By Mike Sayre - 18th September, 2020
Earlier this year, PLASTARC released our 10-step roadmap to navigating the future workplace. In the months since, we have hosted multiple webinars to explore the many topics related to reentering the physical office, form the implications of long-term telework to building systems changes in support of public health.
Incorporating feedback from these webinars, we launched a new series to examine each topic of the roadmap in more detail. Amy Rosen, a Sociospatial Designer for PLASTARC moderated the first panel in this new series. In this session, panelists offered insights into the first two steps to addressing workplace reentry: accounting for things you can’t control, and deciding who should return to the physical office.
A major theme of the conversation centered on making workplaces more equitable, inclusive and resilient for the people who use them and society as a whole. Embedded in this theme, and reflected in the session, is the reality that COVID-19 impacts have hit a society that was already unequal, and those impacts have also fallen unequally across economic and demographic groups.
Caruso, who has spent 15 years working at the intersection of architecture, the economy, and urban transformation, began by speaking about the patchwork of guidelines and regulations that face any company trying to operate with wellness in mind. Caruso was calling in from London, but his employer is headquartered in Canada and has a substantial presence in South Africa, meaning that multiple sets of national, regional and local guidelines must be taken into account. There are also multiple sets of guidelines from entities like the Cleveland Clinic, International SOS, and the landlords of the buildings themselves. The challenge is to harmonize all of these and develop concrete policies that help occupants to feel both safe and unconfused.
Yancey, who brings a unique people perspective , then spoke about social elements that are beyond the employer’s control. Political and economic circumstances—specifically political division and ongoing struggles for racial equity—cannot be ignored if the workplace reentry is to be fully inclusive. With respect to COVID, there are variations in outcomes across racial groups, with minorities both more likely to be exposed and more likely to have serious complications if they do get the virus. Leaders must account for this is their approach, and realize that each individual’s unique circumstances may dictate a different response. Setting and adjusting expectations for balance between work and non-work time takes on greater importance now, as the work day is stretching. Yancey encouraged colleagues to step back and ask “why are we returning to the office?” and to be transparent in that decision-making.
The need for considering our interdependence and work inclusively was highlighted by Laborde, whose work focuses on urban strategy and addressing the needs of urban communities. She spoke about centering the voices of the people who live in the areas affected by building projects. As an example, she discussed a school in LA located near a highway underpass. Children walking to the school said that they sometimes felt unsafe because they passed a large encampment of unhoused people. However, simply clearing that encampment—displacing those people yet again—was not really going to solve the problem. Instead, her team engaged with both the students and the people who were unhoused to find a solution that could accommodate the needs of both groups.
As a college professor teaching about 650 students, Folan was able to speak to the unique challenges in learning environments. He said that this moment is surfacing some issues of equity that may have previously been hidden in in-person settings, such as disparities in access to tools or spaces. Remote learning or distributed work presume a level of digital access that is not actually universal. Some people may not have access to a laptop or a laptop with a camera. That might not be visible when people are in person. At first they’d been requiring students to have their video on, but that revealed
A related challenge is transportation. Folan pointed out that rapidly-urbanizing northwest Arkansas does not have the same transit infrastructure as major cities, and that there are follow-on effects. For example, students who might be switching between in-person and remote classes throughout the day—not uncommon in collegiate setting—might not have anywhere to go in between. They might not have easy access to a quiet environment other than their home, which could be some distance away. Caruso also spoke about transit, pointing to the large funding gaps that many systems will face as a result of COVID. There are almost certainly cuts in transit service on the horizon, unless money is cut from other services that may also impact populations differently.
In closing, Caruso said, “No matter what your workplace is, it’s so important to think about how you’re creating safe space for people to surface their vulnerabilities. If you haven’t created the safe space and level of trust to be able to reveal it, you won’t be able to respond.” Laborde also added that we need to think about who never left the office to begin with. Janitorial staff, service workers and others who support the staff. How are they being accommodated? What are some ways to help them feel safer, be safer. Alternative compensation for this difficult time? A fitting close was Laborde’s quote from the Blackspace manifesto: projects need to move at the speed of trust