Panelists at this year’s ULI Singapore Conference, held virtually for the first time, discussed the challenges they face as developers with recent workplace disruptions, how to allow for working remotely while catering to the needs of stakeholders, and the lasting impact the pandemic will have on commercial real estate as a whole.

Panelists told moderator Terence Seah, director and head of Benoy’s Singapore studio, that business continuity plans and a willingness to pivot swiftly had helped soften the impact of working from home during an uncertain time. They also see opportunities on the horizon and are optimistic about a recovery for the real estate sector in Singapore.

A recording of this conference is available on Knowledge Finder for ULI members.

Tang Wei Leng, managing director of Colliers International, said cloud-based information technology platforms enabled her and her staff to make a seamless transition to remote work. In fact, to her relief, 80 percent of her staff members reported they were happy to work from home.

“The biggest challenge for me was adapting my leadership style. I suddenly found myself isolated and initially wondered how to make decisions without my leadership team, without being able to huddle together,” Tang said.

“But then, I realized that we could easily get into a team call. They are actually ‘right beside’ me and I can rely on them for input, to gain consensus and make decisions.” Company culture and core values, such as collaboration and teamwork, are even more invaluable now, she said.

The pandemic has hit “fast and hard,” said Leong Teng Wui, chief development officer for hotel and residential developer Ascott Limited and head of projects and technical services for CapitaLand. However, the repurposing of accommodation products has helped mitigate the pandemic’s effects.

Repurposing has involved mobilizing and redeploying serviced residences to house key workers in essential services and travelers abiding by public health regulations, as well as adapting some apartment spaces to serve as day offices—complete with wi-fi, meal delivery, and free parking—for those unable to work from home.

“Also, importantly, we are building new valuable operational capabilities as we learn to meet these evolving needs in this crisis,” Leong said.

Ben Robinson, chief executive officer of Raffles Quay Asset Management, said preparation was a key to his firm’s ability to address the pandemic. Relying on business and operational continuity plans, Raffles Quay was able to address resource management as well as communication with tenants and the media.

Technology enabled Raffles Quay to take a more agile, paperless approach in maintaining operations and effectively delivering additional operational support, such as contact tracing, and security and cleaning protocols.

Apart from digitizing guest services and operating processes across its portfolio, Leong said his firm’s first co-living property, lyf Funan Singapore, also introduced an app-based “together but apart” menu of activities. Though guests and staff remain physically distanced, the app has allowed for comforting community engagement through virtual social interactions focused on activities such as cooking, dining, happy hours, and exercise.

Robinson called the situation presented by the pandemic “a really interesting test case of what is possible” in terms of businesses being forced to adapt to partially or entirely working from home and how it affects the way office space will be used in the future.

He believes it is possible that businesses will take this opportunity to review their premises and how they are used, keeping density and social distancing in mind in the short term. Focus now falls on core-flex office solutions because “allowing occupiers to scale up and down and manage their utilization needs immediately is critical,” Robinson said.

Leong agreed, presenting the scenario that many buildings, post-pandemic, may have to be repurposed—for instance, from underused office development into suitable service apartments. Tang predicted that a shift in central business district density and decentralization of operations will accelerate as more companies rationalize their real estate space.

“The purpose of the office is already changing,” she added. “It will become more alive and more interesting than ever. With remote working options, going into the office will be more purposeful. It will be a place for in-person connection and collaboration.”

Moderator Seah asked about the risks and opportunities in the midst of uncertainty as the office landscape evolves in the coming years.

Thanks to the newly proven capabilities to work, learn, or play via remote technologies, the blurring boundaries between the office and the home mean both are being reevaluated. As businesses rationalize their space needs, great opportunities exist for both occupiers and investors, Tang said. Developers, investors, and landlords may consider increasing offerings, including tech-based amenities, while reducing the square footage needed to deliver them.

She also advised them to remain on the lookout for assets and position themselves for recovery.

“I would say that the common theme here is that everyone needs to get ready for the upturn. It will come. History tells us that property is always one of the first markets to pick up, and you need to catch the wave at the right time,” Tang said. “We feel very strongly that there will be a significant rebound in the second half of [2020]. It is possible in Singapore, simply because of our government’s strong response to COVID-19.”