November 09, 2021

Work is More Than a Desk and Other Pandemic Learnings

Work is More Than a Desk and Other Pandemic Learnings

Your workplace. It’s changed. Sure, you don’t work where you used to. If you do, it’s wildly different. There are fewer people. More rules. Stifled interaction. But over the course of the pandemic, all 561 days of it – 13,464 hours of it – we’ve learned that the expected conventions of work are not so static as we thought. Certain comforts have crept in, there are schedules that are more freeing, methods that actually enable more concentration, and ways to manage the work-life balancing act that stray far from the boilerplate developed over the last half century. Maybe the term work-life balance is entirely missing the point. Work is part of our lives. An integral part. The restrictions that a global pandemic thrust upon us have raised a critical question. Why do we insist on dividing work from the rest of our existence rather than striving to create ways to include it? Strangely, a set of intense restrictions have opened up an enormous host of possibilities.

It’s an exceedingly exciting time in workplace architecture and one that promises a lot of truly positive change. We need to learn from what we’ve been through and adapt.

When lockdown measures fractured our norms, we made offices out of our bedrooms, our kitchens, even our closets. Some have resorted to the self-containment of a shed in the backyard. All have their benefits. And their detractions.

Plant-life and touches of home are a definite plus. There are scores of others: a kitchen an arm’s length away, opening a window for fresh air, a dog with its head resting amicably on our feet. A home office has given us the convenience of interacting with our immediate surroundings, our neighbourhoods. Aligning ourselves with the environment around us is key to capturing some of the benefits we’ve found in this altered work world. Business leaders must remember that the pandemic has allowed workers to bring a laptop outside or take a call while counting our 10,000 steps.

Our new, isolated work silos have stolen the accidental face-to-face interactions with our coworkers that we need in order to create a sense of connection, of common purpose and to spark ideas that seem to arise from the ether. These are so difficult to generate from a two-dimensional office; the screen is a wonderful tool, but its limits are marked by its intangibility.

The future of work is not about simply abandoning the out-of-home office. It is about finding the elixir that blends some of the freedoms and inspiration we’ve discovered with the structures that motivate, focus and drive collective work ambitions.

Businesses that retained their leases can still participate equally in fostering an inclusive approach to their community. Element AI, cutting-edge Quebec-based artificial intelligence experts, understand the need for a connection to a sense of place. My architectural firm, Linebox, designed their Montreal offices before anyone had heard the term COVID-19. Still, there was a collaborative sense that the city – and specifically, the Mile End neighbourhood around them – had to be brought into the building. Strategically placed windows showcase views of the myriad nearby church steeples. But the flavour of the neighbourhood is brought inside, too. The office library is housed in a cabin-like structure featuring a dramatic vaulted roof and slatted windows looking out to the lobby. It resonates with visual cues to those same churches. An on-site espresso bar incorporates the character of a couple of the local coffee shops.

The “new office” isn’t going to be delineated by one single vision. Those in charge need to implement as many changes as possible to remain competitive in the field of creating liveable workplaces. Using natural materials anchors us. Designing a mixture of spaces for casual as well as structured meetings gives staff a variety of settings to approach the results businesses seek. Diversity is key.

There is all the evidence in the world to suggest that creative brains are stimulated by active bodies. We’ve learned that we want to be moving, but not by car. We’ve also discovered that movement need not end when you reach the office. Work can be combined with activity. The pandemic-scape has sprinkled the side streets and parks with distanced meetings. People amble, walk and jog, earbuds ensconced, speaking animatedly into their phones everywhere you look. Yet so many offices of the past are set up to hold us in a sedentary state for eight hours a day.

GSoft is a company with the prescience to imagine how integral the idea of movement is in a workplace. Linebox designed their new office spaces mid-pandemic. GSoft recognized the value of a space that allowed both interaction and mobility. Skateboarding is inextricable from the fabric of the tech brand’s culture. Every office and every meeting space is designed to be ‘rideable’. Ramps, banks, and paths pave the way to allow skateboards, scooters, or just fun, active movement from one place to the next. It’s worth noting that this is a company that creates software to enable smarter workplaces, yet they’re still heavily invested in the physical setting of their own workplace.

Okay. So maybe every office isn’t destined to be ‘rideable’. But there is a lesson from this time away from the office that we need to embrace. An active life need not be reduced to the gym. Gyms, too, should be incorporated into more and more workspaces - but designs that encourage walking and momentum are essential for the workplace that invites a progressive future.

It’s true, some staff may never return. Many have moved away – to the countryside or to another province. Others have changed their lifestyles in a manner that will prevent an easy re-entry. The future office-scape has to anticipate what this looks like and offer a path to include these permanent remote workers. As videoconferencing has become commonplace and verbs like Zoom have entered the vernacular, there is a need to create or adapt spaces that allow a more fluid interaction between those who are physically present and those who are not. Video booths, or rooms designed with sound-abatement must afford privacy when required, and the power to induce lively discussion amongst multiple participants at other times.

This new work lifestyle is re-emerging into a landscape that hasn’t yet had the chance to evolve. A successful workplace return means resisting the human inclination to fall back into old habits. People have built new ones. While technology and the power of the internet have certainly changed the way we work over the past couple of decades, its effect on our physical spaces has been subtle. Now is the time to realize the vast scope of how the advantages of the advent of widespread virtual work can really meld with the tried-and-true benefits of on-site efficiencies.

Andrew Reeves is Principal Partner and Senior Architect of Ottawa-based Linebox Studio.