A Sense of Place: Defining the Workplace Experience Amidst COVID-19

Since the pandemic started, I’ve adopted different patterns of behavior relative to my work. Some are positive and I hope I am disciplined enough to keep them around; others I’ll be happy to let go of. (Read: a full day of back-to-back-to back virtual calls.) One of the positives is that I have replaced commuting time with early morning and lunch-time walks around my neighborhood. It has provided me with valuable time for decompression and reflection.

A few weeks ago on one of my morning walks, I couldn’t help but reflect on the terrorist attacks of September 11. I’ll remember that day forever, including hearing the first reports over the radio that was on in the blueprint shop at my first architectural job. I remember that within the real estate market there was immediate apprehension about living or working on the upper floors of high rises in major cities. Some real estate experts predicted the death of the skyscraper. That reaction lasted about 18 to 24 months. Today, major metro areas seemingly announce a new super-tall, super-slender tower daily — towers that typically command the highest rental rates and sale prices in their respective markets.

While clearly not the same situation, a similar apocalyptic view of the commercial real estate market exists today as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts have wondered whether the coronavirus has ushered in the end of the headed-into-the-office era. While just 3.6 percent of employees worked from home pre-COVID-19, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 31 percent of American workers had shifted to remote work by the first week of April. Global Workplace Analytics now estimates 25 to 30 percent of the U.S. workforce will work from home by the end of 2021. Some companies are already making good on that prediction: Twitter’s employees never have to return to the office, if they don’t want to.

In our post-pandemic world, workplaces will look and feel different; they already do. While some long-term patterns of behavior will change — in many cases, for the better — I believe people will return to the office. What do we do in the meantime? Will offices just remain ghost towns for the foreseeable future? Is it enough to say, “In 18 months, this will get better and we will go back to the office?” And, really, what does the office look like when people do return?

Daily we are asked by our clients to reimagine how they can most efficiently, effectively and safely use their current spaces. We also employ about 100 people across three offices, so we find ourselves wrestling with the same questions and challenges that our workplace clients do. SHP is in the unique position of helping answer these questions and solve for these problems.

As designers, architects and strategists, we aspire to rise to architecture’s greatest challenge — creating a sense of place that enhances human experiences — in a time when we must, by necessity, be apart.

The Value of Communal Space

COVID-19 has forced our clients to rethink their future space needs, especially as it relates to the balance of personal and communal spaces. For the majority of our workplace clients, before COVID, everyone had a desk. Now, employees and managers feel relatively comfortable with their ability to work from anywhere and stay connected.

Without the need for individual domains, we can dramatically rethink the way a space is planned and utilized. Instead of assigned seating, workstations and desks, we can introduce team neighborhoods, open zones and large-group huddle spaces that allow for social distancing and still encourage collaboration. Smaller, more intimate spaces can be designed for intense focus or privacy but won’t belong to one individual. Fluid workstations can be reconfigured over and over to align with the needs of a particular project team, department or individuals.

There is power in personalizing — in taking psychological ownership of — a communal space. This is how we create the sense of place that is so important to productivity, emotional well-being and a sense of belonging at work.

The Intersection of Real and Virtual Life

I admittedly didn’t use video conferencing very often before COVID-19; when I wanted to connect with a client, I picked up the phone, jumped in the car, or hopped on a plane. But in light of social distancing, my reliance on technology has increased dramatically. Despite how draining it can occasionally be — yes, Zoom fatigue is real — I’ve found my rhythm within both my project and client teams.

A discipline as nuanced as design should prove difficult to take from IRL to online. Yet at SHP, I’m proud to say we’ve continued to advance and elevate our design. We’ve taken every stage of our process virtual: departmental meetings, conceptual design and development, programming, engineering coordination — and it’s mostly working quite successfully.

But despite the many tools and technologies at our disposal, a video conference does not provide as fully an immersive, connected experience as being in the physical office. I miss the in-the-moment interactions with my colleagues: peeking over someone’s shoulder at a cool design, having casual conversations around the beer tap, asking and being inspired by tough design questions. These are the opportunities for formal and informal growth that are missing from remote work.

That’s why, I fully expect COVID-19 to hasten the introduction, adoption and integration of increasingly sophisticated virtual environments into our physical environments. The return to the physical office environment will necessitate the design of hybrid, “online/offline” spaces that can readily accommodate and enhance both IRL and virtual experiences. While fully immersive tools may not exist today, as designers, we can take steps now to put in place the infrastructure, engineering, security, and video and audio privacy measures required to accommodate future technologies.

I Don’t Know What I Don’t Know

As we’ve seen, the COVID-19 pandemic raises more questions than answers. More challenges lie ahead, as we continue to grapple with a new normal that evolves daily. I feel confident saying, though, that while the full extent to which COVID-19 will impact the commercial real estate market remains to be seen, the office environment isn’t dead; the commercial real estate market isn’t going to totally dry up; city centers aren’t all going to close.

If anything, this crisis has reinforced the importance of what my professional community does. You can’t recreate virtually the “yes, and…” moments in the office, the roar of the crowd at a ballgame, the experiences people have when they’re together.

As a designer, solving for the unknown in real-time is exciting… and, yes, a little terrifying. In this transformative moment, the power of design and architecture to enhance human experiences is unparalleled — even when we’re apart, together.