Event Recap
Designing for the Unknown : A Closer Look at COVID-19 and Future Change Accelerants

13 Jul 2020
Event Organizer: Bala Consulting Engineering
Event Link
Tagged as: Speaking Online

By Amy Rosen - 15th September, 2020

After collaborating with BALA Engineering Consultants on an article for WorkDesign Magazine on how to leverage the disruption caused by COVID-19 as a force for progress and change, PLASTARC was thrilled to co-host a webinar with BALA on July 13th to discuss workplace recommendations, best practices, and predictions about the future and viability of workspaces. As co-moderators for the event, PLASTARC Founder & Executive Director Melissa Marsh and BALA Director of Digital Planning Matt Ezold were determined to emphasize the industry changes that have been accelerated by the pandemic. They selected a set of panelists with a range of operational and design perspectives. The session was recorded and is available for viewing here.

Marsh and Ezold framed the conversation in two parts. The first half looked at post-COVID workplace preparations and emerging trends, while the second expanded beyond COVID and towards the long-term implications of change accelerants. Throughout the discussion, they utilized polling and chat features to engage attendees. Each panelist shared how their respective organizations are approaching the current workplace challenge.

Krista Sinker, Senior Director of Capital Projects and Campus Planning at Comcast, highlighted how she has been utilizing resources from various departments and external partners to support organizational master planning and project management. Sinker noted that the journey has evolved over time in response to changing circumstances, beginning with introductory programming that explored overall real estate needs throughout the portfolio. Sinker focused on the Headquarters in Philadelphia, leveraging a three-phase plan to meet the unique needs of this vertical campus. By incorporating interviews with senior leadership regarding job functionality with personalized outreach to employees, her team has been performing “office optimal” profiling assessments. These aim to gain a better understanding of the relationships between the workplace ecosystem and employee success. She also provided an overview of Comcast’s return-to-office pilot program, which incorporates active occupancy modeling and metrics to assist in quick adjustments prior to a full ramp-up.

Based on the assessments, Sinker believes that people can return safely to spaces that have been deemed office optimal, but that real-time occupancy alerts will be important for both confirmation and contact tracing moving forward. Entryway logistics, as well as shifts in public transit, were noted as key indicators of the viability of Comcast’s return-to-office plans. Overall, Sinker stressed that workplace transformations will not be one-size-fits-all. Thus, her team has been both reactively and proactively planning for shifts in processes and real estate needs, consistently re-prioritizing the health and wellness of their employees, both physical and mental. From a real estate perspective, she made sure to assert that her experience in lease negotiations to date implies that one-year and three-year leases will become a new standard in the future.

Next, Evelyn Lee, Senior Experience Designer at Slack, provided an overview of the firm’s major shift in perspective on office space utilization. Like Twitter and other major tech firms, Slack recently became a “remote-first” company. Lee noted that Slack has been simultaneously growing and hiring new team members, implying that up to 50% of the workforce may never have seen the inside of a Slack office. She stressed that this translates to a need to strengthen overall corporate culture through virtual means. Given her architectural background, Lee is an advocate of the power of design to improve occupant health and connection to community. She has used her role as Senior Experience Designer to focus on prototyping the opening of a pilot office that is centered on if and why employees want to return.

Lee has deployed surveys to employees in an effort to assess their workplace needs. She quickly discovered that, “60% said they only picked coming into the office three days a week, and everybody who wants to go back - wants to go back for collaboration”. Lee believes long-term assessments of office needs are not productive, due to how rapidly circumstances are changing. She made sure to illustrate Slack’s emphasis on the physical workplace being for solely heads-down work as opposed to collaborative work—at least for the time-being—in order to ensure proper distancing and safety needs are met. Until the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, Slack’s approach is primarily practical and, Lee noted, strives to avoid “safety theater”. She believes that the operational strain from the required additional cleaning and maintenance services vastly outweigh the social benefits of collaborating on-site. Further, she shared that long-term real estate planning has been put on hold in order to allow better planning in response to remote policy developments and employee mindset adjustments. Overall, Lee commented that Slack plans to maintain possession over their current offices, but that their team is actively investigating the implications of various real estate models.

Unlike the operational and design team members on the panel, Abby Becker, Customer Success Manager at Comfy, is more focused on the implementation and adoption of technologies and platforms that can assist customers in navigating urgent workplace needs and requirements. Given her dedication to unveiling innovative and sustainable solutions, Becker has remained committed to investigating tools and strategies to make data more accessible for the end-user. She noted that this is primarily due to the need to establish synergistic relationships between utilization metrics and change management programs in order to truly assess employee sentiment regarding returning to the office.

After sharing thoughts on how the underlying technology embedded in the industry has remained largely the same, Becker touched on a shift in client thinking in relation to workplace technology platforms and data. According to her, the emergence of data value propositioning has led to a few notable trends and technology solutions centered on supporting the end-user in a safe return-to-office. For instance, desk booking can now allow employees to assess space availability prior to leaving their homes, providing a sense of security that Becker feels is particularly important. She highlighted how distancing calculations and space planning tools have incorporated artificial intelligence as a means of further increasing overall visibility and transparency. As shared in the session, the entire panel believes these types of innovations are particularly valuable for all employees, as they allow for better understanding regarding what to expect when arriving at the physical workplace and the degree of safety that can be provided by the current environment.

The panelists collectively advocated for the application of knowledge and lessons learned from this distributed work experiment towards the design and development of future workplaces. They each touched on how increased use of collaboration technology has changed the way occupants view their spaces, and noted strategies and considerations for tracking space use and people. Towards the latter half of the conversation, attendees were able to glean a collection of useful strategies for adapting the current workplace to new circumstances and variables—all of which will inevitably influence the design of physical offices. As consistently mentioned throughout the session, solutions for re-occupying the workplace need to consider the impacts to both the physical space and to the occupants, while remaining practical and easy to implement. Marsh said that companies that learn the most from this period will be the ones that are most successful in the next few years, especially if viewed from a holistic workplace, culture, and technology perspective.

For Lee, since Slack had a distributed team pre-COVID, her focus has been on establishing means of encapsulating culture both virtually and physically. She believes that, “If one person on your team is distributed, the entire team has to act in a distributed manner from an equity standpoint.” She also noted that career paths must be taken into account if individuals are unable to return to the office, citing spatial hierarchies embedded in physical offices. Finally, when designing for collaborative spaces going forward, she suggests those spaces be analyzed for both active and inactive periods, future-proofing the office while simultaneously transforming it from 1-to-1 desk models towards strategies more akin to coworking or hoteling.

Sinker also commented on the need to carefully assess the adaptability of community spaces, as the desire for collaborative, project-based workspace will likely increase going forward. This will be driven by a desire for connection, innovation, and co-creation. She noted that larger conference rooms may need to be converted to accommodate more project-based work. Becker built off the other panelists’ comments on collaboration and specifically called attention to the scale with which partnerships have changed. According to her, information-sharing has seen a remarkable transformation towards more open and co-collaborative partnerships. For instance, she cited a few open API partnerships that have surfaced from companies that touch on various workplace assets. Sinker shared similar sentiments, illustrating that from her perspective, even individuals that were previously competitors have begun to come together and bounce ideas off one another in order to enhance critical thinking and creative problem-solving.

When asked about shifts in creative processes by virtue of workplaces transitioning to primarily virtual space, each of the panelists commented on new priorities that have emerged within their respective companies. As shared by Becker, Comfy’s design process is holistic—geared towards the experience of the employees in a particular office. However, she sees a challenge surfacing regarding technological solutions. It is important to assess whether new technology is truly enhancing overall user experience or is simply adding more information that might not be valuable to the user. Sinker declared that brand expression must be actively maintained through virtual channels, creating digital microtransactions that reflect the organizational culture. Finally, Lee touched on a few other elements of architectural processes that have shifted due to COVID-19—both formal and informal. For instance, due to a lack of physical collaboration space, she has observed a number of new software prototypes that allow teams to draft design ideas virtually. She also commented on the positive impact video conferencing platforms have had on personal relationships with colleagues due to newly established traditions. However, due to the emergence of widespread “zoom fatigue”, she reminded attendees to consciously tie personal time into their virtual space, just as they might have managed their real-world out-of-office time pre-COVID.

Marsh and Ezold closed out the discussion by commenting on a few additional opportunities for workplaces to become more resilient. For example, Ezold emphasized that COVID-19 is not a change agent per se, but rather an accelerant. It has simply sped up plans that may have already been in place or perhaps should have been. Marsh touched on the opportunity provided by a blended physical-digital workplace to become more democratic and egalitarian. Overall, the panelists illustrated the need to set funding, willpower, and business cases aside. By aligning and empowering employees and end users, organizations can leverage this period of disruption to create more equitable workplaces.