Evolution of the Workplace
‘Feeling at Home’ Office, Home Office, Holiday Office
How Working From Home is Changing Office Concepts
COVID-19 has turned our everyday lives upside down in every way. Nothing is the same as it was before 2019. Home office has become the new working model worldwide. Even in China working from home is a hot topic again right now against the backdrop of the Omicron wave. What impact does this development have on the use of office buildings? What role will they play in the future, what must they offer? A conversation with Christian Sommer, CEO and Chairman of the German Center in Shanghai, and Daniel Heusser, head of the Swiss architecture and project management firm VIRTUARCH.
Home office is a necessity for Corona and has already been adopted worldwide. In the US, employees of tech giants refuse to return to the office full time. The German Centers in China provide office space for German and international clients, among others, who are establishing a foothold here in China. Are you noticing a decline in booked office space due to home office？
We had no declines until the Shanghai lock-in. Quite the opposite. We have a good influx. I believe that the widespread spread and attractiveness of home offices in China is not yet here. There are many reasons for this. For one thing, our tenants were able to go to work without restrictions in Shanghai until the strict closure. This has changed with the Omikron wave. Nevertheless, the private space situation in China is different from that in Europe. Although many people live in their own flats, they are cramped in terms of space and living situation: the children are at home, often also the in-laws and maybe even a so-called ayi, the domestic help that many Chinese hire. In Germany that is different, families have much more living space. Some employees even live alone and not as part of a family. Big city structures, like in China, with many small flats in a small space, neither exist in Switzerland nor Germany. It is not unusual for people to live under the roof of their house or cottage in the countryside or to work in a home office in a big city flat. That is less the case in China.
Yes, what you describe for Germany is similar in Switzerland. People in Zurich, for example, often live a quarter of an hour away from the city center and have the nearest forest practically on their doorstep. In China, it’s usually different. Against this background, home office is more pleasant in Europe than in China and therefore more popular.
But there is another trend. Business travel is a driver for new structures in the workplace. Especially in sales, employees are on the road more than in the office. They don’t need a fixed workplace because they have everything stored on their laptop. The individual workplace has given way to shared use. To make the workplace situation attractive, more shared workplaces have been set up. At VITRUACH we work in projects with so-called work cafés. We then convert an entire floor of the office building into a lounge or, in the case of new buildings, plan generous multifunctional areas for the employees from the outset. There, the employees sit together with a coffee and in a relaxed atmosphere. There are counters for working, as we know them from coffee shops. This is a trend that will continue, especially in countries where home office is already common. It is clear: if employees are only in the office two days a week, 40 percent of the space no longer has to be planned as a fixed workstation. The new workplaces are increasingly becoming anchor points of human interaction, which more and more serve networking purposes.
That is certainly true. Interestingly, the German Centers are designed by their very conception to promote informal exchange. We don’t just rent smaller spaces to smaller companies, but we offer our tenants a platform for this. In the German Center Taicang we have common rooms, the large conference room, the café, the bakery. These are, if you like, social functions that companies cannot or do not want to cover with their own offices. And that will become even more pronounced in the future. We have consistently implemented the green spaces, the integrated plantings in the building. You said it: in Zurich you don’t drive long and then you hear the bells of the cows in the pasture. You don’t have that in Shanghai, in Taicang or in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities in China. Here you are confronted with a completely different situation. In this respect, the so-called green spaces in the office are important, and we also use them. Together with you, we have planned this more generously in the German Center Taicang than in the German Center in Shanghai.
That’s right. The architectural difference to Shanghai is interesting, the time difference of 15 years is visible. At that time, the German Center offered the better quality and service compared to other office buildings at that time. That was the difference. That has changed, now you offer more community events even during working hours. You always did that very well with your recreational facilities. That was the community function outside working hours. Now these community functions are increasingly shifting to the working world. That is a clear trend.
Another trend is that working from home means de facto working from anywhere. VIRTUARCH is working on an interesting project on the vacation island of Bali, where we are planning a small work resort called Workation, a combination of work and vacation. There we have workstations, meeting rooms, an ideal digital infrastructure and of course inspiring living and relaxation zones in a tropical vacation environment.
The project you describe in Bali is definitely interesting. Particularly in home offices, social aspects and employee loyalty to the company are neglected. At Workation the focus is even more clearly on the fusion of work and leisure, the relaxing working atmosphere, as well as social aspects and the flexible use of the versatile environment. In the age of increasing digitalization, work can be done around the globe. The physical location of the service provider will no longer play a role in the future. Working in international high potential teams that are brought together at an attractive location for a certain period of time creates a new kind of corporate identity, employee loyalty and higher efficiency. Exciting!
So we can definitely look forward to a greater variety of workplace concepts. The VIRTUARCH team is happy to contribute to this diversity.
Christian Sommer has been living and working in China for over 20 years. The lawyer and passionate table tennis player began his career in one of the first German law firms in Shanghai and then built up the German Centre Beijing before taking up his current position in 2005. In 2016 he opened the German Centre in Taicang, a subsidiary of the German Centre Shanghai, and the German Enterprise Centre in Qingdao. In 2016 he was appointed program ambassador for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s German Chancellor Fellowship for China. In 2017 he was awarded honorary citizenship of the city of Suzhou in Jiangsu Province. In 2021 Christian Sommer received the Magnolia Silver Award for an outstanding commitment from the city of Shanghai. He promotes the Sino-German cultural exchange as a bassist and founding member of the Shanghai rock band “Shang High Voltage” and as a co-organizer of Chinese-German table tennis tournaments.
Daniel Heusser studied architecture at the ETH Zurich and Southeast University in Nanjing; In 1994 he came to China to set up a JV for a Swiss architecture firm. Since 2003 he has managed the company VIRTUARCH with offices in Shanghai, Bangkok, and Zurich. With his team of around 80 employees, he has implemented over 200 office projects in China and Southeast Asia, including the German Center in Taicang, the Taicang Incubation Center for German SMEs in the German Center Shanghai, etc.
About the German Center Taicang
In June 2016, the world’s sixth German Center opened in Taicang on five floors with a total area of 8,500 m². Awarded the LEED Gold (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and DGNB Gold (German Sustainable Building Council) certificate, modern office space in a prime location is available to German, international and Chinese companies. The German Center Taicang is a subsidiary of the German Center Shanghai, which belongs to BayernLB. It is part of a global German Center network with additional locations in Shanghai, Beijing, Mexico, Singapore, and Moscow. The German Centers are supported by BayernLB and Landesbank Baden-Württemberg. They are supported by ministries at the federal and state level as well as associations and institutions such as DIHK, VDMA, and BDI.