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Asia's Flexible Workplaces Must Take Up the Sustainability Torch Global demand for flexible and remote workplaces has risen in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, as more workers are forced to stay away from their fixed office. At the same time, the longer-term trend has been slowly but surely away from fixed office locations and hours, and towards more flexible workplace arrangements.

By Justin Chen

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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Sustainability is a business approach to creating long-term value by taking into consideration how an organisation operates in the ecological, social, and economic environment. Increasingly the conversation is moving beyond sustainability as simply a "green issue".

Today, we are witnessing the birth of a new era where sustainability must be at the heart of excellent corporate governance and shareholder responsibility. Flexible workplace operators are no exception.

Now more than ever, sustainability can affect the long-term survival of a company as expectations for corporate social responsibility and transparency increase. There is a need for flexible workplace operators, like any other company, to incorporate sustainable practices into their business strategies to foster longevity.

The First Steps to Creating Sustainable Spaces

Global demand for flexible and remote workplaces has risen in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, as more workers are forced to stay away from their fixed office. At the same time, the longer-term trend has been slowly but surely away from fixed office locations and hours, and towards more flexible workplace arrangements.

While in cities like Singapore and Hong Kong daily commutes to the office tend to be relatively short, this is not the case everywhere. In some countries, commutes can require hours in the car, often stuck in traffic jams, to an office that is nowhere near where the employee lives.

Flexible workplaces – and we'll come to how operators can ensure they are as sustainable as possible – can give workers the choice to grab a desk closer to their own neighbourhood. Not only does this help cut down on carbon emissions from cars, trains, and buses, but it fosters wellbeing.

The trend has grown well beyond the tech companies of Silicon Valley. Many of the world's largest companies are now embracing flexible workplace arrangements out of a need to evolve with the times and recruit and retain the best talent.

An estimated 8.4 million days of personal time will be saved from reduced commuting times thanks to the rise of flexible workplaces, according to Cool Cosmos. Meanwhile, over 2.5 million metric tonnes of CO2 will be saved globally as a result of the trend, according to Carbon Independent. That's roughly equivalent to emissions of 1,280 flights between London and New York.

So, given this as the backdrop, how can flexible workplace operators reduce their carbon footprint and ensure they are attractive as workplaces for a new generation of talent that is environmentally conscious?

The Era of the Sharing Economy

The basic premise of the sharing economy has been the ability to more efficiently allocate resources at scale and this is no different with the flexible workspace. It used to be even just a decade ago that corporate offices were built on the principle of being long term assets. Companies would be headquartered in the same location for decades.

This was reflected in the modularity of office furniture of the day. Furniture was marketed with long warranties of 10 years – to be disassembled and reassembled based on changing needs of the office space, whether it was the cubicle, partitioning, and office suites.

With the advent of the internet age and fast-growing technology firms, office design has likewise shifted to a more "disposable' approach. With the typical firm planning for flexibility by managing their CapEx costs downwards, and planning for the need to relocate and redesign their office space every few years. This is similarly reflected in office furniture selection that is dumbed down, with speed and cost being the top consideration.

In response to sustainability touted as a marketing buzzword, there has been a lazy response to greenwashing projects with recycled or eco-friendly materials. While on the surface this has led to a greater selection of products with sustainable qualities, what many do not address is sustainability measured on the full lifecycle of an office project – which has a far more considerable impact on the environment.

This is where flexible workspaces step in, providing companies with the option of taking only what they need at the time. Many corporates are now adopting a fixed and flex approach towards their real estate strategy. They may choose to build out a core headquarter location, but rather than risk creating shadow space by budgeting for growth, this expansion or seasonal requirement is passed on to a flexible workspace partner.

Even more can be said of the smaller start-up, which has traded upfront CapEx projects for flexibility in the size of office and lease.

Built With a Long-term View to Champion the Future of Work

Some of our peers in the industry have been criticized for taking a short-term approach to the business, looking to maximize profits by using cheap materials and cramming the maximum number of people into a space.

Inherently built into the flexible workspace model is a long-term view, with our typical leases potentially running through a decade. The flexible workspace industry has an opportunity to carry the baton of sustainability that many corporate office spaces have unfortunately had to relinquish. I believe that sustainability is synonymous with thoughtful design. Our years of experience have allowed us to plan ahead for the way that we see companies moving their work arrangements in the coming years.

At conception, spaces can be futureproofed on the design front, eschewing "trendy' design so that they do not become quickly outdated. Instead, they will only require minor updates to satisfy evolving tenant needs. Our flexible workplace at the Jing An Kerry Centre in Shanghai is an example we're proud of, as modern and relevant today as when we opened it nearly a decade ago.

With the need to cater to a plethora of different companies, it is no surprise that flexible workspaces have become the laboratories for the future of work, showcasing to corporates and entrepreneurs alike what people want on a massive scale. Through the sheer number of different users and customers that come through our doors, we have had an opportunity to better understand customer behaviour and habits irrespective of corporate culture.

Making Innovation Part of a Sustainable Workplace

For many companies, the interest in placing an innovation or project team in one of our spaces is driven by the desire to try out and prototype workspace practices prior to implementing it in their own offices. This allows them to "try' before they buy, allowing them to experience workspace best practices without having to invest heavily into the CAPEX or ideas themselves.

It also allows operators to be more reactive to the needs of the day. If we do have objects that we have purchased but no longer need, end-of-life recycling and disposal programmes are the best approach. This way items can be repurposed, reused, or donated.

Towards a Carbon-neutral Workplace

Overall, the combination of macro benefits resulting from large portions of the global workforce moving to more flexible workplace arrangements, combined with operators that are committed to sustainability, is giving rise to a new era of green working.

While we know there is still more that can be done, we are proud of the progress we have made on delivering on our CSR goals for our members and shareholders. From engineered wood to LED lighting, from leveraging natural lighting to energy-conserving blinds and a green supply chain, as well as operational considerations like recycling bins, we are well on our way to a carbon-neutral future.

We hope you'll join us.

Justin Chen

CEO, Arcc Spaces

Having spent over a decade in real estate development and hospitality, Justin manages the strategy, design and development of Arcc Spaces and its portfolio of spaces across Asia, and is instrumental in the planning and implementation of the overarching business strategy for the Arcc group. He brings with him a strong understanding of the multiple facets of real estate from acquisition, site selection to design, construction and project management. A hands-on leader who is passionate about bringing new concepts to life that are at the forefront of trends and challenging conventional ways of thinking, Justin also guides the design team which oversees all design and development projects. Justin earned his Bachelor Degree of Arts in Architecture from The University of California, Berkeley.

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