By Elizabeth Hyde - 23rd October, 2020
Since early 2020, PLASTARC has offered resources to organizations to support them in navigating the response to COVID-19. In addition to co-founding the WorkWell Coalition, a group of experts across architecture, engineering, interior design and construction, PLASTARC has offered a series of webinars and panels to explore questions, challenges and opportunities for a people-centric renewal of workplace.
The webinar series has served as a forum in which to exchange ideas and formulate strategic approaches to the new era of work that is already emerging from the disruption of the pandemic. This installment touched upon three related topics: optimizing the current teleworking situation, ensuring a healthy return to office, and considering what a hybridized physical-digital approach could look like in the long-term.
The panel was moderated by PLASTARC Sociospatial Designer Amy Rosen, who offered an interesting provocation early in the discussion: People can be thought about like buildings. The reasoning? “They’re their own structural systems in many ways—they have their own behaviors, internal consequences, and external reactions.” This metaphor for balancing the specific needs and expectations of the individual with the interconnected nature of a workplace ecosystem was a theme throughout the ensuing dialogue.
Rochelle Maresh, Workplace Strategist at Alliance, was the first to weigh in on the role that organizational culture plays in people’s experience. She advocated for more intentionally gathering information about personal and social well-being through data and analytics that represent a diverse cross-section of the employee population. The goal is to understand which aspects of both are not being adequately supported by existing working models and to prototype adjustments accordingly. The following prompt can serve as a starting off point: “Imagine if you had a space that offered emotional and psychological protection, where you knew what you needed to do, where to go, and how to interact in a safe way? What would that look like?”
Scott Easton, a Principal and Market Leader at Affiliated Engineers, Inc., spoke about the uniqueness of this current moment in which building occupants want to know more about air quality and the mechanical systems that affect it. He noted that, up to this point, the default outlook on anything back-of-house related was “don’t be seen, don’t be heard,” resulting in decades of effort to mask sounds and enhance acoustics. Right now, however, employees have persistent concerns about indoor transmission risks and differing modes of germ mitigation. In his words, “There’s a bit of reprogramming in that seeing and hearing these functions is no longer a sign that something is failing, but that it’s working and working well.” This points to a need for employers to regularly provide updates about the health-focused precautions and actions being taken when it comes to maintaining communal spaces.
Cristina Kelly, Associate at Entro, bridged the subjects of mental and physical wellness through her exploration of emerging trends in methodologies for communication and environmental graphics. Wayfinding, in particular, is a concept that many have only recently become consciously aware of, as people pay closer attention to their own movement and navigation of space—where they are allowed to be, how they can flow past others, and how to allow for appropriate distances. Kelly highlighted factors employers ought to keep in mind when outlining protocols for reentry to the office. For example, Involving too much signage to convey directions should be avoided, as it can cause complexity and thus confusion. Cues must be closely associated with a behavioral intent so they can be easily learned and ultimately intuitive. They should also be instructive and not simply prohibitive. She further explained, “This can be an opportunity to involve people in developing a sense of ownership, to facilitate placemaking, and to encourage norms that lead to more connection and collaboration.”
The conversation closed with the idea of an “irresistible” workplace. Though the Zoom chat box indicated participants were charmed by the terminology, a more literal interpretation captured the overall spirit of the discourse: Organizations should be thinking about creating workplaces that employees are willingly drawn back to, that they freely select without resistance when the inevitable day of choice returns.