by Bryan Wiens
Like most design professionals that specialize in workplace design, I’ve been carefully following all the various articles and opinions about what the office will look like in a post COVID world. Speculation is rampant, with a lot of the larger international architectural and design firms publishing articles and jockeying for position – I believe the business world is calling this pivoting. It’s a smart move – there’s an opportunity here, but what exactly is it? Speculation abounds. We’re hearing about workstations getting larger, with higher panels (a return to the way offices used to be). We’re hearing about all of the various add-on products on offer from furniture manufacturers, to help create new barriers to shield open office neighbours from each other. We’re seeing flooring manufacturers proposing carpet inserts based on a 2-metre separation, particularly down corridors that will now become one-way. Lots of speculation, and for good reason. In Ontario this week, some businesses are being permitted to re-open, along with Quebec and some other Provinces. More will follow in the weeks to come.
So, with the re-opening of the economy, many questions are being asked about what it will be like to return to the office. I think it’s important to consider the office environment in two categories: pre-vaccine and post-vaccine. The pre-vaccine world will be one that consists primarily of new protocols. Without a vaccine, and with the ongoing research into how this virus spreads, how immunity does or doesn’t work, and other factors, things will remain fluid. It seems like we learn something new everyday. We will have to continue to adapt our behaviours to incorporate suggested distancing measures. For office space in the pre-vaccine world, the impact will most likely be protocol related. There is a lot of information floating around about what this will entail. Most of it relates to slowly bringing people back to offices and sparsely populating spaces, with thoughts about structuring time, almost like shift work. There are also thoughts about one-way corridors, like grocery store aisles are right now. The list goes on and on. All this needs to be considered, and like other design firms, we are starting to help clients strategize their seating arrangements in cost-effective ways.
I am actually much more interested in the post-vaccine world and how new behaviours and protocols will be carried into the future. Again, speculation is rampant. There are some things that are quite certain, though. What we have learned about ourselves and how we have been able to work, or in some cases not work, are the lessons we should focus on, as they relate to the workplace.
Most of us have been forced to work from home, some of us for the first time. This situation reminds me of what happened to a friend of mine who works for MD Management here in Ottawa. When their headquarters building had a fire several years ago, they were forced to work remotely – literally overnight. They were successful in adapting and realized through the experience that not everyone needed to be housed at their headquarters. This impacted the design and how space was used. (Kudos to our friends at 4te on their wonderful design.) Employees were given the option to relinquish a permanent space if the chose to continue to work from home. This has worked out well for them and they were able to release leased space outside of their headquarters. The COVID world we’re living in resembles this experience.
We anticipate many of our clients investing in mobile technology and an infrastructure that will facilitate remote work. Some were already there and were able to shift to working from home very easily. Others had a more difficult time adapting their tech and had to come up with quick solutions. No doubt, most companies will be taking a close look at their technology to ensure it is mobile, to allow for more agility in the future. We all have an expectation that there could be future pandemics that we’ll have to address, and we want to be prepared. Mobile technology will be a key factor and will not only impact the ability to work remotely but will be a major factor influencing workplace design.
I’ll be the first to admit that I had never used Zoom or Teams before this pandemic hit. We are a small interior design firm, and most of our clients are local. We meet face to face. We build relationships with each other, our clients, and our colleagues in various sectors of our field. It typically takes less than 30 minutes to get anywhere in Ottawa, so face to face meetings are the norm. I suspect this will change. I’m finding myself with plenty of time to get everything done in a work week, now that I’m working from home. Even with the short distances we must travel to get around Ottawa, on a typical week I probably spend upwards of 6 hours or more travelling to see clients. That time is now mine.
I also have no problem admitting that I’m mostly an extrovert. Under the current circumstances, I miss my co-workers more than almost anyone. They make up a large part of my social life – we work together closely and rely on each other to not only get our work done, but for general moral and emotional support. I think most workplaces are like this. We are a family. I can’t wait to be with them again at the office. A lot of our work is improved by organic interactions that occur throughout the day – they are not scheduled Zoom meetings. Then there is the question of ongoing learning that happens when people are in close physical proximity to each other. This gets lost when we’re not together.
While I’ve heard speculation that COVID could result in the demise of the office, I suspect it will be an evolution, not an extinction. We’re social creatures, and we need to physically come together at some point.
So what will this evolution look like? I believe there will be many that will continue to work from home, at least on a part time basis, resulting in opportunities to repurpose space in creative ways, to support activities that will occur when people need to come together. Now that we know that we can get our work done in a non-traditional office setting, the case for an agile, activity-based environment will be stronger. Giving people control over where they work and how they position themselves in relation to other team members will make a lot of sense. Proxemics, the branch of knowledge that deals with the amount of space that people feel it is necessary to set between themselves and others, will change in North America – our personal bubbles are going to be larger, for a long time.
I think it’s a safe bet that our concern for personal health and safety will be permanently impacted by what we’ve experienced over the past months. Even after things get back to “normal”, the world will have changed permanently. We used to take for granted the safety of human interactions (handshakes anyone?), but that has changed. We’re concerned about everything we touch. How will this impact the built environment? We will certainly see more touch-less technology and building automation. We’re already used to touch-less bathroom fixtures in commercial environments. What about doors and card readers? There is a very strong case for the integration of AI into the built environment – this will include lighting, HVAC, and other systems. We will also see permanent changes to building infrastructure to give people control over the cleanliness of the spaces they use, but above and beyond this, interior designers will see an emphasis on the materials that are specified. How easy are surfaces to clean and maintain? Do they have antimicrobial properties?
The Ongoing Importance of Design
What else? Time will tell. There is one thing that is certain, though. Design is for people. Design enables us to provide functional, beautiful solutions to meet the needs of the user. We believe great there is a moral or ethical component to design, and that design can help to enrich our lives. Good design can improve the world, and bad design can, presumably harm it. Something to keep in mind as we move towards working in this new context.
At the end of the day, form follows function. And trends, not fads, exist for a reason; however, we do not live in a one size fits all world. Our design philosophy at LWG is to create unique, beautiful, and responsive environments – as unique as each Client. The context may change, but the purpose of design will not. Where it leads us will be a rich journey full of opportunities that we would not have considered had this pandemic not occurred. We need to ask ourselves what we have learned and how we can apply those important lessons to our lives.