The Pandemic’s Work-from-home Lessons – Metropolis
While it’s tempting to assume that the pandemic simply accelerated the conditions of a networked world, that would miss all the ways in which the pandemic pushed us to rethink many of our assumptions about work and life. One unexpected outcome brought by the pandemic is clear: the normative authority of organizations to dictate the spatial conditions of work has been disrupted—in varying degrees for different groups, to be sure—but enough that individuals increasingly expect some say in where and how they work. So much so that now, as many organizations attempt to reassert that authority, a growing number of workers are pushing back—or simply walking out, as evidenced by the “great resignation.”
For their part, organizations now realize that they risk losing their most vital asset—their workforce talent—if they do not offer flexibility for at least a partially remote work life. This is a massive shift that raises new questions about how we program space, how we organize group processes, and how we support workers with the proper tools to do remote work.
Real Estate Remix
In some cases, the new conditions of WFH can have a mass effect on the regional sense of place, as remote workers migrate and sometimes displace local populations. The new spatial demands of WFH are partly responsible for the recent explosion in the residential real estate market as many buyers trade-up into larger homes to better support their work lives and home lives. At the same time, the commercial real estate market has suffered, as corporations down-size the centralized footprint they once required. These shifting currents can have pronounced socio-economic effects on cities and communities, changing the very texture of local cultures. According to the Vitality Index, a barometer of post-pandemic urban health that tracks data of urban foot traffic based on cellular data, many cities report less than half the urban foot traffic compared to pre-pandemic numbers, even more than two years later.
This scale of change may call for significant redesign on both a macro and micro level. As more work takes place at home, rooms once designed as bedrooms become home offices, and whole basements are converted to a studio office. But what then becomes of the corporate office? And as proximity to the corporate mothership becomes less important, opening up new potentials for where to live, what becomes of urban business districts like Midtown Manhattan? Will we see a significant urban exodus, or the opposite? Will whole floors of corporate office buildings be reprogrammed as residential space?
Each of these visions suggest that both homes and cities must learn to perform differently from their original design. But the pace and scale of change varies widely and is currently proceeding by an ad hoc, patchwork logic that could only benefit from more informed design thinking that takes into account the distinct yet overlapping needs of work and home, individuals and organizations, neighborhoods, and communities.
WFH and Team Process
While the role of physical space will continue to be a central question for many organizations, equally serious shifts are happening in group process and communication—design must respond to these changes. For many, the pandemic was a crash course in new collaborative software platforms like Slack, Todoist, Teamwork, and others. This mass pivot toward online methods inspired a momentous learning curve so that fluency with these programs is now a default expectation of many professionals.
For management in some industries, hosting and engaging with teams online has become the priority, with physical space becoming secondary, or even a luxury. The context for how physical space supports group process has been seriously challenged by new online methods, and permanently altered. In designing spaces where work happens, whether a traditional office, a home office, or something in-between, we need to ask how these new digital methods are integrated into physical spaces since these technologies have their own acoustic, temporal, and social requirements for spatial design.
The Costs (and Purchase) of WFH
For some organizations there are obvious cost benefits to downsizing their physical footprint and offsetting those costs onto remote workers who pay for rents, mortgages, and utilities at home. Some companies are even offering a WFH allowance to support the costs of furniture and technology, while others are reinvesting their spatial savings to upgrade the quality of their existing shared spaces with new amenities and better furniture, in the hopes of making the office a more desirable destination for work.
For workers, the financial trade-offs within this new equation can be complex. Hybrid employees must weigh perceived job performance against other factors like the money, time, stress, and environmental costs of commuting, the costs of childcare, the health risk of exposure to COVID-19, and more. The potential benefits of WFH may also require personal investment in space, furniture, and technology. These calculations have the potential to have an enormous impact on the design industry.
Because the contract furniture business is built on a dealership model that caters to large-scale interior projects, it doesn’t work well for the individual consumer who wants the ease of online purchase and delivery. Many contract dealerships experienced this gap first-hand during the pandemic, as a flood of individual WFH workers attempted to buy high-performance chairs and desks. Meanwhile, new players using the e-commerce model are edging into the market without the baggage of older, established furniture makers. Companies like Corral, Floyd, Article, UpLift Desk, and Poppin operate with surprising agility in the direct-to-consumer market. To access the WFH market, the contract furniture industry has some new problems to solve, especially around e-commerce and the last mile of shipping. For some companies, there may be lessons to learn from IKEA’s flatpack logic, which can translate furniture designs into shippable components that require some home assembly.
Both workers and the organizations they serve are weighing their options within this new set of choices. Historically, organizations have seen shared space as a measurable tool for productivity and group culture. If organizations embrace the new model of hybrid work culture, then what metrics might determine a full cost/benefits analysis? Meanwhile, those who work primarily from home are performing their own such analysis to find the right work/life mix. A difficult set of questions looms in the balance: Who should pay to furnish the home office? Can large employers use their scale to broker deals that will simplify the process and support WFH workers? Should they? Who then owns the furniture?
Over the course of the pandemic, many were forced into difficult choices that changed their work lives, their home lives, and their personal lives in dramatic ways. Now, more than two years since its start, we still have much to process, but this experiment has opened many new doors for how we consider work life and workplace. For designers and architects, new choices will add significant nuance as we strive to frame problems in their full scale and complexity—by listening to the multi-dimensionality and diversity of human needs. This complexity is not easy, and our methods are incomplete. In this regard, the work from home experiment is hardly over. New furniture, space, and whole neighborhood and city plans need to be imagined, proposed, and tested. This series raises more questions than answers, but in identifying patterns to these issues and highlighting their diverse social dimensions, the intent is to encourage not only new solutions, but new ways of thinking and cull from the otherwise terrible effects of the pandemic an opportunity to re-form and redesign both our home and work worlds for the better.
Scott Klinker is principal of Scott Klinker Design Studio and has been the 3D designer-in-residence at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan since 2001, where he oversees the graduate 3D design program. His practice strikes a balance between cultural research, industry projects and experiments, and working with design-driven clients like Herman Miller, Alessi, Steelcase, Landscape Forms, Burton Snowboards, and others.