Knowledge & Insights

INTERVIEW SERIES: Conversations With VOOU + Stephen Lyon of M Moser Associates

Stephen Lyon is the Regional Director of Asia at M Moser Associates, a global workplace design company.

I met Stephen several years ago during my time at Haworth in Singapore. Both of us are expats, (Stephen from the UK and me from the US) and knowledgeable in and around the world of workplace design, so I was very excited to speak with Stephen to see what was happening in Singapore (my former home of nearly 8 years) and get his perspective on what was going on in the world, the industry, and the industries of some of their clients.

We also spoke of culture - the differences that exist and how they affect the process of managing and doing business. Managing is tricky in itself. Managing internationally forces us to operate on various premises, from individual culture, the cultures they are working in, (and there are many just in Singapore, let alone the region) and the organizational culture of the company you are working for. Stephen shares a story on that - admittedly, a common mistake in Asia, and one that, unfortunately, I have made as well. But we learned! Enjoy!

Kelly: What three business trends do you believe COVID-19 accelerated in 2020 and beyond?

Stephen: This - video conferencing, it's become the norm - even for banks, which had no external access for people because of all their rules and regulations. Video conferencing clearly accelerated the notion that you could still continue and work from anywhere. When business travel resumes, I suspect that the day-to-day reasons to travel will change. As we have seen, commuting can be avoided completely, benefiting your time, pocket, and the environment. However, building strong relationships and getting to know people is still better done in person. I think that will be the reason to travel.

Another thing that's come out of all of this is choice. Employers have had to become a bit more flexible. In Singapore, at the moment, we are not back to normal.

The government's instructions to us are to work from home, and for many, it will continue that way even after the pandemic ends. As such, leaders have been forced to work out ways to mentorship, coach, and train their people and enable the ability to build networks. It's harder to do when not in person, and I think we are still trying to figure this out. Technology helps, but I think it's still in the infancy stage, which is why many people will likely go back to work in the office ultimately once able to, but there will still be a choice. (since we chatted, the government went back a stage to heightened alert 2, I think since we had to WFH).

Kelly: What type of trends do you see that your clients are experiencing?

Stephen: It depends on the sector that you're looking at. Finance, for example, appears to be taking the opportunity to drastically reduce real estate - some clients / organizations in Singapore are potentially reducing up to around 50%.

Within pharmaceuticals, I've experienced a few clients looking to reduce space, but that's more to do with the shape of their business than necessarily trying to save costs. In the IT sector, they seem to have stopped increasing space, but they're not getting rid of any. In a couple of companies that I'm talking to, we're looking at systems to support them to occupy at greater density than current legislation would allow them. A feasibility study around 1200mm social distancing showed that the density was reduced by something like 50%, which is massive if you're talking about millions of square meters of office. It means they're under providing by 50% so they can do one or two things - they can improve their mechanical systems to make the air purer and cleaner, and they can obviously keep a remote policy, so they can you know they don't have to increase their real estate. A blended solution is the likely outcome.

Last year there was a lot of talk about the "end of the office." Or that companies will be cutting the office by 50, 60, or 70%. But I kind of took the approach of wait and see, thinking that people might get fatigued by sitting at home with their families on the couch. In Singapore, as in many countries, especially in Asia, you've got multi-generational households that are quite small. It's not actually conducive to home working. Nor are kids and dogs, etc. They're great but also very distracting.

Kelly: How has the retail and restaurant sector been affected in Singapore?

Stephen: We do not do work in the retail sector, but upon observation, it's struggled. Singapore has basically three types of retail – high, middle, and low, and you can see a lot of closures, but I think Singapore has got too much shopping anyway. The very high-end probably hasn't been affected. Then you've got the sort of middle ground, which is where you buy your T-shirts, etc., and where the prices are fairly sensible. I think that they and the specialty type shops seem to be disappearing.

I suspect a lot of consolidation and a change of use for some of the retail malls that are failing. There is so much competition in Singapore for retailers, which makes it hard for shops or malls to get enough footfall.

As for the restaurant industry, for the time being, all the restaurants are only allowed tables of two and no groups across multiple tables. They were allowed to reopen the first week in June 2020 and enjoyed strong demand until the recent restrictions. This was undoubtedly hard for most and current directives probably make opening uneconomic. (did the government provide support? Did many close permanently? How did the ones that survived do so? I believe there were rent holidays and probably some government support, but the main businesses had to adapt and get through on their own). With so many people now unable to travel, once reopened, the restaurants were packed and likely will be again after restrictions are reduced. That's where everyone's money was going – money that would have been spent in other countries perhaps, has been staying in Singapore. But there are, of course, no tourists.

As for travel, I don't think airline passenger numbers will get back to where they were. I think we'll all think twice about hopping on a plane. I used to have to jump on a plane like it's a bus. I won't do that again.

Kelly: Along these same lines, what have you seen, or what do you think are other opportunities that have come out of the pandemic in your region or industry?

Stephen: In my sector, I think the opportunity is to operate in a different way. It's funny, I wrote in my dissertation in 1996. It was something along the lines of, I can see the day where you go to the office to socialize and stay at home to work. I think, if anything, this pandemic has reinforced that. I think the opportunity will be for organizations to create a more fun environment and attract people to come in to collaborate but not necessarily to do focus work.

I think co-working started that. I don't think the math worked as well as it possibly could. Unless you had enough patrons paying for boxes they call their own office, the economics didn't really appear to work.

I think there is a lot of opportunities, as there always is, in IT. For example, suppose I want to do a virtual workshop with an organization. In that case, it's pretty hard because we typically run a workshop using physical elements - cards that you pick up and things you write on whiteboards. So I think they'll be pieces of software to support that better in the virtual environment going forward. I think what's out there at the moment is a bit clunky.

Kelly: There is also the whole psychology behind touch and feel, etc., that I don't know can be replaced.

Kelly: Which three adjectives would best describe 2020, and what would you like them to be going forward? Or what came out of all of this for you?

Stephen: 2020 = Brutal/extreme/enforced change. 2021 = Efficient/productive/non-productive staff. Flexible offices. 2020 was a period of reflection and connection, oddly.

For example, during the lockdown, my friends and I (a group of about 35 or so) created this lunch club where we would virtually gather every Friday for lunch. We'd organize the same wine and food from one supplier to be delivered to everybody's house.

And it would often be accompanied by a video of how to set it out, how to plate it, how to warm it up, etc. And then we would sit in front of our screens on a zoom call and eat and chat, we'd go into breakout rooms, etc. It was really good. Though isolated in a sense due to lockdown, it was a period of building new friendships and forming deeper connections - everybody was experiencing something unfamiliar to them as a result of the pandemic – a shared experience, so to speak. It also meant that we had to work harder to create and maintain bonds – a lasting connection.

Kelly: Did you do that with clients as well?

Stephen: I did, yes. For example, there was one client who was stuck on his own, so I organized some wine and some cold cuts to be sent to his house, and then we all got on a zoom call.

I'd also say it was a time of re-evaluation – deciding what's truly important. It's been a pretty devastating time for so many. In Singapore, we still don't have our liberty back. It's split up families, relationships, and what is worse, it has been deadly and debilitating – physically for some and mentally for many. So, I think 2021 and beyond will be a time of rebuilding that sort of mental stoicism or strength and a rekindling in family relationships, etc.

Kelly: You moved to Asia several years ago from the UK. Since you have lived abroad for many years now, what has that experience taught you most about yourself and about the world?

Stephen: I think traveling in general teaches humility. It's not very easy to get into the local community unless you make an effort. It's taken 12 years for me to do that. I think the important thing is that the levels of human communication are open and that you can learn from each other.

If you think you're always the one that knows best, then you probably won't survive somewhere like here for very long.

I think you've got to be pretty sensitive to other points of view and how others think if you're going to be global.

Kelly: Can you identify one "mistake" that you've made managing abroad?

Stephen: I can remember the day and exactly where I was sitting. It was all to do with "face," a concept I really didn't understand at the time.

So, I was in the boardroom, and I asked one of my female colleagues, in front of everyone else, to provide some information that she didn't have at her fingertips. I pushed her to find the data, though clearly she didn't want to do it, and I kind of forced her hand, causing her to lose face in front of all her colleagues. She left the company very quickly after that. Though that might not seem like a big deal to many, in this part of the world, and at the time, my complete lack of cultural awareness, it was. That was one of my biggest cultural mistakes made early on because it had such drastic consequences. I've probably made the same mistake since, but I'm probably more aware of it than it was at that time.

In Singapore, Asia, really, if you're upset with someone, which happens, you don't express those feelings or emotions in front of other people. It's important to maintain dignity. I think if you can speak the language, that not only makes life a lot easier – it helps to understand the culture and how to navigate it.

Kelly: On that note, what advice would you give an eager ambitious graduate preparing to enter and navigate the real world? And what advice should they ignore?

Stephen: What I see with youngsters entering the workplace is that they are obviously very well educated, IT literate, very well connected in social media, etc., but they've kind of developed all those skills without developing their interpersonal skills and their ability to really interact with others physically. Presentation skills are sadly lacking, which probably won't improve if we consistently work outside of a collaborative environment. As for advice on what to prepare for the real