Balancing futureproofing and future-defining the workplace

By Erwin Chong, Managing Director, Corporate Real Estate Strategy and Administration, DBS Bank

The reality of our time is that many organisations have had to respond quickly to the pandemic and inevitably are in the position of futureproofing for the next normal, and even the next world-changing event. 

As a leader, I often get asked and think about the future of my corporate real estate team and of DBS. Now more than ever, as the pandemic has shaken up the role that offices play in our lives. We often regard the pandemic as something that happens to us. Is there a way we can use the change the pandemic has wrought to make lives better? How do we plan to get ahead with all the uncertainties and unknown? 

Futureproofing: A safety precaution

As we scour discussions on the topic of Future of Work, we will find news and conversations on office reduction and design, technology enablers and potential challenges of hybrid workforce. While the pandemic has companies thinking more mindfully about how much space they actually require to accomplish their goals, we must be careful to avoid knee-jerked futureproofing efforts. There are many debates about what mode of working companies should adopt in response to the pandemic. Some companies are keen to get back in the office, some are decided on remote working as a long-term policy and some, like DBS, will be taking a hybrid approach. 

These choices are demonstrations of futureproofing. Changes and plans discussed have an almost immediate impact to the company’s future and workflows and processes are established to counter events of a similar nature that may recur. While this is certainly not a bad thing at all, a company must choose a particular approach after careful consideration of its culture and needs. My concern is that it is easy to get too swept up in these debates and conundrums that we feel compelled to make particular decisions. Futureproofing through a company’s response to change is indeed necessary, and we need to be careful about making sure that our decisions are well-considered and relevant to its vision, culture and people.

In fact, a recent survey of executives by McKinsey revealed a lack of a clear vision of the post-pandemic future has resulted in high anxiety levels amongst employees. What does this signal? To me, it suggests that we need to craft a stronger vision of the future, and that’s where future-defining comes in. 

Future-defining in gear 

This time of uncertainty and change is the time to emulate people of the likes of Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, Heinrich Hertz and Steve Jobs. A time to ask, “What change can we bring to the world? How do we envision the better of tomorrow?” Many regard this time as a vital opportunity to do something – and I think it’s the best time to kick an organisation’s future-defining journey into gear.

To offer a brief illustration of the difference between the two terms: future-proofing would be like the government putting electric car charging points along the roads to enable the use of electric cars but future-defining would be the companies that started producing electric cars in the first place, who had a vision of a better world with cars running on clean energy, and then enacted that vision. Futureproofing involves reacting to change, but future-defining involves driving that change. How do we achieve a balance of future-proofing and future-defining to yield truly long-term benefits for any organisation? 

Be a driver of change for a better tomorrow

We have looked, and are still looking, at global uncertainties to situate ourselves within them. To us, our role in a globalised world means facilitating a world without borders, a world that comes together for the greater good and crafting a world that centres on experiences. We actualised this through our vision of the office as a space to live, work and play. 

We envision a campus that is oozing with vitality and innovation – a perennial start-up culture where employees feel supported. We blend technology with daily life at the office and have important discussions about issues DBS cares about, like sustainability. Most importantly, every single employee is empowered to be a definer of our future for DBS and the world. I’ve previously discussed the importance of being people-centric in reconfiguring the post-Covid-19 workplace to improve employee engagement. I think that collaboratively defining the future fundamentally puts employees at the centre of the workplace, and that strengthens an organisation in being truly future-ready.

In addition to being people-centric in our workplace of the future, we have realised through our experimentation that we need to contextualise spaces, especially in light of the change the pandemic has wrought. One of the many insights we have gleaned is that the nature of interactions between colleagues has fundamentally changed. Interestingly, we have found in our recent experiment that employees had higher self-reported productivity and engagement rates on days they met with non-direct teammates. If productivity is based on output, why would one report higher productivity when met with non-direct teammates? Does this indicate that people are collaborating more extensively and beyond their immediate team? This signalled to us that the nature and perception of human interactions in the office space has fundamentally changed, and this was not an observation we made prior to the pandemic.

To me, these changes reflect that the rules of experimentation have changed. Not only do we have to think about the workplace of the future, we have to rethink what even makes an office in the first place. It is because of this that I believe we need to work on contextualising the workplace going forward. For us, this involves finding ways to make the workspace flexible enough for the needs of different teams and individuals. Each workplace needs to straddle the balance between being bespoke to each team but also flexible enough to account for individual needs. We also need to recognise the increasingly important social function of the office going forward, particularly as many companies move toward hybrid modes of working. 

We need to ask more questions and find out the ‘maybes’. We have to then test these ‘maybes’ as hypotheses and seek to better understand the changes that have occurred. In this way, we can respond to these changes the pandemic has wrought and futureproof more mindfully.

Our future-proofing efforts will work within this longer-term journey towards the future and iteratively, we will experiment to forge our vision of the workplace of the future. Our efforts are purpose-driven towards a larger goal beyond the confines of the pandemic.

Experiment and fail better

To me, experimentation is key to the process of future-defining. I am often reminded of the popular quote by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” 

Accepting failure and taking the time to learn from it makes your vision of the future bolder and tune it to be unique to you and your organisation, particularly during this time when we are mostly within the unknowns.

Ultimately, both futureproofing and future-defining will yield benefits for employee welfare, productivity and innovation for any organisation. The key to future success is achieving a delicate balance between them.  

Though we may not know what the next few months, or even years, will look like, I am of the view that this is the ideal time to future-define precisely because of this uncertainty. Let us work together and partner with one another to not only define the future of our organisations, but for our industry as a whole. Balanced with our future-proofing efforts, and with a greater sense of purpose and vision, this evolution – albeit brought forth by Covid-19 pandemic – is our chance towards a better tomorrow, a better world.