The Pandemic Changed How We Use Space Forever — And The Design World Is Ready For It
Whether it’s offices without traditional meeting and boardrooms, multifamily properties with designated homework and Zoom rooms for residents, or entirely reimagined schools and retail centers, the past year and a half will leave an indelible mark on how space is designed.
The rapid shifts in Americans’ habits — some already underway pre-pandemic, some born from crisis — have upended traditional design and architecture. But those in the business say they are ready and even excited for what comes next: the opportunity to rebuild the office, the traditional retail store, the apartment complex, the medical clinic and other staple places of daily life from the ashes of what came before.
“We all realize it has got to be different,” Gensler principal and Design Director Paul Manno said at Bisnow’s Dallas Architecture & Design Trends event on Sept. 14. “So I think the conversation is not really worrying about what happened 18 months ago, it's worrying about the next 18 months and the tipping point. How do you make it great? That’s really what we're supposed to be doing.”
Manno said what comes next begins, most dramatically, with the office. That entails companies and real estate professionals coming to terms with the idea that work is no longer a place, but an activity.
Though flexibility has become a buzzword that has often translated into fancy coffee bars, decked-out hangout spaces and other amenities aimed at luring reluctant workers back to their office desks, Manno said it’s time to get real that flexibility means a mindset shift away from the traditional office model toward investing in technology that brings remote, hybrid and on-site workers together seamlessly.
“I think we have to get past this idea that we have to actually go to an old-fashioned place to go work, and that we can really work from anywhere, if we're given the right technology,” he said. “One of the things that we've talked a lot about in our offices is the idea of 'digital first.' So when we think about a client or we think about an activity, we should get in the mindset of thinking how we solve it in a digital technology way first and then actually think about where the work gets done.”
Many Dallas companies are still clinging to the traditional office model, and panelists agreed DFW is more resistant than the coasts to evolving work trends. Corgan President and Executive Managing Principal Lindsay Wilson said a number of companies are paying lip service to remote and hybrid work on one hand but are seeking or retaining spaces with private offices in hopes that will coax those afraid of the open plan back and maintain something of the status quo.
Employers are also attempting to woo back workers with amenities, high-end styling and comfortable touches previously found in hotels and upscale multifamily properties, said Ink + Oro Managing Partner Tiffany Woodson, whose firm specializes in boutique hospitality and multifamily.
“Obviously, we're also seeing some companies make bold moves in hybrid work and remote work, but a lot of that is on the policy side,” Wilson said, adding the words don't necessarily match the behavior.
Many companies are still behaving as if the office is the same place it was five years ago. Manno said that’s because too many are whistling past the graveyard, believing easy-fix “coffee and tchotchkes” are meaningful enough gestures to bring employees back.
“If you think we can bring people back to the office the way it was a year and a half ago, you're nuts,” he said.
He said the keys will be technology that unites people more equitably wherever they’re working, and recalibrating office culture and design for post-pandemic employees no longer willing to accept the old way of conducting business.
In Manno’s own workplace, a data analyst has been hired to help optimize the office, calculating which days people come in and which days they don’t, how many seats are used and where, how various spaces are used and other metrics.
The idea, he said, is translating policy about remote and hybrid work into spaces that support it and are informed by data. That might mean getting rid of boardrooms, which he said serve no real purpose in the new office reality, or paying as much attention to individual workstations as creating high-end indoor and outdoor amenities.
Panelists said it was time to take a bottom-up approach to office design, focusing on what workers need and expect after what, for many of them, has been a year and a half at home.
“It’s a new world of work, but the opportunities in architecture and design right now? I can't recall them ever being greater than they are right now,” Wilson said. “Have people ever cared this much about their work environment? Not in my time.”
And it isn’t just work that’s evolving rapidly. Woodson said now is the time for architects and designers to reflect swift and shocking change by disrupting all the places people live, make transactions and conduct daily life.
“In the hospitality and multifamily world, it's all about what the end user needs, and making that flexible for them,” she said. “Now, that might mean not only coworking and co-living space, but having a place where your kids can come down and do their homework, or where you can have a Zoom call at the same time, or host your family for a barbecue. I think our spaces have to be more flexible than ever with us spending more time at home.”
According to HDR Design Principal Stephen Knowles, architects and designers should also be thinking outside the box when it comes to healthcare facilities, retail outlets, public transit, schools and other public venues.
“We need to be putting things together in a different kind of way,” Knowles said, adding that clients are now asking for services like digital and physical world mapping to steer design. “I know shock is always hard. You kind of want to retract back into being safe and probably more conservative, but it's a great time to challenge those ideas. We're excited that the clients are opening up, and I think these technologies and how we use space is going to change. I'm looking forward to seeing that.”