The Workplace in a Time of Social Distancing: Three Things to Consider.
When people ask me what I do for a living, the simplest response is “I’m an architect.” But the complete answer, as with most things in life, is more complex.
When most people hear I am an architect, they infer that I design buildings. Which is true. I do design buildings. However, I prefer to think of architecture as designing not just buildings, but spaces. Spaces that serve people’s needs. Spaces in which people gather and work together. Whether an office building, a manufacturing facility, or a place of education, the designs are created around one primary purpose: the intentional gathering of people for a specific reason. Whether for one person or a hundred, an architect’s work centers on people.
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
This old maxim strikes home particularly hard for many of us right now. If you are an architect, your whole reason for being is shaping space for people to gather. In a time when so many have transitioned to working remotely, I find myself thinking a lot about workplace as a gathering place and all those things I miss.
Good design allows for serendipitous interactions. To do so, a design must provide enough square footage in select locations to promote gatherings yet also possess enough areas without clearly defined boundaries – spaces that can be somewhat open and somewhat closed. It’s a balancing act.
I love those unplanned for interruptions that come from walking around and bumping into someone. Sure, sometimes my bit of “hey, what’s up” becomes someone else’s “stop wasting my time”. But often these interactions lead to important things – maybe a new solution to a problem or a bit of information about something or someone that helps you get where you need to be.
It’s tougher to be spontaneous digitally – we are much more intentional about contacting someone. It’s nice to be able to communicate so easily but I miss unanticipated, unplanned happenings with my coworkers.
I like my home office. I have done my best to create a good place to work. I have all the necessary technology and even with the occasional hiccup connecting to the VPN, I have no complaints. I have a nice view from my second-floor window over the tops of the adjacent houses and trees. As nice as it is, though, my home office does not provide the spatial variation of Fox’s office in Downtown St. Louis.
Biophilic in nature, “spatial variation” for me is the variety of views, spaces, ceiling heights, finishes, etc., found in a well-designed space. Designed to provide brief distractions that keep us alert and engaged, the Fox office possesses a greater amount of non-rhythmic sensory stimuli than my home office. To be improve this situation, I will move my office outside when the weather allows. However, the back and forth with co-workers at the office is the stimuli I most miss, for even a focused task benefits from some degree of spatial and sensory repetition.
Maybe what I miss most is distracting the people who work near me with my stupid stories and bad jokes? Maybe I miss trying to be the center of attention? Whatever it is, I miss it greatly. Working from home has its benefits but this is not one.
Access to tools
As architects, we design our workspaces to be tools. In the same way a workbench relates to a woodworker, a well-designed workplace has the necessary elements situated accordingly and conveniently, depending on their need and use throughout the workday. Unfortunately, my home office is more than a bit lacking in this department. The technology is there, but many of the “hand-held” items are not. I miss the big tables for sketching, cutting, and assembling. The open expanse of floor for spreading out materials. The conference rooms as a haven of retreat. These shared resources would be nearly impossible to fit into my home workspace. However, one “tool” I have at home that I wish I could back off from a bit is my kitchen. I have taken to raiding the fridge during my breaks for inspiration! Of course, that is more a lack of will power than a design issue.
I have no doubt that when we make it back to the office there are modifications in store. Until a vaccine for COVID-19 is discovered, people will want and need more space. At Fox, we are fortunate that there is already a ton of flexibility planned into the office, allowing us to “spread out”, if necessary, even with a full staff. For a long time now there’s been an emphasis for workplace planning to compress the square footage per person. Fox has understood that there are negatives that come with decreasing someone’s workspace without adding additional “flex space”. Those places that kept squeezing without including more collaboration square footage will be hard pressed to function as we start working together again.
One tool that we use constantly at our home offices and at Fox’s downtown office is video conferencing. Without this in place, working from home would seem almost impossible. We rely heavily on face to face communication, whether done online or across a table. The past weeks have made this exceedingly clear. This is one tool we all can’t live without.
When we come back to work together…..
I recently had a phone conversation with a friend about the changes COVID-19 would bring to the workforce and workplace. My friend believes a large percentage of work will transition from offices and into the home after this whole “work at home” mandate is over. I disagree.
Working from home has some advantages but working together is critical. People want and need to engage with each other in a well-designed workspace. This break from normal operations has only reinforced the belief that my profession – architecture and the design of places for people to collaborate – holds even more importance and value.
Three considerations for when we return to work.
Flexibility is key. How to operate when we all return will hinge greatly on how your current workplace is designed. For years there has been an emphasis on reduction of square footage, driven mostly by cost concerns. Fox has always held that your immediate work area may shrink, but you need other types of flexible space to fill in for the variety of needs that arise during the normal day. Well-designed spaces offering this flexibility will be more successful than less flexible spaces as we return and need to find new ways to be together while being apart.
Health and Wellness as a design objective will become baseline. Every workplace will need to address those needs beyond staying clean and functional. We require fresh air, daylight, places to relax, think, escape. People need to be encouraged to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Beyond COVID-19, an emphasis on a healthy environment will take on new meaning.
Building Community within your organization and beyond will be a strategic objective for strategically minded. If anything, COVID-19, working from home, and social distancing has made us all aware that we have a shared responsibility to each other. We really are “all in this together”. Our environment can play a key role in strengthening our sense of community. Churchill said, “We shape our buildings: thereafter they shape us.” More than ever, we need to think and act together.
We will have much more on this topic in the coming days…
Let’s hope we all stay safe for now, and get back to normal as soon as possible!