Part one of a podcast series on re-designing the meaning of home in Singapore
The following is a transcript of the first episode in our new podcast series, where members of the Agency team talk about the topics that are particularly meaningful to us. First up: Josh Yeo, who reflects on the experience of finding a new permanent home for the team at the tail end of the pandemic.
Please click here if you’d rather listen; otherwise, read on!
In January, Agency had a big announcement. We had launched our new visual identity and website. But, that was not all.
While other organisations were looking to downsize their offices, or do away with them altogether, we were looking for a space that would bring us together. That space had to support how we express our crafts, and enable us to work together better.
Along with our rebrand, we were also ready to tell the world that we had moved into a new office, a space that we could proudly call our home. The many co-working spaces we stopped at on the way to a permanent office make for an interesting story in itself — one that we may tell at another time. What we thought was more interesting was the human response within our team to having a place to call our own. Amidst the hustle and bustle of our busy days at work, there was a risk that our lived experience could fade from memory. We tend to focus on what needs to be done rather than what it feels like in the moment, after all.
In this podcast, we hear the stories of our colleagues: What impacted them about our move got us reflecting on what a sense of place changes in people. In our team’s case, it was the change from being nomadic, to having ownership.
When Agency was founded in 2016, we found ourselves sleeping on a foam mattress in someone’s storeroom — figuratively anyway! However, saying that we were nomadic paints a picture of makeshift shelters and bare essentials. That would have been fun, but we had actually been blessed with well-outfitted offices and in some cases, free-flow coffee and snacks. But we just didn’t own the spaces we were occupying.
And this slowly turned into a limitation. It was definitely not the easiest time for our growing team. I asked Dora what she remembers from our most recent move.
Josh: “What do you remember of the move?”
Dora: “Which move? We’ve had so many moves.”
Dora’s most memorable move was the time we moved into our last co-working space — our last office before our new permanent home:
“I remember you (Josh), me and Erick. We got into Erick’s car, and he drove us to the new office where we carried our stuff and laptops and we were finding rooms, because we were unsure which rooms were allocated to us. So we were just hanging around and observing other occupants and admiring the office there.” (Dora)
Dora then went on to share how she enjoyed the free flow of coffee, the cleanliness of the space and the state-of-the-art environment that we had gotten… that ultimately was not our own space.
“Even though we were in a co-working space and we had our own space and we had our own rooms, it did not feel like our space. It felt like we were staying there on borrowed time; it was like I have this space but people can see everything and there’s other startups there and the main person who owns the entire floor, they can see everything. We were sequestered into a very tight space.
If you want to compare how our place looks today to how our work areas looked like before, people weren’t really expressing themselves. Look at Char’s table with her books and Gracia’s porcelain cats and postcards. We have now customised it right.” (Darren)
The team’s behaviour began to shift once we had our permanent space. We had a flag that we wanted to plant, to conquer this space.
“And when we moved to the current place, it felt more permanent. There is a sense of permanence, because it is ours. Finally, the whole space belongs to us. It is kind of like we put a stake in the ground and said “this is ours”. We started decorating it with furniture and we brought our own trinkets, like I brought my table cloth. And we put our plants in it and aromatherapy stuff too. There is a sense of belonging as compared to the previous place that we worked in.” (Dora)
Now, as you enter the office, you are met with a long corridor to the right. If you look to your left you will find the pantry space, with a beautiful custom-made countertop. The team will occasionally bring the drinks of their choice to help stock it up.
As you continue along the corridor, the sunlight shines through the antique windows; a few young plants line the entryway on a bench, welcoming you into the space. At the end of the corridor, you will see a large custom-made neon sign that boldly reads “Make brave leaps, not blind ones”. That area will soon have a waiting area with plush couches and some memorabilia of our history.
As you turn into our main area, the semi-open plan office reveals itself. You will see a bookshelf with more plants on top keeping the balance of nature in our office. That could soon turn into a meeting space and a reading nook. So many things we could do with the space!
Looking to the right and looking past the area, is the work zone. You will see rows of desks in our semi-open plan office; each desk has a piece of ourselves on display.
Everyone has an individualised assertion that: THIS IS OUR SPACE. How we interacted with and within the space also reflected this. Our office lunches at the tall bar table, our encounters while getting coffee and water at the pantry, and our occasional Friday night happy hours.
Gracia had moved in a little later than the rest of the team, and she shares her experience of entering the space for the first time:
“When I came, you guys had already half moved in. It was already set up and it was already homey, so it felt great! It was nice because I was just departing from a very exhausting project, then I came here and I was like ‘aww it’s my friends’. It already felt quite lived in, there were plants, a guitar on the sofa; it felt very warm. We can make a lot more noise, it feels much more lived-in. Now we have silly Post-Its everywhere, I mean we did that too in the client space but it just hits differently.
In the client space, everything would have to go at the end of the project, so at the end of the project there would be this short grieving period where you take off the Post-Its from the wall, and you move cleanly out of the room. It’s like a ‘goodbye forever’. But over here our workspace, Post-Its are still here and no one has the heart to take them down. It just feels like it’s ours. It’s nice. I think it is a special feeling where you know everybody and enjoy everybody.” (Gracia)
The work we put in
However, that sense of ownership did not come easy. There was work that we had to put in. I have always loved shophouses; I remember imagining what I could do in a piece of our nation’s history. And luckily for us, we managed to secure a space that was located in one.
Our new office is right above a popular bakkwa chain. For those who don’t know what bakkwa is, it is a salty-sweet dried meat product of Chinese origin, similar to jerky, grilled over an open flame. When it is being grilled, a warm caramelised, meaty fragrance emerges.
In branding design, we have a way to quickly imagine the brand. We ask questions about what the brand looks like, feels like, sounds like, and smells like.
And Agency smelled smoked! Because of the bakkwa fumes from outside and downstairs, we were airing the place like crazy” (Suhuan)
Yes. For a while, agency smelled like bakkwa. I asked my colleagues how they would describe their first impressions of the office besides the smell.
“There was basically nothing in the room and it was super echoey. And there were wires hanging all over the place.” (Erick)
“What I thought about when we entered the new space? Man, the floor senget ah” (Senget in Malay means slanted or tilted) (Darren)
When we first entered the unit, the antique shophouse windows did not close fully, letting a waft of smokey fumes into our unit. Not only that, but the toilets needed work, a pantry space had to be built, and the walls needed a new coat of paint.
Despite the work that had to be done, and the interesting features of the place, we all had a willingness to chip in to make this space our own.
“It felt like we were moving into a place that we were going to own, there was a heightened excitement on the potential of the place. I enjoyed the imagination of how the rooms will turn out. Despite that, the level of excitement was not diminished. “ (Erick)
The possibilities seemed endless. In the grander scheme of things, we are a small petri dish that represents how ownership brings about hope in people, and engages people to do more for themselves and for each other. We see this in the way that we respond to the space: we customise it, we shift, we move with each other to make this space our own.
The reason why we were excited to move from a ready-to-use space with free-flow brand-name coffee and a well-stocked pantry, was this:
The team felt inspired by the possibilities. We all imagined what we could create together in this slanted, echoey, wire-dangly space. That far outweighed something that was already defined for us. We could make our own mark and carve our own space. Ownership symbolises growth. It excites, and allows imagination and creativity.
Our team’s experience of moving into our new space, and the joy and excitement we felt from having a shared, imperfect space of our own got us thinking about the idea of home in Singapore more broadly. Singapore is known for one of the best public housing systems in the world, but it’s not yet perfect. In the next few episodes, we’ll think about this, and share our thoughts.
More to come on our exploration of home on Resonant Expressions by Agency.