24 May, 2020

If not now, then when?

Pause for a moment. Take a deep breath. Does the air seem a little fresher? It’s not your imagination. The global economic pause of the last few months has led to an unprecedented drop in pollution and other ecological stressors. In this month’s “On Our Minds…” we discuss some of the basic assumptions behind the way people were working pre-COVID, and why this might be the the time to choose a new path forward.

On our minds

Climate change has been a matter of global concern for a generation, but the international community has yet to address it sufficiently. The scale of the problem and its—literally glacial—timeline make it very difficult for us to tackle. Human brains are not wired to respond to events that are far away or abstract, either geographically or temporally. We are built to learn from dramatic events. When something surprising happens, our brains go over it again and again and consider how it might have happened differently. This is how we learn and change.

A silver lining of the current economic pause is that something dramatic has happened from an environmental perspective. Suddenly the waters under Venice and the skies over Los Angeles are clear. Fisheries are recovering from years of overfishing. Worldwide, we are on track for something between a 4-8% reduction in carbon emissions—the largest decrease in history (though, to be clear, it still isn’t enough).

These positive developments have nonetheless come at the cost of significant hardship for many people. Economic recovery is an urgent requirement. While there is plenty of debate over the shape of that recovery, the one thing most people seem to agree on is that there is no going back. As leaders chart a path forward, we must learn as much as we can from the rapid transformation of the last few months. Few moments offer us so clear an opportunity to reconsider how we got here and whether we might prefer something better than a return to the past.

Take business travel as an example. Carbon offsets were supposed to disincentivize travel by making it cost more, but emissions from air travel still continue to rise. Most companies did not alter their travel practices to meet sustainability targets, even as tools enabling digital connection became ubiquitous.

Now, we are seeing what happens when all of that travel stops. As businesses resume a more normal level of activity, there is an opportunity to ask whether all this jetting around is actually worth as much as we thought. Travel may still be necessary, but we are also learning that people can deliver the same value without going anywhere. New policies integrating eco-responsibility can be a bigger part of how we decide to travel (or not) in the future.

The daily commute is also ready for a rethink. We formerly took it as a given that most people have to go to physical workplaces to do their jobs well. This carries a built-in environmental and quality-of-life cost, and increasingly looks like a relic of the Industrial Revolution. The recent mass shift to telework—in which up to half of all workers in the US are working from home—calls into question the assumption that people must colocate to work effectively.

The telework shift has been challenging to many, especially those who have had to balance work with child or dependent care. However, it is now clear that many more people could telework than did before the crisis. Asking fewer people to commute frees up time and resources that could be put to better use. For example, Seattle recently announced that several streets that were blocked off to enable citizens to exercise during the pandemic will now be permanently closed.

Also in service of wellness, this time has inspired a long overdue debate about about natural ventilation. For a long time, we’ve assumed that ducted ventilation was better than fresh air because it is more controllable. Yet, right now, people are opening their windows to protect themselves from COVID. Operable windows have long been the bete noir of HVAC engineers. It’s true that opening a window can hamper the functioning of a finely-tuned ventilation system. It’s also true that fresh air is the best air, having been shown to benefit overall health, well-being, and even productivity.

We are fans of biophilia, design that mimics or is inspired by nature, because it improves the workplace experience. Also among its virtues: it encourages designers to think more holistically. In environmental design, there is a tendency to isolate technical and functional elements of a building—ventilation, lighting, acoustics—and to optimize them individually. Biophilic design encourages one to think of building elements as an interconnected system—much like nature itself. A tree, for example, doesn’t just do one thing. It offers protection from the elements, cleans the air, stimulates the mind and may even provide food all at the same time.

While the need to restart economies is pressing, environmental concerns cannot be tossed aside. In fact, there has never been a better time to make them an integrated part of our approach to work. The next few months may well determine whether we continue on the previous unsustainable path or successfully shift toward the greener future.

From the archives

Around this time last year, our newsletter explored what it takes to be a great remote employer. The measures we advocated back then—a focus on wellness, culture, and investment in increased capacity—remain every bit as relevant today.

Back in 2017, we appeared at Cornell’s ILR School alongside our longtime friend, collaborator, and Cornell alum, Nick Livigne. Our discussion focused on space as a driver of innovation and collaboration.

That’s all for this month. We want to hear more about what you’ve learned from work in the time of COVID. Drop us a line to share your thoughts, sustainability hacks, or social distancing stories.

In Case You Missed It

Here’s what has had our attention this month.

Navigating Your Future Workplace: A Roadmap

PLASTARC is guiding organizations as they reenter the physical workplace. We shared our 10-point roadmap with Work Design Magazine.

Sidewalk Labs Shelves Quayside Project

Economic uncertainty has led to the indefinite suspension of work on this ambitious integrated community on the Toronto waterfront.

Remembering John P. Eberhard

As fans and contributors to ANFA, we were sad to hear of the recent passing loss of its founding president earlier this month.

Pratt Research Open House Goes Virtual

This event, now in its third year, moves online. Explore over 60 projects in architecture, art and design from the next generation of talent.

Nathan Manuel Joins the Team

Meet our new Lead Community Strategist, who will be broadening our reach and enabling more organizations to realize the benefits of great workplace. Welcome, Nathan!

Looking Ahead

While much of the US is still on lockdown, several organizations have stepped up by delivering their programming to an online audience—much of it for free! Here are a few virtual offerings worth a click:

NeoConnect Launch

In lieu of their annual furniture show and conference, the team behind NeoCon is starting a new online community this summer. Launching May 25.

MIT DesignX Pitch Day

Following months of refinement, the 10 startups selected for this spring’s cohort will deliver their final pitches. Tune in on May 26.

Remote Research Methods

Design professionals discuss tools and techniques for conducting design research at a distance. AIANY hosts online, May 27.

Office Reentry Roadmap: A Webinar

PLASTARC presents our 10-point guide to developing your organization's strategy for returning to the physical workplace, while keeping the future in mind. Join us on Zoom May 28.