Then & Now – The Future of Timeless Interior Environments in a Post Pandemic Era. Continued…..

In my most recent post, I used our IDO office design of 15 years ago as a reference point for discussing our design intent regarding flexibility and adaptability. Acknowledging that, in the context of our pandemic-altered world, “that was then and this is now,” I considered how the intent around flexibility and adaptability has not changed but has, in fact, become even more important. In this post, I examine some of the things we must consider as we respond to this new “now.”

As we navigate this post-pandemic world, our ability to think differently about how our clients will use their spaces and the longevity of those spaces has become critical to our planning processes. A key aspect of this consideration is recognizing that there has been a shift in thinking about the idea of providing flexibility in the work environment. A recent HBR article addressed this by saying, “As far as buzzwords go, ‘flexibility’ is now rivaled in prominence only by the novel work model it is so often used to describe: hybrid work. Together, these words have taken over the way we speak about the future of work and constitute a whole series of new ways to think about the further integration of work and life.”

What does this change mean? Well, consider what “flexible” used to me: for example, it suggested that employees should be able to “flex” their working hours, or move from place to place within the workspace. Now consider what “hybrid” means: granting everyone the ability to work wherever and whenever, with full access to facilities, resources and infrastructure that were forged in a pre-COVID world. (The New York Times addressed this shift in a recent article titled, “The Worst of Both Worlds: Zooming from the Office.”)

I recently had an opportunity to see this playing out in the real world when we had our first post-shutdown in-person meeting with a large corporate client. In making our way to our meeting, we walked past areas where renovations had been completed during the pandemic, when no one was around. As we passed through a large cafeteria, long corridors with niches carved out to create mini-touchdown-collaboration spaces, a café, a shop, and several larger, open collaborative areas, we could count the people we saw on one hand.

When we arrived at our meeting destination, we found only two of the five meeting participants. The others would join us remotely. Unfortunately, after 20 minutes of wrestling with state-of-the-art technology, we could see the remote participants on the large screen before us, but they could not see us.

During our visit we learned that the population of workers who have returned to their pre-pandemic workspaces is still very low, and no one knows when more will follow. Even more interesting, decisions about how and where people will work in the future have been left to individual departments and or groups. As a result, overall corporate policy regarding these questions remains fragmented and inconsistent.

This experience left us thinking a lot about this new office dynamic and prompted a key question: “If the lifespan of the spaces we just passed through has suddenly changed from 15-20 years to just a few years (or perhaps to complete obsolescence), how does that change the way we think about and design such spaces?

To explore this question further, I want to explore the concept of “Placemaking” as used in urban design. For a basic definition, I turn to the Project for Public Spaces: “As both an overarching idea and a hands-on approach for improving a neighborhood, city, or region, placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community. Strengthening the connection between people and the places they share, placemaking refers to a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximize shared value. More than just promoting better urban design, placemaking facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution.”

For a perfect example of placemaking at work, we need look no further than downtown Indianapolis, where the $300 million reimagining of a former Coca-Cola bottling plant created the Bottleworks District, which Time magazine described as one of “The World’s Greatest Places of 2021.” (Appropriately enough, Bottleworks also factored into a New York Times piece about the shrinking lifespan of building developments.)

So, how does the concept of placemaking apply to our post-pandemic interior environments? Imagine if we truly make “user-based participation” as the center of our design process? What could we achieve then? Although it is common to include end users in the design process, our profession has tended to limit their role, allowing to them focus on their own core business while we focus on creating solutions to help them thrive at what they do.

But what if we were to assign team members to become intentional and fully integrated into the client’s business process? Wouldn’t the outcomes reflect a better utilization of the internal assets, inspiration and potential of an organization and result in a more creative pattern use over time?

We may find the answers are simpler than we think, but we first must overcome a looming challenge: We can’t really cast this vision fully until we get people back into workplaces. When they do, we can truly begin to study this novel “hybrid work” model with a robust end-user focus. Only then will we be positioned to understand what people need now to thrive.

Let me be clear: Although I described our recent experience in a corporate client’s space, we are seeing similar patterns in every market we serve. The ways we all learn, deliver medical care and even dispense justice are changing, and, in all of these cases, it will be our ability to think differently about interior environments and the longevity of space design that will inform successful planning.

What we must accept is that the idea that any given project will stand the test of time, and that our clients can engage us for a project and then not need us for another 15 or 20 years was then.

Now requires a more integrated model of working with clients, one that is more consistent and intentional, one that is ongoing, and one that involves strategies addressing both the short- and long-term utilization of resources and space. If we successfully embrace that model, we can create workspaces that respond to every new now that comes along, and that, therefore, prepares us to better support our clients’ long-term success.

Please continue to follow our Then and Now series as the design professionals at IDO explore these questions. We will share what we are re-learning and how we are seeking to re-think and explore continuous improvement opportunities that help us gain a clearer understanding of our client’s forever changing needs. What questions are you asking, share them with us and join us on our journey out of the COVID era – as we explore the Then, Now and Future!

Written by Jill Mendoza