IIDA Leadership On What’s Next For Workplace Design – Part 2

WDM connects with IIDA’s Cheryl Durst, Sascha Wagner, Ronnie Belizaire, and Angie Lee for a pulse-check and insight on what’s next for the design industry. Don’t forget to check out part one of the conversation here

This month, we mark the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. While it’s not a milestone to celebrate, it is one to give pause and reflect on what the past year has brought. It certainly seems that no one has escaped the effects of this pandemic on our lives, both personally and professionally. In order to offer perspective to our readers, we connected with the leadership of IIDA including EVP and CEO, Cheryl Durst, and International Board Presidents Sascha Wagner, Ronnie Belizaire, and Angie Lee. Given their interactions with the IIDA membership that cuts across local, national, and international boundaries, we knew this leadership group was a good place for a pulse-check. Read part two of our conversation below for heartfelt observations and creative ideas to help move us forward as we navigate to what’s next!

WDM: Where do you think we are in the process of emerging from the pandemic with respect to the types of projects that are coming in, the ability to re-staff and readjust to bringing designers back to the studio.

Sascha Wagner: This situation is more challenging than other recessions because project opportunities are sporadic and diverse as a result of the disparity in what clients are taking away from the COVID experience. For some, it has bolstered their belief in the power of place and the benefits of bringing people together to do their best work. Others are focused on the cost-savings of a reduced real estate footprint and the convenience of work-from-home and are fully committing to a remote work culture. Depending on your clients’ strategies, your firm may or may not be busy in the short-term. Looking beyond the current reactionary responses, we will likely see sensible hybrid solutions become the norm and design business will pick up more uniformly, but probably not to previous levels for quite some time.

Ronnie Belizaire: I believe that clients are still trying to determine how best their operations can be supported by physical space and that will probably bring about a lot of consulting projects for reconfiguration of existing space that doesn’t involve much construction; also there may be an onslaught of mechanical systems audits that specifically consider air circulation in the interior space.

Much like the 2008 recession, there will be a mass exodus out of the industry…there will be a loss of mid- to senior-level professionals that will not come back to the industry after being laid-off or furloughed during the pandemic and young professionals will find new opportunities to exercise their creativity and professional confidence.

Designers coming back to the studio will be motivated by gaining proximity to team members.

Angie Lee: I wish I could say we can push a button that will allow us to recoup the best of what we left behind pre-pandemic and build on the vision of a sustainable and inclusive renaissance. Instead, I suspect it will take more time than we want to re-materialize project typologies that are facing near molecular reorganization like retail, travel, cultural/institutional work.

Affordable housing has become a larger focus for us, and the prospect of working from home in the long term has started to transform the programs for multi-family residential amenities and outdoor spaces into co-working lounges and clubs.

Designers coming back to the studio will be motivated by gaining proximity to team members. Our timesheets memorializing the amount of time we are working from home certainly has made it clear that productivity is not automatically the best and highest use of the office space. The office will be competing with the flexibility and comforts of working from home in the future but will offer invaluable experiences of human-to-human interaction, camaraderie, and community building.

WDM: What are the three most common questions your clients are asking?

Sascha Wagner: With employees working from home at least some of the time, can we just reduce our footprint to save money? In my view, this is the wrong question to start with. Also, “what will post-COVID spaces need to provide?” and “how will this affect our HR policies, our operations, and our culture?” These are much better entry points to a meaningful discussion about employee experience and how spaces can help an organization not just respond but evolve.

One of the more surprising questions or requests I hear is a desire to infuse projects with wellness, biophilia and beauty.

Angie Lee: This is not so much a question as it is a desire for affirmation that old design formulas for density or luxury will remain intact when this is all over. On the flip side, more and more clients recognize that what we’re going through won’t have a neat and tidy ending, and ask instead what will bring tenants back into the office and out into the world while navigating future crises or phobias.

One of the more surprising questions or requests I hear is a desire to infuse projects with wellness, biophilia and beauty. The main reason for the surprise is because members of the client team traditionally focused first on the bottom line are bringing those topics up before the design team even introduces them.

WDM: Where do you think the project growth will come in as we transition to the post-pandemic climate?

Angie Lee: Where project growth comes from may be from less conventional business models – partnerships between public and private sectors that transpire in re-manufacturing at scale, adaptive re-use for existing and empty building stock that can functionally pivot to house, heal and create mixed-use eco-systems that support decentralized hub and spoke models. We have collapsed professional and personal spheres for almost a year; so many classic project typologies are functioning outside of their original purposes. Designing in the future will certainly need to accommodate the lessons we are learning from scenarios previously thought to be impossible.

I think the built environment will emerge more slowly than it has in the past for a number of reasons that range from changes in lending and leasing, and political and socioeconomic forces. I’m also hoping it will be because we designers and our manufacturing counterparts will be busy creating a circular economy, emphasizing healthy materials, and concentrating on innovative ways to break our reliance on plastics and fossil fuels.

The next generation of purpose-built offices will prioritize user-needs, physical and mental wellbeing, equitable access, and reduced environmental impact.

Sascha Wagner: In the immediate post-pandemic phase, we will focus on retrofitting existing offices to accommodate the impacts of partial remote work – more meeting spaces, less assigned workspace, A/V and occupancy management technology, and better acoustics. These were already trending but have now been accelerated. Combined with a renewed focus on wellbeing, social justice, and the environment, we will see not only new project typologies, but an improved design process and an elevated dialog with clients. When current lease terms end, I expect to see a shift in real estate strategies that’s likely to include geographic re-distribution and new space delivery models. The next generation of purpose-built offices will prioritize user-needs, physical and mental wellbeing, equitable access, and reduced environmental impact. Working remotely isn’t a new idea. It’s the power of being together that will draw people back to offices. Built spaces are a powerful way to manifest the values and culture of an organization. This is where designers add immeasurable value.

WDM: What are your three predictions for the future of the workplace as we do move forward?

Cheryl Durst: Our workplaces will fortify the necessity to gather and collaborate. Though remote work has been an incredible success, it also has reinforced the need for smart, selective gathering. Workplaces will become a connection point that fosters that collaborative work and serves a social function that’s essential for humanity.

Flexibility is the watchword. Our spaces will need to be more flexible and multi-use than ever before, mirroring the focus on flexibility to work wherever, whenever that we have all come to expect.

Workplaces will convey a sense of identity. As a central hub for colleagues to gather and collaborate, companies will look to workplaces to reinforce every aspect of their brand — a true opportunity to cultivate corporate identity and culture, in the moment. And tremendously successful workplaces will also allow employees to see themselves; successful design will include and reflect a diverse workforce.

Flexibility is the watchword.

Sascha Wagner: More attention will be paid to the effects of built spaces not just on physical wellbeing, but also mental health. Employees will judge an organization by how clean, safe, and healthy its environments are, and whether they prioritize the human experience. Flexibility will become paramount. Effective workplaces will provide the ability for users to configure spaces to respond to their changing needs and to choose work environments and technology based on their planned activities.

Work-from-Anywhere is here to stay. Built spaces, technology, as well as an organization’s policies and culture will adapt to a paradigm of multiple work settings and locations. But for most people, this will not mean a 100% remote solution no matter what news soundbites may tell us. Human beings are social creatures. Data shows that we accomplish more, and we thrive when we’re together.

Angie Lee: The first one is that some people will try to rebuild the world of work as if nothing ever happened. The second is that some people will never leave their home office. The third is that those extreme groups of never/always will be in the minority and most of us will accelerate into a workplace model that we used to call the workplace of the future. A few organizations had already reached that model of the future pre-pandemic, but most expected a longer runway to get there. The hybrid workplace of a post-pandemic world will likely need to accommodate an endemic world of ongoing public health challenges. Interestingly, I believe the new workplace of a near tomorrow will manifest workplace strategies that are familiar to most of us in the industry like activity-based programming, and mobile technology that allows us to work from home, the road, the coffee shop or co-working lounge just outside of the home. In addition to non-traditional work locations, HQ will be more dynamic and allow us to roam within the office, and to the roof deck or park.

Ronnie Belizaire: Virtual work integration will become a permanent part of the new normal for the workplace. The “art of gathering” physically will become more important than ever and the delicate balance of how to do that in a meaningful way for all employees will be key.

Employers will have to bring clarity to the term “representation” and be forced to reflect it in their physical workplace and organizational mission.

Innovation will come from truly embracing intentional diversity, equity and inclusion in all facets of what we do as designers and who we design for.

WDM: Where do you think the most innovation will come from?

Angie Lee: From our most uncomfortable design challenges. Typically, the most innovative designs emerge from focusing on helping those of us in greatest need. I think that because we have been in great need in great numbers this past year, isolated, traumatized by losing loved ones, plagued by inadequate technology, or afraid to venture out into a dangerously racialized public sphere, we will be driven to seek out innovative design solutions to bring us safely together and remotely connected, heal us and keep us healthy, and eradicate bad design that worsens inequities by shining a persistent light on the issues that have been historically camouflaged by the status quo.

Ronnie Belizaire: Innovation will come from truly embracing intentional diversity, equity and inclusion in all facets of what we do as designers and who we design for.

Sascha Wagner: The experience of COVID has left no one unchanged. We are rethinking what it means to live, work, gather and connect, including the very idea of offices. Space-on-demand and third-party operated facilities are poised to disrupt current real estate models. People want more flexibility than traditional leases provide.

Technology will also play a critical role in how we interact. Video-meeting and collaboration soft- and hardware are taking major leaps forward to make those who are not in the room feel more present.

Space management tools, based on IoT tech are evolving as well, leading to increased transparency about how space and furniture are being used and where and how employees are spending time. Data is powerful, but the thought about what could happen with that data is actually a little unnerving.

WDM: How have you personally managed your time, experienced, or enjoyed during this most unusual year?

Ronnie Belizaire: 2020 was a challenging year for me on so many levels beyond just the pandemic, I also experienced the loss of a parent… as difficult as this past year has been, I found solace in my Peloton bike and all the virtual exercise platform has to offer. My bike became my “Wilson” as I did my best impersonation of Tom Hanks surviving what felt like my island of 2020… I just kept pedaling and eventually, the pedaling became a lifeline.

Angie Lee: To get through this past year, I had to do a serious edit of my entrenched habits and let go of a bunch of aspirations for staying fit and keeping my family and two kids “on track”. Forgiving myself for not keeping it together 100% has been extremely helpful but has generated a lot of unfolded laundry and more than a few non-camera-ready zoom days.

Sascha Wagner: The past year has definitely been challenging, but there have been silver linings as well. Personally, I have taken more time to exercise, read, go for walks, and to cook. I know it’s a COVID-cliché, but yes, I even baked bread for a while. I’ve also rediscovered my beautiful home city of San Francisco by bike. Riding clears the mind and I’ve spent a lot of time in places I previously only knew peripherally, like Golden Gate Park and the Presidio. I do miss traveling though and can’t wait to get airborne again.

Cheryl’s WFH colleagues, Maurice and Walter Durst, taking a break from Zoom calls.

Cheryl Durst: For me, there has been one way to get through this pandemic: I held fast and reminded myself of the things that matter to me personally. All things creative matter to me, so I immersed myself in art, books, and music. The natural world matters to me, so I spent time outside walking, looking at blue sky, looking at stars.

It’s kind of incredible to think of this time as a gift, but it has had gifts to offer. I’ve explored some pretty fascinating rabbit holes (ask me about sea shanties and work songs!) Since we are living through an irregular time, think some irregular thoughts, take on some tangents. Why not?

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