News Article

THE NEW NORMAL - Are pay-by-the-minute booths the future of work?

Posted 13th April 2021 • Written by BBC •

I don’t really like working from home.

Sure, there are advantages, but I find it isolating. I’m sick of sitting in my apartment. I prefer to interact with colleagues face-to-face.

I find the endless Zoom meetings draining. I’m tired of the lunch options nearby.

Also, construction noise is inescapable in Singapore, and I’m dreading the day when builders start tearing down the building across the street, or the neighbours start to renovate their kitchen.

In preparation for this, I tried out a new type of workspace. It’s a pay-by-the-minute desk in a booth at my nearest shopping centre.

The pods, which cost less than four Singapore dollars ($3; £2.15) per hour, have been created by a Singaporean company called Switch.

They follow similar booths that have been around for a few years in Japan, where a handful of companies like Telecube and Cocodesk have placed them in metro stations, hotel lobbies and convenience stores.

However, Switch's main competition in Singapore appears to be Starbucks, or any other coffee shop with free wi-fi.

The booth is a reasonable work space, if a little utilitarian, and very compact. The wi-fi works, and so does the fan. The chair is okay, but unremarkable. The overhead light isn’t overpowering. The grey and white colour scheme isn’t very exciting, but nor is it distracting.

But the main selling point for me is that it's not my living room. Switch's founder Dominic Penaloza agrees.

“I certainly would agree with the notion that part of the value proposition [of the booths] is that psychological separation that is created by a physical separation between work and home,” he says.

Then again, if I’m sick of my apartment, leaving it is also a hassle. Getting to the booth required a short train journey - and walking half way around a shopping centre in the tropical heat to find an entrance that opened before 10am.

Then I had to check in using a contact tracing app at the centre's entrance, and then at the booth itself, using both the Switch app and the contact tracing app. And once in the booth, wearing a mask was still compulsory.

These are not big problems, but they all require more effort than just walking from my bedroom to my living room.

Switch has now opened more than 60 of its booths in Singapore. They are in addition to its 3,500 hireable desks in shared co-working offices that are the more typical way of hiring somewhere to work.

Switch aims to place many more booths across the city-state. And overseas expansion is on the horizon too.

Mr Penaloza says its on-demand flexibility "means you pay only for what you use, and you can use them where and when you need it".

While he thinks the firm's booths would have existed without Covid-19, the pandemic made the business case for them more obvious.

Recent surveys from around the world suggest that a majority of employers will permanently adopt a hybrid working model when the pandemic finally ends - staff will be able to continue to work from home part of the time.

However, home working has raised new questions about who pays for what. For example, if employees work from a kitchen table or study, should their employers pay for their internet connection or their ergonomic chairs?

Switch thinks its booths may offer a solution, and some of its corporate clients already allow their employees to charge the cost of a booth to the company.

Remote working expert Prithwiraj Choudhury says Switch's booths take the concept to "the next level".

An associate professor at Harvard Business School, he says remote working had already been growing in popularity before the pandemic.

He gives the example of Tulsa Remote, which started in 2018 and aims to rejuvenate the Oklahoma city by offering remote workers grants of up to $10,000 to move there.

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