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Reinventing space: The next frontier for architects

Article-Reinventing space: The next frontier for architects

Tim Martin
From the implementation of biophilic design to voice-activated technology in the workplace, Tim Martin, Managing Director, Gensler Middle East, speaks to Cityscape Intelligence on how the current pandemic will shape the architecture industry.

How has Gensler responded to this new way of working?

We are a research-centric organisation and used this to our advantage in order to understand how our teams were coping and being affected. We launched a survey to assess our employee’s well-being, their challenges, and overall experiences. It provided extremely insightful feedback which we are incorporating into our plan to return to work in the region.

Some encouraging findings showed that 68% of respondents were highly satisfied with their WFH experience. We found greater levels of trust, productivity and empowerment compared to working in the office. In addition, having the flexibility to arrange their own work schedules and save on commute time had a significant positive impact on their overall satisfaction and relationships. These findings prompted us to think about how we can offer the same level of experience when returning back into the workplace.

While the survey produced some promising findings, overall people still preferred to be in the office, they miss socialising with colleagues, impromptu face-to-face meetings and the community aspect of office life. These insights will be invaluable in enabling us to create a hybrid of working, social and community experience by merging the top benefits of working from home and from the office.

What new policies are being introduced?

Organisations are looking to revamp designs to encourage employees to return to the office. Among potential changes ahead are health checkpoints in reception areas and the greater use of ventilation methods to encourage more outside air. Gensler recently completed a ME focused Workplace Index Survey, looking at the balance between cellular offices and open spaces and explored solutions to balance local and international requirements. It is truly going to be a time of transformation for the workplace.

Issues with the "open concept" floor plans were beginning to emerge before the pandemic. This was evident in Gensler's annual report on the state of the workplace, released in January this year. The firm highlighted the looming problem posed by companies trying to cram too many employees into shrinking floor plans. The nationwide survey of 5,000 workers also cited the need for more innovative policies and methods to allow people to do their jobs remotely.

There are aspects of the physical office, that are still better suited for in-person interactions such as; meeting clients, brainstorming and creative collaboration. However, the current crisis will no doubt accelerate innovation. There'll be an emergence of new ideas and unlocking of trend lines that have previously been very set in place. Gensler is responding to this through creativity and using our own offices as testing grounds for new concepts intended to let workers safely return to the office.

What specific changes will we see in regard to the configuration of space?

The reception has always been an important area for companies, it offers the first insight into an organisation and its culture. Now, in the age of coronavirus, the space will take on a whole new meaning. We predict the reception area transforming into a health screening checkpoint, where visitors and employees alike will undergo testing. Such systems are already in place in Hong Kong and other countries.

Previous open floor plan shared spaces will be more sparsely designed to accommodate new social distancing guidelines. Conference rooms will have stricter occupancy requirements —with more employees dialing in virtually.

How will the role of technology be adapted to cater to the future of office spaces?

Companies will need to infuse technology more seamlessly into floor plans as people are eager to eliminate as much physical contact as possible. Indicators of this can be found in global trends such as the increase in contactless payments.

I predict an integration of this trend across several touchpoints of a design, for example; elevators, doors, bathrooms, frictionless space where people won't have to make contact in order to operate.

Organisations could also rely on sensors that would indicate when people are in the space and adjust lighting or air circulation accordingly.

What has been the greater impact of the current pandemic on the field as a whole?

It’s still early to know the full extent of how the global pandemic will influence new ways of working. However, in the near future we must explore how and what we need to do bring back to the social society that people are craving. Gensler has launched a new survey to specifically start asking critical questions such as; How is work changing? What is easier to do at home versus the office? What do people miss the most? What do they think they may miss from their home working environments when they return?

These questions will help employers determine what employees truly value and what amenities really matter when creating safe, productive working environments. We already know people will need to feel safe and protected in novel ways as a result of COVID-19. I envisage we will need to plan for a change to the following:

  • Densification taking a hiatus; spaces will start to be designed for natural physical distancing. Less space per person has been the trend for a significant period of time, we expect a short-term shift as phases of people return to the office.
  • Dynamic and unassigned seating will also require a shift in thinking. We know from Gensler’s US Workplace Survey, that employees with unassigned seating were less productive and engaged as those with an assigned seat. Now, we also expect dedicated space per employee, where, they will have a sense of control over their personal space at work, which in turn can give them a sense of ease and safety.
  • New ways to collaborate virtually, which will likely continue when we return to the office. Companies that were once more skeptical of remote working, have now had the opportunity to see how well it can work.

We should embrace the best of these new habits and encourage them to flourish.

What do you see being the short-term impact on the industry?

Perhaps the greatest impact both short and long term is the focus on health and wellness. We believe new touchless technology solutions, materials, products, protocols, and air filtration systems may begin to mimic what we used to associate more with traditional healthcare environments. To plan for a totally new reality, our design response will likely parallel what we are seeing in the public health community. In the immediate term, we will enter a bridge phase until more becomes known about the virus. Smart design can decrease the rate of sickness, alleviate symptoms of illness, and improve mental functions, outlook and mood. Short-term solutions will include things like:

  • Rethinking meeting spaces, reducing the number of occupants and encouraging virtual attendance.
  • Implementation of professional cleaning and sanitising protocols for workstations, conference rooms, reception desks and social or common areas at regular intervals throughout the day.
  • A focus on indoor air quality, leveraging technology can help filter and destroy bacteria and viruses from our indoor environments.
  • Adding ultraviolet (UV) lights to air handlers can help purify air and contribute to a safe and healthy indoor environment.
  • Updating and displaying safety measures regularly in order to show building occupants that they are taking health and safety seriously,
  • Introducing indoor environments wellness grade similar to display cleanliness grades or health inspections

What do you see being the long impact on the industry?

While none of us can predict the future, it seems reasonable to expect that there will be a continued focus on health and wellness, this could inform solutions that might require more extensive retrofits or design solutions such as:

  • Air-filtration systems with operable windows to bring more fresh air into spaces
  • Integration of outdoor space, to create greater indoor-outdoor connection
  • Implementation of biophilic designs as part of a broader effort towards adding elements of nature into the workplace
  • Rethinking floor plans to facilitate a more hygienic environment for example door-free entrances similar to airport restrooms - a strategy that greatly reduces the need to touch foreign surfaces, like door handles, which could transmit bacteria or viruses. Similarly, doors can be designed with a foot contact point, or fitted with automated or voice-activated technology that allows them to be opened with the wave of a hand or a voice command.

Ultimately, one thing we have learned from the isolation is the degree to which humans are social animals. We value human connection, and we want to join our colleagues at work and our friends and family in social environments.

Do you have any advice for architects or firms struggling with the situation?

Our careers as designers are about lifelong learning and diversifying. More now than ever it is necessary to evolve and develop both technical and soft skills. This is an opportunity to stay abreast with design trends and technology and hone their capabilities. It is important to partner with clients to determine their business strategy, through design and truly know and understand our client's business. Our role as designers and architects is ever-evolving, we need to think smarter about providing solutions.

The coronavirus pandemic will cause major shifts in how we experience the world and our industry will change and adapt. When this crisis has passed, we may well discover that there have been fundamental changes in the way we work.

Now is the time for more creative solutions, generated through collaborations among disciplines, technology and varying sectors. Ultimately, we want to create cities, spaces and places that promote safety, are inclusive and address sustainability challenges. At Gensler, we continue to deliver design solutions that shape the future of our cities and the human experience.


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