NeoCon 2021: The Workplace Reimagined & Beyond

Inspired by key moments and topics from the “Conversation on Workplace Reimagined” NeoCon 2021 panel discussion, we explored more points with Cheryl Durst and Joe Connell.

At NeoCon 2021 in Chicago, the design world had a dose of reconnection not only to peers and colleagues but to ideas, products, material, educational seminars. IIDA was instrumental in six events, but perhaps the most interesting and intimate, was “A Conversation on Workplace Reimagined” which was hosted in the KI showroom on October 5.

The event featured top local industry leaders on how to use design as a mechanism to connect employees and build a resilient, inclusive culture. Moderated by IIDA Executive Vice President and CEO, Cheryl Durst, the panelists included Cannon Design Principal, Interior Design, Mark C. Hirons; Perkins&Will Principal, Joseph T. Connell; Stantec Vice President, Angie Lee; and Kuchar Owner, Creative Director, Sarah Kuchar.

Workplace Reimagined Panel
The Workplace Reimagined panel discussion moderated by Cheryl Durst at NeoCon 2021.

While the actual event touched on some of the key issues designers are grappling with to reset the stage for how the workplace will be evolving in the post pandemic age, our follow-up conversations were more focused on the personal observations and reflections of both Cheryl and Joseph.

Inspired by key moments and topics from the panel discussion, we explored the following points with Cheryl and Joseph.

“Spaces people can be excited about”

For most design professionals, that is always the game plan. But now as we are tasked with luring people back to their workplaces, out of their sweats, away from their fur babies and escaping from the added pressures of homeschooling –  How can designers’ re-tool the workplace to make it work for the post-disruptive COVID-era?

“What do you think may be holding people back?”

Fear of exposure to COVID and variants? Not wanting to go back to commuting. Comfortable with flexibility to manage where and where they can work?

“The genie is out of the bottle. What is the genie telling you?”

How have you thought about making some changes at IIDA HQ for example? What are you experimenting with? Is this informed by your conversations with your members who are working with their clients in their workplace redesign challenges?

“Place matters more”

Going forward what do you think will define the purpose of place differently than pre-COVID?

Our follow-up conversation with Cheryl offered a very personal perspective about returning to the office as she related her own experience spending her first day back at the IIDA HQ with some of her staff! Her smiles and obvious happiness were evident as she shared the following thoughts and experiences:

A snapshot of that day is probably one anyone returning to the office could relate to.  First the commute, (two hours), decisions (Uber or cab?) – Starbucks stop, first one there, turn on the lights. Look around, deep breath – “It felt like coming home.”  People started coming in, much chatter, more Starbucks – it was “like the family gathering before Thanksgiving Dinner.”

What that experience revealed was that going back to the office, the first time in person back with colleagues was like a siren call to come back and reconnect with “your people.” The upshot is that the return to the workplace is a many-layered proposition.

Thoughtfulness is the epitome of inclusion, have empathy for the lives and experience of others and seeing others where they are.

– Cheryl Durst

Cheryl’s second point was that the quality of work in person may be very different than how we have been operating remotely. Grappling with work issues directly with colleagues rather than zoom boxes is very different. In person adds more depth to what we are doing. Plus, there is the sheer happiness factor of just being together!

Some additional thought and attention must also be given to integrating long time co-workers with virtual hires. Cheryl pointed out that there was going to be two versions of on-boarding. The on-boarding that happened virtually and the second one as the new hire comes into the physical workplace. That endeavor will force re-thinking about bringing people in and acclimating to becoming part of a culture, a culture which may have been redefined. This is about how to knit people into the fabric of a company’s unique work culture.

Some of the other things pointed out were relearning how to interact with each other upon re-entry. Are people running back or being dragged back? What is the new rhythm of work going to be? There may be some initial awkwardness. Do you hug? What are the new rituals?

Added to the mix are heightened awareness of the circumstances employees face both at home and at work. What do people go home to and what are their family circumstances? What are people’s comfort levels? This is one of the layers Cheryl was alluding to. Leaders need to be aware and deliberately intentional about being back together.  Or in Cheryl’s words, “thoughtfulness is the epitome of inclusion, have empathy for the lives and experience of others and seeing others where they are.”

In summary it is time for cautious elation that we can anticipate being together after months of separation and collectively navigating the path forward.

We also followed up with panelist Joseph Connell, Design Principal, Perkins + Will, Chicago, in a separate interview. Our discussion with Joe centered more on the physical, design responses to some of the issues Cheryl reflected on.

In the arena of “now what?” for the workplace, Joe pointed out that across all practice areas and project types, resilience, adaptability, and flexibility are going to be motivating factors for designers. The arc of the conversations have changed and are focused increasingly on individual health, welfare, comfort, wellbeing, and mental health.

With those issues in mind the conversation turned to what Joe and his team are discussing with their clients. In sync with Cheryl’s comments, there is increased focus on the balance between what employers (Corporate America) needs and what employees may need. There is a need to identify the high value activities that need to happen in person. As designers it will be increasingly important to design for those activities, design around behavior and provide space to accommodate those behaviors. It is not just assigning a desk or office and expecting all work to take place in the specific confines of a rigid workplace environment.

Interface Base Camp, Atlanta – Design: Perkins&Will – Photo credit: Nick Merrick (c) Hall + Merrick Photographers

So, one important question to ask is what do you need and what do you do? Define the need and craft a solution. The pandemic showed that people were able to adapt and do what they needed to do wherever they were, camper, closet, hunkered down in their residence with their new coworkers, like the cat!  That was the new reality that is leading us to think about what we need to design for people emerging into their shared workspaces.

From a business perspective and what may drive design solutions are new parameters of thinking about how and where we work:

  • Maybe I don’t need an office or assigned desk
  • I miss the workplace celebrations and rituals
  • People touch and need stuff
  • How can we better allocate offices and workstations if we do need them?
  • How can we make use of utilization metrics to design spaces people will actually use?
  • Corporate standards are antiquated

Bottom line, we need to design offices where people can find their best place and best space. It may not be the same thing for the course of the workday.

Special thanks to the event host:

In addition for bringing together this thoughtful conversation, at NeoCon, KI shared their kit of parts solutions for clients who are looking for highly adaptable solutions to their furniture investments. One NeoCon debut product from KI that caught the Work Design Magazine team’s attention is C-TableTM Max Personal Worksurface: A personal worksurface within non-traditional work or study areas, now available with large worksurface options to accommodate an abundance of personal belongings within arm’s reach. We think you’ll like it!

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