Connection, trust and safety: co-working and COVID-19

At the heart of any co-working environment is the idea that it can do much more than provide a hotspot and a hot coffee.

The best ones ask: Can we build a great like-minded community?

In the COVID-19 context, thriving co-working spaces are finding ways in which the design of their spaces can help people connect – and reconnect. And they’re working out how to go a step further to make these connections high value, all the while supporting people’s wellbeing and overall feeling of safety.

You need a place where you can say Oh my gosh! That’s so good!’ You need that energy.”

Industry trailblazer, CEO and Founder of The Great Room Jaelle Ang, calls it the quest for a modern agora’, which enables people to adapt to the fast-changing world we live in. 

If we need to move at a fast pace, we need to be in a learning environment,” she observes. And the office needs to allow you to do that.”

Host and Senior Design Strategist Pamela Jouwena joined Jaelle Ang at The Great Room Raffles Arcade for a conversation exploring the evolution of co-working to meaningfully connect the virtual and physical experiences – and how they’ve gone beyond simply providing flexibility to being places of resilience that people can trust, at a time when it’s needed the most.

In the future, it won’t be called co-working’ - it will just be working,’ Jaelle adds. This will be the way we work.” 

Listen to the podcast via the player below. You can find Hassell Talks on Apple, Spotify or on your favourite podcast app. 


Season 2, Episode 2


Pamela Jouwena, Senior Design Strategist


Jaelle Ang, CEO and Founder, The Great Room


EK Yap

Feeling like this is a community that I want to be in’…is a big component in chasing away that loneliness that (people) feel. So we also want to maintain that because it’s more important than ever.”

Jaelle Ang

Pamela Jouwena:

I remember coming here to the Great Room centennial early in 2020, pre COVID. Wondering in off the street, you will say this workspace feels more like a hotel lounge than a co-working space. The café and lounge were buzzing. It was full of people sharing ideas and innovating. The smell of coffee as soon as you arrive with the view of the Singapore Flyer and the water is just so energising. Then COVID-19 hit and we all had to hit the pause button. But then fast forward one year later, I came here again for a workshop with our client and it amazed me how the buzz and energy felt the same despite the additional measures, like the safe distancing and mask wearing. That moment really brought home to me the strength of the community and people’s hunger to be together again.

My name is Pam Jouwena and I’m joining you from a recording studio and a co-working space in Singapore. Here with me today is Jaelle Ang, owner and founder of the Great Room. Thank you again, Jaelle for joining us.

Jaelle Ang:

Oh, first Pam, it’s such a pleasure to be kind of doing this in person. We take it for granted, but it feels so nice and so warm, so thank you for this opportunity.

Pamela Jouwena:

Will you explain a little bit more about the Great Room?

Jaelle Ang:

It takes me back to the first time, all bright eye and slightly naïve, when we came with a brief and we were designing, we wanted to change the world, we wanted to solve problems of how people feel so jaded going to work. We came to Hassell and the brief at the time and what we were solving for was … it was excitement. We were solving for building. Can we have a space that builds a great community, a like-minded community? I believe great design draws a like-minded community. We were also solving for that casual collision, that excitement of wanting to be with other people. In the whole last five years of the journey, the evolution of this journey, I think at each stage we start solving for different things.

When COVID struck, when the pandemic happened, we realised the big and the important thing to solve for was for safety. It’s speaking to the experts, putting in the protocols, whether it’s social distancing, capacity, sanitization, cleaning the spaces. We wanted people to feel that the space was safe enough for them to come back. Then we realised the next evolution or the next step up is solving for trust. How can we build this trust? Trust may not be a reality of the safety, but it’s a perception. We need to trust environment operator, the space that you are in, the teams that you work with. As Singapore slowly starts opening up and to some extent in different ways, different speeds, Hong Kong and Bangkok, the next thing we’re very excited to solve for, it’s connection. I think one of the biggest challenge that we have is people are lonely, so as we open up and people are seeking this connection or reconnection as they slowly come back into the office, we want a trustworthy environment.

We want to collaborate safely, but we also want to be connected with the people, whether new or old again. I think the role of that office or the co-working space has changed because of that and it has been changing. To me, the office now needs to be a real space of high value interactions, of collaborations, things that is so difficult to do in Zoom because you can’t jump up with excitement and be really excited and have that resonance when you hit a great idea. It’s more of a take turns to talk kind of platform. Whereas when you’re in the room, you could stand up, you could jump, you could high-five, you could all say, Oh my gosh, that’s so good,” and you need that kind of energy to do that wonderful, great collaboration.

Then the second role of the office, it needs to be that modern agora, a space of learning, a gathering of great ideas because things are changing even faster, pivoting even faster. If we need to move at this pace, then we all need to be in a learning environment and be learning [inaudible 00:04:35] together with our peers to solve the next big problem. The office needs to be able to allow you to do that.

Pamela Jouwena:

I totally agree with that because coming here, … and I hope … because people listening will maybe coming outside Singapore, outside Asia, and I think a lot of things can be also learned from how the Great Room has come up with a great return and how people actually come back to this vibrancy and collaborating again. Actually today when we come in, you can see people actually next door to this meeting room having conversation, having a live meeting, which is completely different from what we have with the past Zoom fatigue for the past … almost a year now actually. Now that we are back, what do you see the change of that spatial mix in coworking spaces in the future? What do you think the changes will be?

Jaelle Ang:

That’s a great question and I think in a way we are also solving it with the communities, solving it with designers like yourself and also talking to our members. I think for one, when we started, we’ve always felt it was a great investment for ourselves and for our members to invest a lot more in the shared spaces, the meeting rooms, the conservatory, the pantry, the bar, the café, all these spaces that is not just bums on seats behind computers. But when people come in you see them getting into meeting rooms or trainings or presentations much more. So for our future locations, the next one that we’re working on right now as well, we’re investing more in getting these spaces right. I think there’s also a shift in thinking. We used to think in space mix or a room mix and I’m trying to think in terms of not just designing a space but designing an experience or an interaction or a feeling. I think that could change the way that we think about it.

Pamela Jouwena:

I think that’s very relevant to what we are doing today as well because we’re focusing more and more about the experience, the user journey. What do we want them to feel like when they come? I think going back to that idea of your members first approach. I actually read this news about your hybrid membership, how did it came about and was it because of this COVID learning or is it because more of what you’ve seen of the evolution of what the members are asking for?

Jaelle Ang:

I think we’ve always seen ourselves as a partner in growth, in productivity and in a company’s journey, in our members’ journey, rather than just offering a space that they occupy. If we are a partner in that journey, then it’s about providing all the different aspects that allow them to focus on their core business. The work environment that we’ve realised, it’s firstly … it can be decentralised, it can be remote, it can be offline and online. I think a lot more can be done and a lot more that we can improve on. But the fact is we’ve started to think about how can we give them a more seamless journey from when they’re out of the physical Great Room and when they in the physical Great Room here in Singapore, the various locations, or Hong Kong and Bangkok. So that hybrid is really marrying their virtual environment and background and the kind of productivity infrastructure that they need and what we have physically.

It sounds like a very big statement to make and I think we are only making kind of small steps towards merging both worlds, and even in the way that we conduct things that’s very important to us, like the fireside chats and all our thought leadership type of events, we’ve just been really experimenting, going completely virtual, completely physical, physical, virtual. How can we do that? The interesting thing, the learning that we’ve got is digital is extremely exciting. It allows us a very huge reach. Something that’s happening in Singapore now can reach Bangkok, Hong Kong, and a very large community. That we find very exciting and the speakers that we can get becomes pretty regional, if not global.

However, what we’ve also learned, it’s the constraints of digital. We now realise it’s so hard to get that chemistry vibe, that laughter that you get in the physical world. We know we miss that and we know that that’s an important component of feeling like this is the community that I want to be in and it’s a big component in chasing away that loneliness that you feel. We also want to maintain that because it’s more important than ever.

Pamela Jouwena:

What do you think is fundamentally at odds now between co-working today and post the COVID-19 world, especially after we maybe six months down the road from now and we see that we can start going out again, travel again?

Jaelle Ang:

What is at odds? Interesting question. If you look at the macro contacts, flexible working, co-working, whatever that we call it, the flavour of the day, it’s really only at about 2%, 3% of total commercial real estate. It’s very low and pre pandemic the prediction was it was going to be at 30% by 2030, so we’re going to grow 10 times and the next 10 years. With the pandemic, with a lot of geopolitical uncertainty, shorter business cycles, so many things in flux and businesses need to make decisions about their headcount, their real estate, how they want to work, where they want to work, it’s pretty unfair to imagine that they have to make decisions for three years, if not five years. They really want to be making decisions for six months, for 12 months or 18 months. Much shorter business cycles.

In other words, everything in the background is actually accelerating this growth. It’s not even going to be 10 times, it’s going to be much faster. Now that we can work flexibly in a great space, would we go back to a traditional real estate? Some would, but a lot may not and within, there are a lot of very traditional companies that used to think that, I cannot do it because it does not represent my identity or my brand,” or, What will my employees think?” Overnight, a lot of needs are debunked and the willingness to try and the willingness to be in this space because the benefits far outweigh the worries. What we must be very cognizant is it’s not enough just to be flexible. People want so much more from their workspace, co-working space.

Flexible offices cannot just be providing flexibility. We need to be thinking, when I talked about, we need to be thinking about trust, about community, creating the connections, wellness, that resilience that people would need now. How can we be a partner in creating all these things to help companies win the war for talent? Because ultimately it’s about how do I get the most out of this group of wonderful people that I have?

Pamela Jouwena:

There’s actually a very, very big opportunity, a huge potential there, and what is at odds? It sounds that it’s more how do we attract back these people coming out from their homes, especially with all the facts going out that nowadays people want to work two, three days from home and be more flexible, be out and about everywhere.

Jaelle Ang:

You totally hit the nail on the head. Totally. The last 60 days, the companies that have been talking to us are all about that. I want my people back at work, I want them working in teams again. How do I do that?” I think they’re trying different things and we’re working with them. It’s allowing some flexibility but also kind of building that trust in the environment, for the physical environment, for them to want to come back to work and a reason to come back to work. Sometimes it’s really the small things and the small experiences they miss. You mentioned just now when you come back, there is a certain energy and buzz that is rather infectious. There is the smell of coffee, there’s the water cooler chat that you have with that familiar person. You may not know the face or the name, but you kind of see them often and make that connection and people are craving for that. It’s the little things that kind of bring you back to.

Pamela Jouwena:

I totally agree with that and I think one last thing to close up this very, very nice conversation, and thank you again, Jaelle, for your time, how do we up the game after this? What’s next? Because I feel like we’ve tried all the different things and all the different approach to entice people coming back out. What is next with people becoming more flexible and fluid, the mindset has changed, they’re more open now. Is it digitalization?

Jaelle Ang:

I don’t think there’s a silver bullet, but I think what’s next, that is what makes our work interesting, Pam. We are going to create the next and we are going to co-create the next, and it’s also the users of the space. I think in the end it’s a flywheel. I think we have to trust the natural human, primitive instinct to want to connect with other people as soon as there’s an opportunity. Because we see that when Hong Kong first open, people want to be back. I think we need to up the game and make sure that we keep up building this trust and create this flywheel of trust, of connection, of community, of delightful experiences, of the satisfaction when you get when you’re in a room, you get an adrenaline of great ideas resonating with your team members, and this keeps going. I think there will be that momentum to kind of create that. I can see it. I’m very optimistic.

Pamela Jouwena:

Oh, thank you so much. I’m very optimistic after listening from you as well, and thank you again for this conversation and thank you for your time. I’m Pamela Jouwena for Hassell Talks. Do listen to our other talks in the future.


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