ADG Architects Design Group Architecture Design Graphics Future Places of Work Covid-19

Don’t think ‘new-normal’, think evolution Pt 1…

Part 1 – Our Future Places of Work…

In many ways the process of working from home has been a great leveller. ‘Zooming’ (a new one for the OED) from our homes has turned the anonymous writers of demanding emails into real people who share real problems with ourselves, juggling schoolwork and nursery care with a full-time job. Never before have we been so regularly invited into the homes of the people who normally we might not otherwise ‘meet’ at all.

The reality is of course that ‘juggling’ does not really go far enough, and for many this has been a real compromise. Whilst we have discovered that we can work remotely if we need to, as time goes by, we’re not completely sure we want to, at least not all the time. We at ADG have operated a flexible working policy for many years now and it has proved workable, but it’s never been adopted to this degree before. As some of our staff filter back into a safe working environment you can visibly see and hear the benefits of working literally as a team, rather than virtually. I’ll be frank about this, a decaf coffee first thing isn’t going to do the job for me any more than a virtual design team meeting will. The almost osmotic ability for team members to absorb and share information cannot be achieved remotely, and the camaraderie created by working with others in the same place towards a common goal is similarly not present when colleagues are working in silos. Sorry Microsoft, nice try.

Hence, we believe that whilst the specifics of how people both think about and go about work will likely continue to evolve, accelerated by the current pandemic, people will still want to have workplaces to go to in order to do just that. Ultimately the majority of us do not really want our place of rest and recreation to be directly associated with the place where we work. However, having the choice when needed is a fantastic thing, and for now a lot of us will surely continue to spread work between home and office, especially in light of current and ever-changing advice.

So, what will our future places of work look like? Having the option to remove oneself from the home environment, but not battle a lengthy commute, has a lot of appeal for many people. We might see a greater amount of, smaller, speculative office accommodation come available, perhaps combined meaningfully into areas of residential development. To me at least, large out-of-town Business Parks appear destined for the history books unless large areas can be carved up into smaller units, whilst the future design of this type of provision might centre more around the ability to create separation as required, perhaps with units accessed independently and externally.

However, the general concept of the city centre based ‘work hub’ combined with flexible meeting spaces and a good café still seems really strong, and surely what a lot of professional people want? Looking further ahead, beyond the immediate problems, this type of use might push more meaningfully into the vacant retail zones of our towns and cities creating that truly ‘mixed-use’ that our city planners have been striving for? Having greater ‘exposure’ might prove to be very desirable for some whilst creating a high street full of activity and interest, with a captive audience using its’ local facilities would be positive all-round.

Offices have increasingly turned more open plan and more dense in recent years. Whilst we believe that many organisations will continue to both want and need specific office space, we think this trend is set to alter for the foreseeable future with the requirement for much lower staff density. Careful planning of the orientation and placement of desks, and the inclusion of more physical separation will likely be required and clever furniture and fit-out solutions will do the hard work. Offices will need to be designed for easy and effectively cleaning, with less fixed desk space, less clutter and greater flexibility in terms of work zones. But surely, we were all generally headed in this direction? We rarely use our physical library and hard copy product literature, reverting instead to online information. Similarly, all our project information is stored electronically, there’s no real need to have our desks cluttered with paper and stationery.

As greater home working appears set to stay, we can all predict a degree of existing office accommodation coming available and the demand for It reducing, impacting upon office letting values. In the wake of the pandemic there will be a degree of knee-jerk reaction, many unfortunate economic casualties and a degree of general restructuring, and out of this change will inevitably come. It seems quite likely that commercial landlords will be considering their options. For some, especially those with notably less than A-grade premises, the option of using Permitted Development Rights, fuelled by Central Government incentivisation, might see further office-to-residential converted accommodation appearing in our urban centres, potentially positive if done correctly. For others, the conversion of larger premises into smaller units, with flexible letting terms, might provide appeal to a wider audience, securing a longer-term commercial future for some of these buildings.

For some organisations fixed office space will be viewed as a ‘luxury’, a measure of status. Many organisations already operate as a loose collaboration of ‘remote’ individuals. We think this might drive a further requirement for higher quality office space, the lower end of the market being viewed as not worth the overhead investment.

These are strange times, but we can use this inevitable need for change to direct how we want our urban environment to evolve for the better. The need for the retail element of our city centres has been reducing as retailers moved online and out of town, to the detriment of both our built environment and city centre trading. Office space has to a degree done the same, fuelled by a need for quality space and road connectivity. With more available space and less emphasis on car travel this might be the time to get our places of work firmly back into our urban centres, and we think this could ultimately be very positive.

Part 2 we will explore how our homes and places of recreation might also change in response to this unusual external pressure.

Dale's experience spans a wide range of project sectors, sizes and stages and has particular interests in environmental design and earth-sheltered construction. His favourite projects reuse and breathe new life into under-loved existing buildings.