say that it is here to stay!

    THE BURNING QUESTION IS: DO YOU HAVE A CHOICE TO OPT OUT?

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  • trublu:

    Well,the office is a SOCIAL PLACE indeed.
    But these days,its more for socially political ANIMAL$$$?

    Stilk,i can agree,the OFFICE IS THE PROPER SET-UP FOR MOST OFFICIAL CONNECTIVITY STILL.
    CONFETENCE CALLS ARE NEVER THE SAME AS FACE-TO-FACE MEETINGS,WHO CAN DENY?
    UNTIL WE BECOME TRULY ROBOTIC N DIGITISED,HUMANS STILL TEND TOWARDS PHYSICAL INTERACTIONS?

    WELL,i am old sg uncle and its just my humble take but i still prefer to SEE MY DOCTORS FACE-YO-FACE do you?

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  • patriot of TUMASIK:

    patriot of TUMASIK:
    Seems that the Tagfastic Liar and spinner spins well enough for TRE to accept his shit…so be it!!!

    If I need Spinning and Lies the CNA/SHITTY TIMES and one-sided news is available…what is needed @ TRE is a platform for the Betterment of a Nation on a spiral into a shitpot…

    How do we Point out the shortcomings Lies and BULL of the Govt and improve our situation by posting the “TRUTH” even at times it may sound like CONspiracy Theories…all is NEEDED is the ability to “THINK” and NOT let others
    “think” for you especially when it is Lies & Hypocrisies

    We have good contributors and more is NEEDED to Wake UP! and not those who spin for ego and self-glorification…

    Aziz-BK-Oxy and S of TRUTH to name a few…more is needed and I note there are a few now contributing “POSITIVELY” even though once in a while we need a good Laugh from TanAhhhh!!!

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  • oxygen:

    THOSE WHO FANTASIZE OF A V-SHAPED RECOVERY from Covid-19 are SUPER GENIUS OR MENTALLY-DERANGED – I suspect the latter is true.

    If half the office workers are forced work from home, what do you think will happen? My mind flashes back to October 1987 stock market crash – first hand experiencee – Lau Pat Sat was nearly ghost town – some hawkers have more assistants than customer walking by. Now in 2020, if half of CBD is populated by 50% than usual, hands up those who think Lau Pa Sat is still viable with safe social distancing to boot? THE COLLATERAL DAMAGE means that shopping and eateries in Shenton Way and Marina Bay business districts will all be vacated with no obvious tenants to replace them. Mrt and buses is half-loaded cannot run on same frequency and MORE cab drivers competing for 50% of the usual traffic. Billions and billions of assets from transport infrastructure, to food outlets to commercial office space will be trapped of sub-economic use and soon forced to vacate. These piled up in pains show up in unemployment statistics, income and consumer spending. Until a return to full-utilisation of Changi airport which may be years, that is another ghost-haunting place. Hotel rooms gather dusts and every retail shop has a vacant available to let space for neighborhood “companionship”.

    TRAPPED ASSETS EAT UP CAPITAL ALREADY INVESTED but not paying the return to its owners and bankers funding them. THERE IS NO ESCAPE ROUTE FOR EVERYONE TRAPPED IN IT.

    What is LEE-jiapore left if Shenton Way, Raffles Place, Marina Bay, Changi Airport is reduced to half-ghost town?

    I shudder for those in debt. OCBC survey shows only 30% have capacity for survival for more than 6 months if retrenched.

    Retrenchment haven’t started as yet, and when that gets in earnest, suburban shopping mall either get an overflood of walking unemployed or deserted like haunted places, I am not sure.

    But MRT AND BUSES don’t need social distancing guidance because there will be too few commuters. All either work from home or UNEMPLOYED.

    Working from home is adding fuel to fire of recession.

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  • Harder Truths:

    The question is not whether the office has value – the question is how are locals going to survive once the jobs from offices are outsourced to India, China, Myanmar and any country where you can get an internet connection working.

    Why would FT bosses hire locals when they can simply send the work outside and get rid of all the locals.Who will stop them? MOM? Why? No one is working in $G so what can they do? Outsourcing is a valid practice.

    Without offices there is no way to make employers hire locals. This is the real reason for the ‘smart nation’ directive. Smartly make you unemployed.

    The only way $G citizens will be able to find work is to become a foreign worker. This is not a joke. People have no idea what the coming depression is going to do to businesses.

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  • Irene Vanessa Wan Pat Pat:

    No lah, Spore bosses still prefer the office becos they can see who come and go on the dot. Bosses dare not question the big players about rent so force employees to take lower salary. And then spout rhetoric about how everyone should make sacrifices.

    Actually lazy and unmotivated people prefer home based work so they can work in pyjamas and save on public transport.

    blockquote cite=”comment-1894202″>

    Top Money for Top Talents:
    Dear Tang Li,
    For once, you speak sense.

    Hopefully, the “home-based” work that was forced on us by Covid-19 will get businesses to question the high rents. Why do you need to pay millions a month for office space when the revenue is generated by people working from home?

    With remote technologies maturing, Business can lower their cost by saving on office space and pay lower salary for staff to work from home.

    This is a facts. But lazy and unmotivated and 10 years series templated Singaporeans still trapped in old thinking of “working in office”

    GE2020.PAP.Guarantee.Win.All
    $PAP$ Tua Kee; Majullah $PAP$; $PAP$ Huat$ Huat$ Huat$
    Singaporeans must be Cheaper, Better, Faster.
    Workers must accept wage sacrifices to keep businesses going.

    GD Star Rating
    loading...
  • Irene Vanessa Wan Pat Pat:

    Yeah banks tell you lots of things can do online. Like the branch is too busy for you. So later no more jobs for bank staff.

    Harder Truths:
    The question is not whether the office has value – the question is how are locals going to survive once the jobs from offices are outsourced to India, China, Myanmar and any country where you can get an internet connection working.

    Why would FT bosses hire locals when they can simply send the work outside and get rid of all the locals.Who will stop them? MOM? Why? No one is working in $G so what can they do? Outsourcing is a valid practice.

    Without offices there is no way to make employers hire locals. This is the real reason for the ‘smart nation’ directive. Smartly make you unemployed.

    The only way $G citizens will be able to find work is to become a foreign worker. This is not a joke. People have no idea what the coming depression is going to do to businesses.

    GD Star Rating
    loading...
  • oxygen:

    ONLY YESTERDAY, I WARNED of commercial office/commercial real estates will be severely repriced downwards.

    oxygen: Commercial office space demand will fall and Commercial Office reit will fall into oblivion of no investor’s interest sooner than most imagine. Commercial real estates will be repriced severely downward, inevitably and ECONOMY, WHITE COLLAR EMPLOYMENT AND INCOME WILL SLOW DOWN in its wake.

    Interesting that Bloomberg news today carried this warning.

    Singapore landlords need a post-Covid remake

    https://sg.finance.yahoo.com/news/singapore-landlords-need-a-post-covid-remake-020803829.html

    GD Star Rating
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