While scientists and policy makers strive to help us safely move into the next phase of this pandemic, we're still in the thick of it and there are still many unknowns that we face. Nowhere has this lack of information been most worryingly felt than with regards to the economy and, by extension, resuming or returning to our jobs.
What is certain is that the road to recovery will be long and uncertain. Predictions for the future range from gloomy to the overly optimistic—something which has started to make us speculate on how to balance safety and normalcy over the next 18 months. What does "going back" really mean? Will more of us continue to work from home? Will we return to our offices in shifts? How will big cities handle commuting—especially when that means using public transportation? Will our requirements for office design change? Will buildings need to change?
We had so many questions, so we reached out to some leading voices in our global design community to hear their thoughts on this conversation.
Yves Béhar, Fuseproject, San Francisco
I have been in the small town of Bolinas, California for six weeks now. With the entire town getting tested it feels that the level of information and social responsibility is very high. This sense of community and support gives me confidence about a future where the word "citizenry" acquires a new meaning. I am confident that the same can happen in larger cities like San Francisco; a sense of renewed confidence in what we can achieve when we look out for each other. What is needed for employees coming back to work is transparency and a common understanding of the procedures and systems in place that will keep everyone safe. This is something that every company will need to make very clear and every local government will have to support and promote. This new social cohesion is what will make the new reality something we can trust and move forward with.
My personal realization is that working from home is possible, and even presents some advantages. Prior to the pandemic, the talk of "efficiency" was everywhere. That said, the pandemic has made it clear to me that jumping from Zoom to Zoom, albeit somewhat monotonous, is much more efficient than driving around or commuting to meetings, parking, and then looking for conference rooms. While I very much miss brainstorming and sketching with the Fuseproject team in person, a couple of days a week focused at home might be the way to get work done. The Fuseproject team has adapted remarkably well, with humor and grit which matches our pre-COVID culture. I do believe that flexibility around WFH will be the norm rather than the exception, and that accommodating people’s different needs for work-life balance will be the new normal. I think that company-wide testing may become something we see used widely. Once tested, work teams will be comfortable resuming human interactions while remaining vigilant and socially distant outside of the work safe-zone.
Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu of Neri & Hu, Shanghai
In Shanghai, the situation is quite well controlled. We are already back in the office. With the exception of a few individuals who are stuck in their home country, we have generally resumed back to normal. It’s comforting to see that this is possible, and we see it as a huge blessing given that many countries are still in lockdown mode. Shanghai reacted very quickly immediately after Wuhan’s lockdown. In February, there were drastic measures set on how to go back to work. It was extremely severe—there are quarantine measures everyone needs to abide by and travel documents that everyone needs to show. In the beginning, these extreme measures ensured that everyone back in the office building was free from the virus and that as subsequent people returned to work, they were also safe.
We may lose some freedoms because we need to show our health code (everyone has a code on their smartphones and you are allowed to enter buildings only if you have a GREEN code) and we have our temperature checked everywhere we go, but this slight inconvenience ensures that all of us are safe to be out and about, so we all willingly abide by the rules.
We think that over the next 18 months we will all get used to the social distancing and that the "virus reality" will set in and we will find ways to work and live with the "new normal." In general, people will have much more tolerance for flexible hours and video conferencing, and travel to in-person meetings will be minimized.
Many companies might start to evaluate long-term ways to accommodate a combination of working from home and working in the office—policies which might mean that the office would serve more as a temporary gathering place for workers who need to meet, rather than the permanent place of work.
Suchi Reddy, Reddymade, New York City
The new world we are going to be entering will definitely need our skills as designers. Our challenges in New York City are particularly complex, given our density. The additional space required to work and social distance is a luxury that not many of us can afford in our workspaces, so working in shifts will have to be an option—and possibly one that could help working parents with childcare needs as well.
The fact that this has been such a collective experience for all of us, regardless of our fields of expertise or hierarchy in the workplace, has to inform the way we go forward across the board. It has illuminated both sides of a coin: it has shown us the things we can do on our own and the ways in which we absolutely need each other’s physical presence and input. Redefining what productivity is actually tied to will be an important metric for us to reevaluate. It’s not just hours in the office: it’s how well we use the hours we work and the support system we need. I think we will definitely see a bigger mix of remote work—even in our field where collaboration and physically experiencing things, materials, and ideas together are all crucial.
Until widespread testing is available, and perhaps a vaccine, we have to exercise a cautious reentry. The virus has given us a new appreciation of our public spaces and of the escape going into nature has provided many people. This experience will affect urban design, and I would not be surprised to see a greater push for parks and access to green space in buildings.
Adjusting to the new normal is something New Yorkers are good at, so I am sure we will find pleasures and innovations in our new routines. The city that never sleeps will acquire a new dimension. I dream of that while I shelter now in rural upstate New York.
Barbara Bestor, Bestor Architecture, Los Angeles
I am currently ‘sheltering at home’ in Silver Lake, a neighborhood in Los Angeles. I do walk over to our empty studio daily—it's very close to my house—and love the quiet and ability to read and draw there. It also provides a good setup for conference calls, printing, etc. It will be tricky to balance staying safe and social distancing, especially in a field like architecture that thrives on personal contact. In Los Angeles, construction is an essential activity so I have been doing about one or two field site visits weekly but my staff has not. I think for small teams within our office remote working is fine, but for larger teams it is difficult to coordinate all aspects of the work.
I do think remote work will become more common, not just in architecture but in all types of work that are largely computer-based. Within our practice, we are lucky to have enough space in our physical office to give everyone a significant amount of room for their desks, but we may consider spreading people out further, creating shifts or "teams" that come into the office on a rotating schedule, and certainly encourage remote work if possible.
The great thing about cities is access to public transportation and greater access for more people to workplaces. In Los Angeles, our public transport is not as well used as some places like New York or Tokyo but we have created more bicycle commuting routes—especially for the under 5-mile commutes—and buses that are increasingly popular. The experience of using public transportation will no doubt change to decrease individual contact points with doors, payment, turnstiles, etc. and to protect drivers themselves from their passengers.
We love to design workspaces and have already been working with several clients on contactless kitchenettes, bathrooms, and phone booths in their offices. We are adding trash cans that are foot-operated, sinks with electric eye controls, refrigerator doors that open electronically, etc. We had already moved from bench desking to individual sit-stand desks, which improves individual hygienic space control. We want to explore these ideas further to see how our innovations in design and user experience can make a positive impact on the health of a company and employees.
Thomas Robinson, Lever Architecture, Portland, Oregon
It is a challenging question as so much has changed in such a short time that it is hard to think too far ahead or to even think of "balance" given that the state of the world has shifted so drastically. In the space of a little of over four weeks, our relationship to where we live and work has been altered profoundly. Over the last four weeks, I have spent almost all my time in my house, working remotely with the LEVER team on Zoom as we shelter in place. We have two 3D printers running 24 hours a day in our family room printing PPE face shields for first responders, with my son coordinating and delivering pickups and deliveries of equipment to local hospitals.
I sincerely hope remote work will not be the norm as woking on Zoom is emotionally exhausting—especially creative work. That said, we understand that being inconvenienced is a very small price to pay for the greater welfare of our communities. Everything is still so up in the air it is hard to think about the future, although if we are able to return to the office, we would surely have to think about ways to work in a manner that would ensure that safe social distancing is in place. This would likely include limiting the number of people who can work in the office. As things have been very busy over the last few years, we do not currently have the space we would need to do this with our full staff. We would likely need to employ policies that would ensure that people would have more space.
Trey Trahan, Trahan Architects, New Orleans
I believe that this is a moment to embrace a less physically connected world and potentially embrace other ways to connect; embracing ourselves, others, and nature. Our staff is working remotely from home and personally, I have retreated to a rural family home in Saint Francisville, Louisiana. Although I am constantly working, I am also connecting with myself and with nature. On a personal note, physically distancing from the office has also had a self-meditative feel. After many years of a fast-paced and dynamic social and work velocity, it’s been a quiet time to recharge. That said, I dearly miss the in-person interactions with my wonderful colleagues.
I do not think that our work will become entirely remote. I think there will be a meet-in-the-middle aspect and a deeper understanding of flexibility and acceptance. In some ways, I see it as a possible liberation of a fixed and rigid experience of working in an office. Once it is safe to return to the office we will embrace the changes and shifts, evolving how and where we work. Most importantly, the health and wellbeing of our employees is what I care most about.
Abeer Sweis, SweisKloss, Santa Monica
Our design staff has been working from home since March 16th. We were very fortunate that we were already set up to do this and it was a fairly easy transition. Our construction staff is still out in the field and our design staff makes occasional visits to check on the work. We make sure that when someone needs to go into the office that there are no more than two people there at a time and everything is wiped down before we leave. At construction sites, everyone wears masks and is abiding by all the regulations. We tend to have fewer trades working at one time to ease the distancing situation.
I feel that in most industries, there will be less need for large office space, especially as people are getting more comfortable working remotely. I think office spaces will be set up to be more flexible—similar to what has been going on in the tech industry offices for some time now.
I think we will be going back to the office setting sometime in the summer. I imagine setting up half the staff in the office on one day, while the other half is working from home and then alternating. Working from home can be very productive if it is combined with days in the office working with the team.
The most difficult thing for me has been being away from the natural design process—sitting around a table and sketching out ideas. Meeting with clients face-to-face to go over design is so much easier and so much more productive. However, I am always the optimist and think that this is a situation where out of crisis arises both change and opportunity.
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