A growing number of companies in Taiwan – local and international alike – are moving toward more flexible configurations in their office spaces.
The open or flexible office design is not a new concept in Taiwanese workplaces, but it has been catching on with rapid enthusiasm in recent years. Multinational corporations with a presence in Taiwan – particularly large tech companies – originally led the charge on renovating office spaces to fit changing work norms. But now more and more local firms and non-tech companies are realizing the importance of good office design to encouraging interaction and creativity among their employees.
“We need to look at changes in the way in which knowledge work is performed,” says Moira Moser, founder and chairman of the international design firm M Moser Associates. “Much of that is being driven by AI taking over the more mundane and repetitive kinds of work, so that more of our clients’ employees are being tasked with or asked to develop innovative ideas – and that takes a different kind of collaboration and involvement.”
According to Moser, the old style of work could mostly be performed in a single workplace with similar tasks done day in, day out. Now, however, office designs must accommodate what she and her colleagues call “adaptable work,” in which both employees and management must constantly react and adjust to different circumstances in the course of everyday work. This is not an issue limited to Taiwan, but as the island moves further towards a digitalized, knowledge work-based economy, it is a point of consideration for managers and business owners across all industries.
For major consumer goods corporation Proctor and Gamble, the decision to redesign its Taiwan office to a more transparent, flexible form came early. In 2006, following a renovation of the regional headquarters in Singapore, the Taiwan office was reoriented into a more flexible seating arrangement. During the first few years, the company used a system of employee lockers and trolleys but continued to experiment and tweak parts of the design until another complete overhaul was undertaken last year.
“The new design is more about helping facilitate socialization among our younger employees – those born between 1990 and 2000 – who make up more than 60% of the company,” says Barbara Liang, P&G’s director of communications for Hong Kong and Taiwan. “These employees tend to have a shorter attention span and want to maximize their productivity during those timeframes, so we designed the new office to allow them to pick and choose which team they want to work with for the day.”
Liang notes that one of the considerations for the latest redesign was to incorporate elements that Taiwan employees find attractive – for example, a childcare facility and massage room. The idea to include these elements was not simply based on management’s assumptions, she says, but rather was the result of a design thinking workshop that P&G Taiwan held before the blueprints were even drawn up. All staff members were asked to brainstorm ideas for aspects that would contribute to overall employee wellbeing.
“What we found actually surprised us,” says Liang. “For them, it wasn’t about fancy decorations, it was about having a natural, organic, green environment.”
Based on the employees’ suggestions, P&G decided to use recycled materials from its in-store displays to build the new meeting rooms, which also cut down on capital expenses for the new design.
Not every Taiwanese company is interested in collecting employee feedback and suggestions for their office redesigns, says Nancy Liu, workplace strategy director at M Moser Taipei, but those that do generally elicit positive reactions from their staff.
“When we poll employees on what they want from the new office, we’re seeing them say ‘I want my company to care about me. I need this design to support me,’” says Liu. “We don’t give them a simple solution at the beginning or say this design will solve everything. Rather, we’re always trying to understand what they want or need from the workplace, then delivering a space that can respond to those needs.”
From a design specialist’s perspective, getting that feedback can also make the job less complicated and more interesting, says Mao Wang, business development director at the Taiwan office of the design firm SL+A International Asia.
“This model actually generates more ideas,” Wang says. “Because we’ve been looking at office design through our narrow lens for so long, it’s always nice to hear from someone who is not in the industry, or from an interior design background, when they come up with new and different ideas.”
Communicating with employees beforehand also helps mitigate some of the tough challenges associated with redesigning an office. Liang says that employees were put in the position of “counselor” for P&G’s 2019 renovation, rather than making it a wholly top-down, management-led transition. When issues not originally foreseen arose post-installation, the company responded with corrective action.
Currently popular office designs also work to break down the rigid office hierarchies that are endemic to Taiwan’s traditional business culture. Whereas corporate real estate previously was designed to separate employees from management and encourage privacy, new offices situate everyone in the same type of space. Private offices for senior managers and opaque meeting rooms have given way to non-assigned seats, phone booths for one-on-one interactions, and fishbowl-style multipurpose spaces for larger meetings or brainstorming sessions.
Considering how structured the workplace culture in Taiwan can be, it might come as something of a shock to visit the Taiwan office of biopharma multinational Amgen on a typical workday. The visitor will find General Manager Joyce Lee seated together with several colleagues in a brightly lit room lined with adjustable work desks. She notes with pride that she doesn’t maintain her own office; like the other employees, she stores all of her work materials in a locker. As the company has gone virtually paperless, the amount of such materials is quite limited to start with.
In addition to the more conventional workspace area, the aesthetically pleasing, comfortably open office also contains areas with softer lighting, a semi-open meeting space adjacent to several large windows, a cafeteria section with hand-carved wooden tables, and a full kitchen. Dozens of meeting rooms of all sizes are available; some require team members to register electronically to use them, while others can be accessed freely.
One factor in the design’s success, according to Head of Human Resources Diana Chang and Head of Corporate Affairs Stephanie Chiu, is that Amgen Taiwan’s more transparent, less bureaucratic management style was already ingrained in the company’s culture when the current office was launched.
Experience has shown that newer entrants to the business community, especially those who have a progressive workplace culture and are not encumbered by historical baggage, are more likely to succeed with a non-hierarchical office plan. However, in a long-established local company without that type of culture, making such a sea change may very well encounter pushback, particularly from those in higher-level positions within the organization.
“Compensation is such an important part of the work that we do,” says John Sellery, group managing director at M Moser. “That enclosed office and that L-shaped desk were actually part of an employee’s compensation. It was part of their entitlement and their identity.” Taking that entitlement away can then alter an employee’s perception of themselves and their career.
Sellery emphasizes the importance of “change management” in ensuring a smooth transition to more open office designs.
“An organization may realize that they need to go from a 1990s orientation to a 2030s one overnight, or they’re going to be obsolete,” he says. “As designers, it’s not hard for us to come up with the physical solutions. The real challenge is how to help our client organizations make the transition, so that they can use that new solution effectively.”
Wang of SL+A agrees that change management is an integral part of the designer’s work, not just in assuaging the concerns of managers who will be losing their private offices, but also the employees who will have to adjust to working in the same spaces as their bosses.
“One of the major concerns from the clients is that they will have these nice social areas, but people will be afraid to use them during working hours,” Wang says. “So, we have to educate them that it’s okay to use those spaces. The reason we built them is because the way people work now is different.”
Making good use of the new space is a major target of the change management process. For JustCo, the Singaporean co-working company that opened a few locations in Taiwan last year, advising their enterprise clients on efficient, productive use of their customized offices is an essential part of the relationship.
“One of our clients had lots of private meeting rooms in their old office, so we did a very comprehensive analysis of their meeting room usage there,” says George Chen, head of JustCo Taiwan. “Our team found that usage was not 100%, so we then worked to convince the client that fewer meeting rooms at their JustCo office would be sufficient. We also designed the office with a lot of phone booths and common spaces and told them for those non-private meetings, they were free to come down and use the co-working space.”
This arrangement could save the company money, Chen explains, and enable it to hold casual meetings with vendors or clients more productively in the comfortable, café-style JustCo common areas.
The open office conversation
Despite the advantages of flexible or open office designs, recent studies have also shed light on their potential downsides. An article in the Harvard Business Review titled “The Truth about Open Offices” reported on a study of the effect of open office floorplans on collaboration within and between departments in an organization. The finding was that while such arrangements were intended to foster and encourage collaboration between employees, face-to-face interaction at these organizations actually fell by 70%.
The report cites the 17th century philosopher Jacques Diderot’s notion of the “fourth wall” – referring to the need for stage actors to put a mental barrier between themselves and the audience – to explain why employees were much less likely to interact with their colleagues in the new settings.
“People in open offices create a fourth wall, and their colleagues come to respect it,” the report said. “If someone is working intently, people don’t interrupt her. If someone starts a conversation and a colleague shoots him a look of annoyance, he won’t do it again. Especially in open spaces, fourth-wall norms spread quickly.”
The designers at M Moser acknowledge that merely creating an open office will not necessarily foster internal communications. The solution really has to be tailor-made to fit each company’s particular needs and corporate culture, says Moser.
For some companies, says Wang of SL+A, that means only some open areas and more “third places,” those spaces outside of the home and the workplace where certain types of work can best be performed.
In Taiwan, where the non-traditional office is still a relatively new concept for many of the island’s companies, the large investment needed for researching, modeling, and implementing a bespoke office design is hard for many clients to accept. Nevertheless, it seems to be a trend showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.