Singapore joins Wall Street in planning for return to office


Less-crowded trading floors, facial recognition systems and split work areas could all become routine for bankers in Singapore as the Southeast Asian financial hub readies for office life in a post-Covid world.

Financial institutions in the city should use more no-touch technology, allow more space for each employee and adopt split teams on trading floors once staff return after the pandemic, according to recommendations from a study commissioned by the city’s banking association and the Monetary Authority of Singapore that was published on Tuesday.

Lenders are also being encouraged to use hot-desking, motion detectors, temperature and face-mask detection screening and improved ventilation to avoid potential contamination, according to the report. Staff should be allowed to work from satellite offices or branches in addition to the main headquarters, it said.

Such measures “are imperative to strike a balance between workplace safety and minimizing disruption to business operations,” said the study, which was carried out by real estate consultancy Cushman & Wakefield Plc and some of Singapore’s biggest banks.

Cautious Approach

With more than 200 financial institutions operating in Singapore, the city is among global banking centers looking at how to get staff back to the office after they’ve spent more than a year juggling working from home and family life. The city-state has taken a cautious approach to returning staff to offices even as infection rates remain low.

“MAS encourages our financial institutions to consider the recommended strategies in the Playbook to enhance safety and resiliency in the workplace,” MAS deputy managing director Ong Chong Tee said in a statement. “This will be helpful to be well prepared for any situations in future that may require safe distancing and work-from-home arrangements.”

Wall Street has also been unveiling plans to bring more bankers back in the coming months. Hundreds of interns are set to work in JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s New York and London offices in the coming months. Citigroup Inc. will begin inviting more workers back in July, and expects 30% of its North America employees to return throughout the summer. By contrast, employees in Shanghai have been back in the office for months after the Chinese city was the world’s first major center to reopen last year after taming the virus.

The Singapore report also compares the city’s approach in managing the pandemic with other major financial hubs like Hong Kong, Shanghai, London, New York and Sydney. It found that the density of its offices is comparable to Sydney, with an average 80 to 120 square feet per seat. That’s more spacious than Hong Kong, where it’s 40 to 100 square feet.

Reshaping Hubs

How financial institutions adapt to a post-Covid world has the potential to reshape business districts in hubs around the world. Already some global banks have said that an embrace of more flexible working will allow them to significantly reduce their property footprint.

HSBC Holdings Plc is predicting a 40% reduction in its property footprint over the long term and Lloyds Banking Group Plc is projecting a 20% cut in office space by 2023. Others are less excited about the idea with David Solomon, chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. calling remote work “an aberration that we are going to correct as quickly as possible.”

In Singapore, DBS Group Holdings Ltd. is allowing all staff to work up to 40% of their time remotely and has started precautionary measures such as frequent air purging. United Overseas Bank Ltd. will allow about 65% of its 26,000-strong workforce to work remotely two days a week once Covid-19 restrictions are lifted. The bank has been accelerating its efforts to transform its workspaces such as moving away from assigned seating.

“Banks in Singapore have adapted their operations quickly over the past year to cope with the Covid-19 outbreak,” Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp. Chief Executive Officer Samuel Tsien said in the statement. “However, the longer term impact of the pandemic on social behaviors and workplace norms is not yet fully known and understood.”