In the wake of Covid-19, we have reflected on the consequences of this ‘black swan’ event on workplace design, developing two tools to help shape the office of the future. A reinterpretation of Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs focuses on well-being in the workplace, and a set of 9 design responses detail the ‘how’ of these well-being ambitions. Both tools seek to shape three essential post-Covid realities: make the office about more than desks; design choices not solutions; and expect expectations to change.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that architecture plays a crucial role in expressing and shaping society – whether by accident or by design. Equally obvious is that humancentric design – design that creates optimal environments for people considered at individual, social and cultural scales – is a cornerstone in the creation of resilient and sustainable buildings and communities. In our work with the built environment, we continually seek to turn insights from psychology, anthropology, behavioural economics and cognitive science into strategies for research and design, taking aim at 21st century challenges. Our behavioural design unit engages with social sustainability in order to shape spaces that people can thrive in whether it be their private home, at leisure or in the office.
A desire to promote innovation has become the holy grail for educational and workplace settings, as novel ideas, new ways of thinking, and creativity are highly-prized qualities. Research shows that innovation happens when people meet – co-presence is a key factor for the promotion of knowledge exchanges and interdisciplinary collaborations between users. A spatial framework that supports co-presence and thereby innovation can be determined by many factors, including layout, furnishing, and zoning spaces to encourage patterns of circulation and spontaneous encounters – ultimately creating environments that support the formation of new connections that can break old routines and stimulate ways of thinking.
But what if the government suddenly dictates that meeting face-to-face should be avoided? How do we maintain our level of innovation when we no longer can automatically sit in a room and brainstorm or spontaneously share ideas over coffee?
In the early spring of 2020 the world changed instantly. Unexpectedly, we were no longer allowed to meet and interact with each other or leave our homes without a purpose.
The global pandemic of Covid -19 has served as a testimonial to our adaptability as humans as, very quickly, home offices were set up to continue our daily work and maintain productivity. In these past months work-life balance has shifted into a more fluid reality, where many of us have, born out of necessity, realised that we can work effectively and stay connected without leaving our homes. Some firms have even measured a higher productivity and performance amongst its employees during the lockdown.
Yet, while productivity might have continued almost undisturbed, this ‘new normal’ – where face-to-face connection and spontaneous meetings are minimised – has disrupted our trusted and clear route to innovation. Furthermore, the ability to work happily and easily from home has been unevenly distributed, and a gap between those that have the space and peace to do so and those who do not has become visible. Less-than-ideal remote work settings have also brought into relief the importance and power of architecture to promote happiness, comfort and well-being at work – something that a dining room table and a VPN connection cannot offer.
A side-effect of Covid-19 has been returning choice back to the individual, making it legitimate to cut the commute and work at home or in your summer house or at odd hours. The question, therefore, is not only how the workplace can lay new paths to stimulate innovation but also how it can convincingly entice employees to choose the office over the home.
In the wake of Covid-19, we have been reflecting upon how to design workspaces that promote well-being, novel routes to innovation and, crucially, offer something more than rows of desks. We have discussed the importance of empowering employees to have choice and agency, not only on the question of whether to work from home or the office, but where and how they work within the workplace. And we have considered the need to expect expectations to change, both in terms of the metrics we use to evaluate workplaces – perhaps moving from M2 to O2 – but also the demand to be responsive and resilient in the face of whatever future black swan event occurs that is, no doubt, as unimaginable to us today as Covid-19 was this time last year.
The Workplace Wellness Hierarchy of Needs
A. Physiological: daylight and lighting, temperature and humidity, indoor air quality, acoustics
B. Safety: intuitive wayfinding, privacy, data privacy, ergonomics and movement, accessibility, security
C. Belonging: connection to wider culture and nature inclusivity, social connectivity, work-life balance, sense of team
D. Esteem: transparency, communication of values, trust, choice, sensorial richness
E. Self-actualisation: agency to control, space for creativity, stimulating innovation
We have created two frameworks for dialogue around these issues and challenges. One is the Workplace Wellness Hierarchy of Needs, which builds closely upon Maslow’s famous pyramid, translating the ladder of needs into workplace-specific ambitions. Importantly, needs such as generous daylight, comfortable temperatures and indoor air quality are now joined by an amplified interest in hygiene – to be addressed through approaches such as contactless technologies and IoT – as the foundational layer to address. As we move up the pyramid, the role of less concretely defined needs such as a sense of belonging and the ability to influence our own environment dominate. These issues remain just as important, if not even more, in the time of Covid-19 due to their intrinsic influence on our overall well-being, for example their ability to reduce anxiety and stress.
The second framework is a set of 9 design responses, which used the Wellness Hierarchy as a springboard for looking more closely at a post-Covid reframing of the workplace.
Nine post Covid-19 design responses
The ability to change and respond is critical, meaning to design with time just as much as space. Consider flexibility and adaptability, both in terms of the possibility to inhabit a space in a multitude of ways, as well as materially reconfiguring spaces over short and longer timeframes. This approach can allow for varying densities and layouts to be achieved within the same superstructure.
2. Office as a resource
The office will need to offer something extra to give employees a reason to go to the physical office. This strategy is particularly important to support training, learning and knowledge sharing and could be realised through dedicated and diverse spaces for collaboration at varying scales. It also could mean offering settings and amenities which actively improve health and well-being alongside recreational activities.
Organising the workplace into a series of neighbourhoods has become more important than ever. Not only does it contribute to an increased sense of belonging, familiarity and community, with a shared set of social rules, helping to combat anxiety. But it also allows one neighbourhood to be temporarily closed or compartmentalized to reduce contact or create physical distance between employees in case of a new pandemic.
4. New routes to innovation
While face-to-face contact will no doubt remain important, alternative strategies are critical. Reconsidering what a meeting room is, reframing it as an analogue/digital hybrid, will likely be important. Equally, including varied emotive moments – from moments of empathy to moments of awe – are shown to promote innovation through stimulating different parts of our brain and ways of thinking – all without requiring physical contact with others.
5. Expression of values
The capacity of the workplace to be a destination and a flagship for the company’s values has increased in significance. The office can express the values of an organization, acting as physical embodiment of mission and company culture. This also is highly relevant in attracting, retaining and training employees, and we foresee that wellness as a company value to be expressed and experienced will rise up the agenda.
Prosaic but pertinent, specifying materials that are self-disinfecting, easily to clean, and perceived as such, is key. Alongside hands-free technology, such as booking meeting rooms and using lifts, the thresholds of a building and the spatially-defined behaviours within in, bridging between inside and outside, is due for a rethink, finding a replacement for the hastily placed bottles of hand sanitizer seen everywhere today.
7. Choreographing movement
While there has been much investigation into 2m-wide one-way corridor systems as an immediate and justified response, we think that perhaps a more holistic focus on lobbies, circulation and movement in general might be due, particularly looking at circulation systems which can be operated in more than one mode: the number of stairs and entrances might now have a new driver.
8. Access to air
Upgraded HVAC systems that mitigate recirculated air and allow for a daily flush will certainly be important. But the perception and experience of fresh air is also significant, addressed through features such as natural ventilation, access to outdoors spaces for all, and openable windows.
9. Sensorial comfort
An environment which helps calm and soothe, reliving anxiety and stress and playing to our deep-rooted instincts to connect with nature was already becoming popular, and this seems sure to continue. Sensorial comfort, via biophilia, natural analogues such as sinuous curves and patterns, human-scaled spaces for respite and plenty of natural materials are all useful tools.
Article courtesy of 3XN