Well Office Nyc 2019 (41)

Industry Leaders Discuss the Future of the Workplace and Wellness, Post-Pandemic

Design experts weigh in on what we need to be focusing on right now in order to prepare for a new reality of work, life, and wellbeing after COVID-19.

Well Office Nyc 2019 (41)
IWBI, the administrators of the WELL Building Standard, filled their recently completed New York office with plants and standing desks to achieve WELL Platinum. Courtesy Eric Laignel

As social distancing continues in cities around the world in response to the coronavirus outbreak offices are closed, but work continues to get done; people are adjusting. Meetings and social functions have migrated to videoconferencing services like Zoom, collaboration takes place on Slack, and the kitchen table serves as a workstation. As social distancing approaches its fifth week in the United State, one has to wonder: Is this the new normal?  

That question served as a jumping off point for a panel discussion on DesignTV, a new initiative from Metropolis’s parent company, SANDOW, that brings design experts together to discuss how our current global reality impacts the world of design. Primo Orpilla, the cofounder and principal of Studio O+A, and Randy Fiser, the CEO of ASID joined Metropolis’s editor in chief, Avinash Rajagopal over video chat to discuss what the workplace might look like in a post-COVID world.   

“Will the workplace, as we know it, survive COVID-19? And if it does, what will it look like when we are all back at our desks?” asked Rajagopal, kicking off the thirty-minute conversation.  

Despite the fact that all three panelists were calling in from their homes in different parts of the country, no one thinks the physical office is going away.  “I think the office is going to become even more relevant when this is over,” claimed Fiser, “People need the human connectedness the office brings us.” 

Rather than the end of the office, it might be better to think of the current crisis as opportunity to precipitate major change in how we work, not only from a design perspective, but also from a culture and policy standpoint.   

“What we are dealing with right now is a crisis around health and wellness and wellbeing,” said Fiser. “The opportunity for the design community is to connect design solutions to this conversation we are dealing with today, which is that communicable diseases can be mitigated in ways by the way an office is designed.”  

On a physical level that means paying greater attention to antimicrobial surfaces, indoor air quality, and simple things like handwashing and hygiene. But workplaces may also need to rethink a culture that places undue pressure on employees to come to work even if they are sick. Of course, in order to make that possible we need expanded paid medical leave policies, so people don’t have to come in to work sick.  

Rajagopal agreed, “Crises,” he said, “are as much creative opportunities as they are creative challenges, it’s a time for us to set our priorities and decide, What is the world we want to come back to?”  

For now, those of us who can are working from home. “Everybody’s rituals have changed,” Orpilla explained. “We are learning a new rhythm and pace in the office. Things take a little bit longer to do, but they ultimately get done.”

But what happens when we go back to work, and what impact will the lessons of COVID-19 have on what we expect from the workplace and other spaces we use and inhabit? A second panel, also hosted by Rajagopal, was  titled “Doubling Down on Wellness. This conversation took a look at how the pandemic might be a game-changer when it comes to wellness-oriented design.  

Rachel Gutterpresident of the International WELL Building Institute, said that if there is a silver lining to be found in this situation, it’s a new level of awareness.  “All of us are coming to realize that as designers, as architects, as building managers, as leaders of organizations, that we have a critical role to play in public health,” she said.  

Mary Dickinson, an associate principal in Perkins + Will’s Dallas office agreed, explaining that she expected to see a shift in how companies manage their people. “I think people are going to be more sensitive about their workforce,” she said. “It might call into question how we have been doing things. We might start thinking about how much we have been pushing folks together in terms of the desk arrangements, we might have new rules of proximity.” 

But the impact of COVID-19 is unlikely to be limited to the arrangement of desks, the three panelists were in agreement that broader changes were likely to be necessary, seeing opportunities for reinvestment in the support staff and people who make buildings and businesses run. “Now is a moment to turn to the folks who are tending to our spaces and ask them what they need,” explained Gutter.  

“The New Normal of Workplaces” was presented in partnership with B+N Industries. “Doubling Down on Wellness” was presented in partnership with Versteel. 

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