The Post-Pandemic Office: Where Do We Go From Here?

Covid-19 has raised profound questions for the design community, and we don’t yet have all the answers

July 2020

Words by Jay Wratten

Over this series, we’ve asked many questions about how the office will look and function after Covid-19.

And whether we’re talking about design, air qualityvertical transportation, technology, it’s clear that we don’t yet have the answers. In the past we’ve been able to reference standards that have been written and published, so as designers, we often act as translators for an established body of research. But in this case, that body of research is still to emerge.

This raises profound questions for the design community about how we manage uncertainty in the strange new world that we are now operating in.

Design and construction is a risk-averse industry in which many things are codified or accepted as best practice. Our response to design post-Covid-19 is not going to look like that. So how do we provide advice to our clients knowing that we don’t know the answer for sure? How do we apply nascent ideas in a prudent way, without overreacting or over-promising? The way we manage our clients’ expectations will be critical because as much as we want to do the right thing, we don’t want to give a false sense of security or claim that a building is quote-unquote “safe”.

We do know that some building designs are emerging as inherently more resilient than others.

Perhaps they’re in better condition, or they’ve got better indoor air quality or better access to light so people stay healthier in general, or they are only three storeys tall so you can walk upstairs rather than taking the elevator. There are going to be these Goldilocks buildings that are fundamentally less risky, and there are going to be other buildings that are more challenging. The harsh reality is that some are going to be safer than others – so what should the minimum standard be? Where would we want to work?

Over the next six to 12 months, we’re going to see a whole range of responses to these questions.

We going to see people put plexiglass up, we are going to see some companies overstep on privacy. In the Bay Area, Twitter has said it will never require people to come back to work, but there are also a lot of firms that are trying to get their offices open as soon as they can. What will come next is a period of experimentation within the workplace. The people who come out of this well – on both the design and the ownership side – will be the ones who are ready for the ride, who are willing to take a fail-fast mentality, and to question what we were doing before. At the same time, we’re all thinking about how we prepare for the future, so that we come out of this more resilient, more agile to the challenges ahead.

Going forward, there will be a much greater cultural awareness of health and the ways in which buildings affect our wellbeing, and that will impact the workplace too.

When my grandfather died, my uncle gave the eulogy and he talked about how grandpa always took the little sliver of old soap and mashed it into the new soap. Once my uncle asked him why, and he said that in 20s and 30s, in the Great Depression, they used all the soap. People came out of that period with this frugality mindset that stayed with them for the rest of their lives. I think that coming out of this we will all be different in some way too – more aware of the things that we touch, the air that we breathe, the people that we are near. That will affect the way we behave as a culture, and it will stay with us for a long time, maybe forever.

We will have to go through the growing pains before we find the right balance.

The silver lining is that all of this has caused the industry to really think about why we design the way we do and what we’re trying to achieve. Covid-19 has shaken the whole trajectory towards workplace densification, and at the same time, we are increasingly living two lives – physical and digital, with our digital avatars becoming an ever greater part of our work personas. There’s the person that everyone sees in physical reality in the densified office, and then there’s your digital self – the 2am Yammer-post version, your LinkedIn face, the thinking you put out on social media. We are now in a place where that digital side is becoming mature enough that it has value. If coronavirus had hit a decade ago, we would not be talking on video from our homes.

“Smart” can mean many things.

Having an equitable meeting experience whether you’re working from home or in the office is just as smart as using sensors to see whether people are staying socially distanced. So while the silver bullet that we’re all looking for may not exist – yet – we are at a very exciting point as we start to ask these questions. At WSP, we may not have all the answers, but we do have a deep understanding of workplace. We’re looking forward to applying that expertise to help our clients, colleagues and societies find whatever that better normal will be.

By Jay Wratten, Smart+Connected building strategist, WSP

Leave a comment