From Best Practices to Next Practices

(or how form will now follow fear of infection as well as function)

OCAD U CO by Quadrangle. Photo by Adrien Williams

Because of our creative nature, those in the design industry are accustomed to a certain level of ambiguity. Designers actually seek out situations that lack certainty because these conditions give us opportunity to innovate. Although this pandemic is a terrible situation, it prompts valuable discussion now about the changes that we will need to make to our offices for people to return to work, and offers us a great opportunity to influence not just space, but also how we can improve work/life balance and wellness within our physical spaces.

Oliver Wainwright’s recent piece in the Guardian coined the term “form following the fear of infection along with function” and I think he’s on to something there. What will be the long-term effects of COVID-19 on our workplace, buildings and urban design?

In the rush to de-densify in order to follow social distancing guidelines, will we also abandon all the social collaboration gains that have been made in the past 30 years with the shift to open and co-working offices? Will we abandon Richard Florida’s urban clusters as the catalysts for creative economies? Will there be a sudden desire to return to the suburbs, away from the urban density associated with cities like New York with jam-packed, open-plan offices that are regarded as a breeding ground for infection?

A 180-degree turn away from urban density negates important lessons that have helped us avoid the slower growing, but no less deadly, health epidemics of obesity and pollution that result from commuting. Rather than abandoning our cities and distancing ourselves from our co-workers, can we reimagine space design in the same way that societies have always adapted after a pandemic?

The next wave of workplace design will fall into four main categories:

  • Distributed versus remote working models
  • Work design will change home design
  • Office footprints and uses will change
  • Urban clusters versus urban centres
Artscape Daniels Launchpad, by Quadrangle. Photo by Bob Gundu

Distributed versus remote work

With COVID-19, we have all just had a taste of what it is like to work in a distributed workforce. Rather than switch back to how we worked before, let’s embrace the gains that distributed work has given us. In their 2014 paper published in Work & Occupations, Andrea Rees Davies and Brenda D. Frink noted that the stigma behind flexible hours and remote work reflect outdated ideas about ‘feminine’ work from home being secondary to ‘masculine’ work carried out in dedicated work spaces.

Rather than thinking of working from home as less valuable to an organization, we can change our perceptions. Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress, shifted his thinking by changing the language of working from home from “remote” to “distributed”. Mullenweg’s five levels of distributed work embraces Daniel Pink’s 2009 ‘Drive’ thesis of giving Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose to a distributed workforce.

Distributed work is intrinsically very efficient because success is measured by output as opposed to face time at a job. By allowing employees to design an asynchronous (shifted schedule) day around health, wellness and mental wellbeing, and through the use of shared connectivity tools, organizations affirm that work output is more important than how or when it was produced. The time of day will no longer be the measure of work.

In terms of accessibility, distributed work presents an opportunity to overcome ableism through the use of digital platforms. Another benefit of asynchronous timing and digital distribution is that organizations will have the opportunity to recruit the best talent from a much wider geographic pool of candidates.

House of Cool by Quadrangle. Photo by Adrien Williams

Work design will change home design

We’ve been talking for decades about how residential and hospitality design have influenced workplaces, with the ideas of play, lounge, and library making their way into office design. The trend has been entirely about shifting office space in the direction of domestic comfort. We will start to see some reversal of this trend. Given that our daily lives now involve video conferencing, texting and social media, virtual space and access to technology will need the same consideration as our physical space. Also recognizing that our shrinking condo footprints don’t work well for self-isolated working, these spaces will also require a rethink.

We’ll see elements of the WELL building design system making their way into residential design along with dedicated areas for working from home as a necessity rather than an added marketing incentive. The robust infrastructure needed to support distributed work, connectivity may become an enshrined rental right in the building codes of 2022 – and the entire telecommunications industry be transformed into a public utility and a basic human right.

Hullmark Head Office by Quadrangle. Photo by Ben Rahn/A-Frame

Office footprints and uses will change

What will happen to the 8.3 million square feet of office space that was planned for the downtown core of Toronto in Avison Young’s Q4 2020 Market Report? I think it is a safe bet to say that not all those millions of square feet will be built once we get to the third or fourth quarter of 2020, by which time hopefully the ban on commercial construction has been lifted. I also don’t think the race to create super tall buildings with their packed elevators and dense, open-plan model of workplace can continue—as the pro-forma that makes those buildings economically feasible will change or even disappear. What will be the ideal size of new workplaces? If only 50% of your workforce uses the office space daily, will companies only lease a certain size of office regardless of their actual staff complement?

The ratio of permanent spaces versus shared desks will change. I anticipate that we will shift current ratios to suit a longer workday and also to provide space to accommodate reduced numbers of people using the office over longer time periods. This will necessitate more, not less sharing of space. The implications for cleaning protocols are clear: the wipe-clean behaviours formed in response to tuberculosis in the 18th and 19th centuries will become mandated behaviours once more.

There will be significantly larger print, copy and package handling areas. Meeting rooms will become team rooms for project-specific work. Amenity and support spaces such as cafeterias and meeting rooms will be further divided and there will be online connectivity elements incorporated into these spaces so that physical and digital participants can easily work together.

What if the traditional one-company lease arrangement goes out the window? WeWork gobbled up 8% of Manhattan’s commercial space, making the company New York’s biggest leaseholder. The model of shared space to facilitate accidental creative innovation will take a hit as potential minimum space per person legislation will, like tall buildings, affect the real estate model, making shared offices financially untenable. The model might change to something similar to discipline-sharing models. For example, aligned architecture, design, construction, and engineering firms might enter into a joint lease agreement based on time-sharing, rather than defined physical footprints. The coming changes might result in an increased demand for co-working services as companies elect to invest less in permanent space and more into distributed work requirements from home.

Amenities we are already accustomed to using, such as touchless flush and faucet mechanisms, will proliferate. Door handles will disappear and be replaced by foot or elbow control or all the way to automatic controls. Elevator buttons will be replaced by personal device destination dispatch smart technology. Sensors will be used for all equipment rather than just for light switches.

Hullmark Head Office by Quadrangle. Photo by Ben Rahn/A-Frame

Urban Clusters vs Urban Centres

Will a fear of infection infuse civic spaces with the need for better public hygiene options such as public toilets and hand washing facilities rather than our current reliance on restaurants to fulfill that function?

Rather than abandoning the idea of dense urban centres, let’s redefine the term to urban clusters. Like the idea of connected villages, people prefer to live in neighbourhoods that allow for a proximate daily walking culture to basic necessities. Similarly, I anticipate that we will stop building large commuter university and hospital campuses. Instead, we will distribute these resources across a large metropolitan area, thereby creating smaller linked-village neighbourhoods that are more walkable and more sustainable. Having more local community resources would also help to bolster the health and vibrancy of smaller cities. The social gains that can come from these adjustments should be considered along with the changes that we will make to our physical space design.

The blue skies and clear waters that result from a lack of planes, trains and automobiles will be short-lived unless we rethink our attitudes to growth and how we build our future physical environments. Howard Mark, co-founder of Oaktree Capital Management said it best about the times in which we find ourselves. “These days everyone has the same data regarding the present and the same ignorance regarding the future.” Will anything that we’ve proposed as potential outcomes happen? We find ourselves collectively in a world of unknown unknowns.

Caroline Robbie is a Principal at Quadrangle and head of its Interiors Group. Frances Hahn is a Senior Designer at Quadrangle. Michael Kim is Business Development Manager at Quadrangle.