Last week I returned to the studio to start the transition back to the ‘new normal’ we have all heard so much about. It felt like nothing had changed, the plants had grown, and the dust had settled but after a quick clean I was back to work. As the only person working from the studio, I signed into Zoom to join our weekly team meeting. My new routine of Zoom meetings and the old routine of being in the studio suddenly collided. I very quickly realised my workspace would never be the same again.
Earlier last year InsideOut started a feasibility study for a new co-working space in London. After significant research and consultations with the client and its company team we realised we needed to strike a balance between the old cubical and private offices of the 1980s, and the ‘trendy’ plant-filled, hot desk aesthetic of the millennial co-working office space. I often found it ironic that the slow-changing typology of the workspace had already started to repeat itself. The need for quiet areas, private space and individual noise control could be very quickly answered by a retro formulaic layout. Naively, I felt this was the architectural response to the client’s needs. At one point a request was made for sleep pods and I never considered the idea of ‘live at work’, I love my job, but I don’t live there, no one should be encouraged to sleep in an office. As a practical problem solver, I should have said: “why don’t you let them work from home?”. But my response as a designer of the built environment would never be “don’t design an office space, just move your office online” because, unless I started designing 3D rendered office backgrounds for Zoom calls, my workspace projects would rapidly dwindle.
An architectural response to technology typically streamlines the way we design and create, new CAD software that enables quicker, more resilient, collaboration with consultants and clients. When technology appears in our projects it’s in the form of specified gadgets, not virtual spaces, well not yet. The transition to move to digital workspaces would most likely be directed by the leaders of workforces, a new initiative from Google in a few years maybe, to counteract the odious introduction of sleep pods for ’employees requiring a nap’ in 2017.
Then all at once, Covid-19 hits, changing the world as we know it.
I am fortunate enough to be in a profession that can quickly transition to remote working and while not every industry has that opportunity, office-based jobs quickly learned they had to. The decision had been made for all of us office-bound workers, by a virus and a government. Work from home or don’t work.
We are now working in a workspace typology that, in my opinion, would have emerged in 5 years’ time. The reason you may hear colleagues and clients expressing the need to get back to the office for that human interaction isn’t that working from home is bad, it’s because we haven’t had enough time to prepare and all social interaction was taken away. If we still maintained physical interaction with family and friends, the loss of the physical interaction with colleagues may not have hit as hard. A study by Harvard Business School in 2018 found that the open plan office had decreased face to face interactions by 70% and increased internal emails by 50%. Our studio introduced Slack to our team in early 2019 to combat the rise in emails and encourage further collaboration. I found myself messaging colleagues that were sat next to me, to ask them for an opinion on a tile sample that sat on my desk. I wasn’t scared to speak in my studio, far from it, but I was conscience that others around me were ‘in the zone’ and my conversation could distract them, something that I hate when it happens to me. I could almost guarantee that if we had discovered the use of Microsoft Teams before the pandemic hit, we would be using it the exact way we are using it from home today.
“What will it take to encourage much more widespread reliance on working at home for at least part of each week?” asked Frank Schiff, the chief economist of the US Committee for Economic Development, in The Washington Post in 1979. We all know what it took, but we were slowly heading that way, to fill a space with private offices or cubicles, break out spaces, sleep pods, meeting rooms and hot desks when the rent in the capital is so high it doesn’t make sense, it’s an architect’s spatial layout nightmare. A real-life Tetris. Trying to merge different programs and typologies to create the “home away from home” that is the office. Why did it take a pandemic to allow us to work from home, what deep-seated trust issues do we have with allowing our workforce to work from home? Whilst it has never been an issue with our small team to occasionally work from home, sometimes I feel like I’m asking for a sneaky day off. You work at work and live at home, to achieve the work/life balance to two couldn’t possibly mix?
Almost all companies want to encourage conversation, flexibility and collaboration. We removed the cubicles, displaced the hierarchy by removing the private office and introduced the breakout space, but we became scared of our own voices disturbing others. Emails tried their best to oust the phone and now digital platforms are ousting them both. I have never felt more present, or on hand at all hours of the day to assist my colleagues. I’m joining global meetings at the drop of a hat, answering small queries faster than ever before. I have never been so present in a workspace before and yet I’m sat on my sofa with my feet up. Isn’t it fantastic, well yes, right now it is, but in a years’ time will I feel overstretched? How do I tell someone who asks me a simple small question, that I’m not at work right now? Having the app on my phone indicates constant online presents, will I just look lazy for not answering a question that will subsequently hold up someone elses workflow, will the ever growing amount of team channels make it impossible to keep up with a conversation when 23 are happening all at once? I could ignore them, respond tomorrow, but when I am in the studio doing my 9 to 5 (flexi-time of course it’s 2020) my colleagues could see me. Of course I’m working, I’m physically at work. Right now, a lot of companies are seeing improved productivity just like when the open plan office came along, but how long will this last?
Many friends of mine from different industries, HR, PR, Science and the Arts have all commented on the rise in productivity that their employers have seen over the global lockdown. I believe that there has been some confusion, it’s the assumption that working from home is the key to unlocking productivity, and no one is confident to admit that there is nothing else to do when you are housebound, hiding from a killer virus, avoiding DIY jobs or home schooling. In 2009 a study on ‘How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world’ by Phillippa Lally concludes that it takes a minimum of 21 days to form a new routine or break and old one. The UK’s strict lockdown lasted for 42 days. Most shops were closed, offices were closed, you could only go out of the house for exercise for one hour. Our habits and routines had to change. For many people working from home became the solution to boredom. The introduction of workspace technology transferred into the weekly Zoom quizzes that all of a sudden stopped one weekend and where never spoken about again. In the November to December issue of the Harvard Business Review, Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber researched an article on The Truth About Open Offices. “While studying a major technology company from 2008 to 2012, we found that remote workers communicated nearly 80% less about their assignments than collocated team members did; in 17% of projects they didn’t communicate at all.” So right now, this seems like the best solution for safety and productivity but how long will this last.
Whilst I don’t think the office of 2025 or even 2030 will be completely digital, many business owners are realising that all the space that once was needed is no longer the key to a strong productive workforce. Office rent in London is the highest in Europe. Prime real estate in the capital city is largely utilised for offices, huge towers, Canary Wharf and even the regeneration of Old Street, comically dubbed ‘Silicon Roundabout’. If we halved the offices in the city of London and converted them into affordable housing, or decided to stop building the monolithic office block or converting the historic warehouse into industrial workspaces, how would this impact the housing crisis? If we reduce the number of people commuting will the climate emergency see an improvement from the lack or cars. If we all start eating lunch at home will the single-use plastic usage plunge?
Fear not designers, other sectors will slowly pick up after the pandemic wanes, and we, the designers can respond and develop the other sectors to accommodate the office – a coffee shop with a dedicated workspace; every new build home to have a studio. The hotel lobby to stop kidding itself and own up to being a hot desking workspace for the next best app entrepreneur.
I’m still of the belief that a company needs a hub, a space to meet, collaborate and physically connect to the company you work for, but do I only think that because I’m stuck in 2019?