NeoConnect: Forging The New Frontier Of Workspace’s Next Normal • Webinar Recap

October is National Work and Family month! See how we embraced it along with our NeoCon friends.

On Wednesday, WDM’s own Elise Shapiro moderated the first of two NeoConnect webinars in partnership with the NeoCon team on the subject of the future of the workplace post-COVID-19. Lead panelist, Kari Leibowitz kicked off the conversation telling us about how stress may not always be such a bad thing for us and can sometimes sharpen our attention and connect us to what matters.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been, as Kari puts it, a reset button for the entire world. We’re all curious to see how this will change the future of work. Now that we have been working remotely for over six months, we may feel more in touch with what things we really liked about working in the office, while also realizing the things that were not serving us that well. A lively and inspirational conversation ensued with too many takeaways and actionable items to list them all here. Watch the full webinar below to learn more about what our panelists, Eric Yorath, BCIN, LEED AP, Principal, Figure3; Jamie Feuerborn, LEED AP, Senior Associate, Director of Workplace Strategy, Ted Moudis Associates; Kari Leibowitz, Health Psychologist, Stanford University; and Sylvia Kowalk, LEED AP, ID+C, Principal, Director of Interior Design, Legat Architects think about how work and what’s next for workplace.

After you’ve had the chance to watch the webinar, go deeper with our panelists in the extended Q&A below!

Interesting point about how different it is to be physically together vs virtually… Any thoughts on how our social skills will change? Especially for younger generations for whom virtual may be more normal than real world? Will this impact design?

Sylvia: Social skills are a crucial component of the success our work-life. The need to interact with others, the art of listening and knowing how to exchange ideas, the ability of empathizing and belonging to our work community will be present virtually and/or in real life. How we connect with each other might look little different. The virtual world should be an enhancement and an addition to face to face interactions. A text will never replace a warm phone call or an in person meeting. People gravitates to people, not to computer screens. Virtual is a great way to speed things up, in some cases be more productive, but social skills keeps us connected in a human level. Will it impact design?, the answer is yes, our ways or working and communicating have been enhanced by the virtual world, interior spaces need to allow for this new way of connecting and interacting, technology should never go away, is a great tool. The key is to use this tool to it’s fullest, but never underestimating the power of real world human interactions.

Eric: I like to think that the physical separation and isolation has actually demonstrated to a generation already dependent on social media and other means of digital communication, how critical it is to be able to communicate with others face-to-face. We have all experienced the burn-out of communicating with others at length over video conferencing platforms. This comes at the absence of certain social nuance and social cues which we all take for granted.

Kari: I think many of us are noticing that what we miss the most about being in the office is the social connection – even those who may be more comfortable with virtual interaction will realize that there is added value in the energy and feeling created when we are together in person. When we can access anything we want online – visit places virtually, learn anything, connect with anyone, what is the benefit of going somewhere physically? I think that is what design will have to optimize for – the idea that we have so much at our fingertips, but there are some things that can only be done in person that make in-person workplaces and gatherings special, and so I think that will be an even bigger focus in the future.

As people transition back to the office, do you see open offices evolving to more personal spaces? If so, how?

Sylvia: I see a mix happening. I see flexible, adaptable and resilient spaces. It’s about finding the perfect balance between the function of the space and the wellness of it’s occupants. There will be a time where privacy is needed and a time there where groups of people need to be together to bounce ideas and create solutions. It’s all about adaptability in design. The needs of a Law Firm will be totally different to the needs of a Design Studio, but the attention to human wellness and safety will always be the same. One of the biggest transformations in the workplace will be the balance of hoteling stations that respond to work at home policies. Another item will be the need for small private spaces “personal hubs” for quick virtual connections with clients and/or other team members. Workplace design needs to now respond to physical and virtual interactions. Proper lighting, proper acoustics will become key elements. The physical and mental wellbeing of the workplace occupants will become a strong design factor.

Jamie: There will definitely be more awareness around personal space, but not necessarily dedicated personal space. Designing to maintain “social distancing”, providing desks that maybe don’t face each other directly (or if they do have more barrier), providing more smaller focus rooms for video meetings—these are all things we are seeing.

Before we are able to connect with people the environment will need to feel safe. How do you create and communicate that people are in psychologically safe physical space – are there specific features or environments that can do that?

Sylvia: Control, proper information, clear communication and transparency is what makes us feel safe. Once we have the capability of controlling our environment, like opening windows, controlling our light levels, being able to move our workstations to be closer or farther away from others, having the flexibility and choice of where and when to work in any given day will give us peace of mind. Clear open communication on how safety strategies are in place and transparency on cleaning procedures will make us feel at ease and free our minds to be able to think, work, learn, play and interact with others without any safety concerns. The physical environment plays a huge role on our emotional wellbeing, color phycology, biophilia, the use of natural lighting, sustainable materials, ergonomics, acoustical and visual comfort are some of the key design elements that we can all rely on.

Jamie: Creating areas of refuge, which would be creating a place where an individual is protected both from behind and overhead, that that is separate from the main activity in that area. Booths are a great example of this, also not having desks positioned so people have their backs to primary circulation paths. Also enclosed meetings rooms that allow for transparency. With regards to how individuals feel with COVID people seem to feel most safe when they are outdoors. So indoor environments that mimic that with elements of nature will provide that psychologically safe environment as well.

Eric: If we are speaking about a space where people feel safe from the risk of contracting COVID-19, I think there are many policies in practice today which are intended to mitigate this risk. Some of these include ensuring existing desks are partially occupied to achieve distancing, identified traffic routs to prevent people from passing or crossing paths, and facilities for staff to sanitize their hands and workspaces. However, I think it is important to consider that the more an environment is inundated with these signals of separation and sterilization, the more anxious staff may become being constantly reminded of the threat. I think there is a delicate balance between signals of policy and culture.

Kari: I think one aspect will be making sure that there is transparency in COVID-19 related and other safety features: being clear about how and when things are being disinfected, how the ventilation has been improved, and how the office flow has been designed to minimize contagion, for example. But I also think people will want to be in a place that feels comfortable, almost cozy. Some work places are designed to be impressive – large, open, intimidating, glossy. But I think people will want to feel a little more cocooned, a little more enveloped by their workplaces in future – I think this sense of coziness and comfort can help elicit these feelings of psychological safety.

I’m curious how all this effects event-based spaces.

Sylvia: I believe we are all trying to figure that one out as we speak. The U.S. Department of Human Health / Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines are moving fast. Our best tool is to keep informed and be involved in the fast moving conversation.

To your point about the way that the standard 8:30am to 5pm hours have become blurred and, in effect, negatively affecting the healthy work-life balance. Is there a way Interior Design can physically address this “negative” effect, rather than just mentally establishing boundaries? Can you suggest some easily-accessible physical “life-hacks” we can implement now?

Jamie: In some ways there is actually a benefit to this blurred line. It may give you more flexibility as well during those 8:30 – 5 hours so that needs to be taken into consideration as well when we think about that balance. The best way to have the physical boundary is when you are working in the office. When you are in the office that is your focus, once you leave the office your commute becomes that transition. When you are at home you need to recreate that commute. Some examples on the call were to take a walk outside, work from a separate room than your living space, change clothes. Some ways the physical workplace can help you stay focused and be the most productive while you are there is providing spaces that support that, such as quiet rooms.

Eric: Its ironic to think that not that long ago, a huge influence in the world of workplace design where the influences of residential design aesthetics. This was in an effort to create new work settings which felt more inviting and relaxed, and blurring the boundaries between work and residential environments. Today we find ourselves in a world where we are needing to draw more definition between the two when they exist under the same roof. I would suggest that some solutions can be found in the same strategies. By ensuring that one’s workspace within their home is set up as a zone that is visually/physically different than the rest of the home, better separation between work and living can be established.

Kari: I think one thing we’ve all been hearing is to try and create a dedicated work space at home that is a space just for working. This has personally helped me tremendously to separate spaces in my home that are for work as opposed to for leisure. There’s also psychology research on how clutter in our environment can make it hard to focus – I, for one, find myself all the time falling victim to “productive procrastination” while working from home – cleaning, watering plants, doing laundry. So I think trying to find a space that feels mentally clear as well as dedicated to work can help a lot. Of course that may be easier said than done for lots of us, especially those living in a household with family members or kids who are also now home all the time – if that’s the case, even transitioning these spaces during the day can help. For example, maybe everyone has to do school and work at the kitchen table all day, but come evening time computers and tablets get put away, stored somewhere out of sight to provide a little bit of psychological distance and avoid the feeling of having our work always watching us from the corner of the room.

Completely agree, creating our own boundaries is exactly what we are doing – but this takes effort, it’s hard work and additional ‘labour’ on top of the day job – do you think organizations need to take this ‘boundary making’ work into account? And if so, how might they do this?

Sylvia: As I mentioned in our webinar, I believe flexibility of work-time and work-place comes with ownership and responsibility. We need to create our own specific boundaries of time and place, with the understanding that the work still needs to be done in a timely matter and that others are counting on us to make it happen. Flexibility comes with accountability in mind. This is the beginning of a new way of management, having the same expectations and goals but with a better understanding of the specific needs of our team members. It starts with open communication, clear direction, clear expectations and empathy, on the other side it needs to be supported by the employees ownership, responsibility, and internal motivation. Once a clear goal is set and a collaborative plan of action is in place. is not going to matter how we get to it as long as we exceed everybody’s expectations.

With the assumption that workplaces will shrink to support a smaller population coming in on a regular basis – what is going to happen to all the empty commercial office space – are there interesting opportunities emerging?

Jamie: I think how much workplaces shrink is still to be determined. In some situations it’s a redistribution of square footage, in others it is a reduction. One option maybe to create more community and amenity space for tenants. However this is something that we will all be thinking about in the coming years.

Sylvia: Commercial office space and retail space. Let’s face it, we live in an ever evolving, changing world. The need for commercial office space might be reduced but will never go away. My sense is that it will be transformed. Design and proper square footage needs will respond to the “new way of working” and collaborating and new spaces will be created to respond to the human need to be social and interactive. I have seen virtual-technology based environments taking over some of the traditional commercial real-state, also shared spaces will be created where physical resources can be shared between companies. Another interesting opportunity resides in residential design. While commercial spaces are morphing and the way we work evolves, opportunities in residential design will follow. Blurring the lines between time, location and opening the doors to new opportunities and collaboration between people we have never imagine working with, is the beginning of a wonderful transformation.

Eric: There is certainly a fair bit of anxiety amongst the commercial landlords of the world today, with vast uncertainty of future demand for office space. And yes, I think there is definitely opportunity to be found as well. One of the areas that may be able to capitalize on this opportunity is the world of coworking. Coworking firms have the potential of offering companies who wish to downsize with the option for flex space in the same building. Coworking companies might also fill the gap in rural residential areas for workers who don’t want to make the long commute into the office every day, but find it difficult to work for long periods of time in the confines of a small apartment.

Ready to continue the conversation? Don’t miss our second webinar, “Raising the Bar as We Rethink the Workspace” on Wednesday, October 14 from 10:00am–11:00am CDT / 11:00am–12:00pm EST. Featured panelists include:

Jan Johnson – Vice President of Workplace Strategy for Allsteel

Dr. Tracy Brower, Principal Applied Research and Consulting for Steelcase

Royce Epstein, A&D Design Director for Mohawk Group

Anjell Karibian, Senior Workplace Design and Research Strategist for Haworth

Register here for The October 14th webinar.

As part of NeoConnect 2020, this is the fourth article in a six-part series of collaborations with originally scheduled NeoCon 2020 presenters. Read the first article featuring authors Jan Johnson and Jeff Leitner here, the second featuring Patricia Rotondo and Diana Araoz-Fraser here, the third featuring Rebecca Milne and Scott Fallick here, the fifth, part two of our NeoConnect webinars here, and the sixth featuring Brent Protzman here

Thank you to our NeoConnect sponsors: 

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