“I had quite the meandering path from doing architecture to getting to this point.” Jaelle Ang admits when asked about her career journey. While formally trained as an architect, the founder and CEO of The Great Room has worked for banks, real estate companies, and hotel chains early on in her career.
Ang was inspired by the way hotel brands were able to transform local landscapes with their brand expertise, marketing, and design. This made her wonder: What is the equivalent of a hotel management group or operator in the workspace industry?
She realized that despite the long periods of time people spend in their offices, the typical office environment can often be uninspiring and sterile. Intrigued by the possibility of building an amenity-filled workplace that people would aspire to work in, Ang founded The Great Room in 2016.
Five years later, the Singapore-based company now operates seven branches in Singapore, Bangkok, and Hong Kong. Their newest location, in Singapore’s Afro-Asia office building, is set to open in October 2021. Oasis sat down with Ang to learn about The Great Room’s design philosophy for its workspaces, the concept and challenges behind the construction of Afro-Asia, and the way she has navigated the pandemic’s effects.
This interview has been edited and consolidated for clarity and brevity.
Oasis (OS): Now that health-related workplace requirements are becoming the norm, what is The Great Room doing to adapt to new social distancing rules?
Jaelle Ang (JA): As everyone has had to abide by the rules in the short term, we’re making things a little bit more tongue-in-cheek and fun in terms of communicating the requirements, while maintaining rigorous standards of health and safety by stepping up in housekeeping and cleanliness. We try to keep things as they were before but in a much more robust, rigorous, or creative way to sustain a sense of community.
The pandemic brings us new opportunities to design even better workspaces. We value activity-based working, which is about meeting in a social space where you can make important business deals and major career decisions, or to learn and have fun with others. We are redoubling our focus on these functions while maintaining social distancing because we believe that people don’t make the effort to travel here just to sit in front of their computers.
OS: How have the different cultural influences in the cities The Great Room is located in shaped the designs for each workspace?
JA: I would say 80% of their designs share similarities with one another.
That’s mainly because we have design guidelines for things that are hard to get right. We have developed a prototype of the sliding doors, work desks, and chairs to achieve a certain level of efficiency.
As for the layout plan and adjacency of spaces, they are influenced by cultural differences. For example, the formality of workspaces in Hong Kong is somewhat more pronounced than in Bangkok, which results in different selections of materials and furniture. And unlike most people in Singapore, who tend to go out for lunch on weekdays, people in Thailand normally have their lunch in the office because of the frequent traffic jams, which means their office pantries are usually a lot more communal and social. Each city’s culture also determines whether we create meeting spaces specifically for senior staff. Space is always a reflection of cultural preferences.
OS: How are you incorporating sustainability into your designs?
JA: In terms of materials, we want to achieve a significant improvement in sustainability by using many more recycled and upcycled materials than before. In partnership with Joyce Wang, we are making more conscious choices and investing in local crafts to reduce our carbon footprint.
We’re also seeking out local artisans to work with them. This is not an easy task since the overall production output in Singapore is somewhat modest. At the same time, there are opportunities to learn, and I have discovered a number of useful facts during the process. For example, Singapore actually has its own mahogany lumber supply. I have also learned that mahogany grows twice as fast in tropical climates, such as that of Singapore, as it does in temperate regions.
Another area we’re looking at is lighting. The building’s systems allow us to prioritize energy reduction and usage from air conditioning to lighting. The challenge is that most people in this part of the world have little experience with this technology at the moment, which is why we had to bring in DJCoalition as our lighting specialist. Meanwhile, it has also united us in achieving our long-term goal of reducing office energy usage. We are confident that we can effectively reduce our energy use per member in the next five years, one location at a time, while constantly learning from the experience.
OS: What are the new design ideas that have been incorporated into The Great Room’s newest location to improve the well-being of your members?
JA: We have embodied the metaphor of a treetop sanctuary at Afro-Asia. When you look outside of the premises, you can see right above the treetop, which I think is rather precious. As it is located in the central business district, we decided to make it a unique place where our members can be nourished by nature and feel relaxed.
We are heavily inspired by the concept of biophilia—the idea that we humans are innately attracted to nature as it has a special way of making us feel better. For us, it’s not just about placing indoor plants all over the place, but a holistic approach of bringing in outdoor materials and simulating elements of nature through metaphorical installation and design. For example, we have an installation called “Cloud,” which is designed to make people feel better in a subtle manner.
In addition, lighting has always been a big part of The Great Room. We don’t like the feeling of walking into an office with blinding fluorescent lights because it makes everyone look gray. The light in The Great Room feels nicer, warmer, and fuzzier. We have worked hard to let lots of daylight come in, while maintaining a balance between warm lighting and stark lighting by allowing the intensity of light to change throughout the day. With this approach in lighting, your body will have a better rhythm to thrive, allowing you to both stay productive and feel relaxed.