by Anne FeenstraMay 11, 2020
The single and most perplexing question for mankind posed by the global coronavirus pandemic is: what is it that lies ahead for us?
The architecture and design fraternity, in wake of the COVID-19 virus and the current situation across the world, has a multiplicity of presumptions in mind. What will happen when design offices re-open? What should we expect business to be like? Will projects move forward in the same way they did, or will processes have to be reinvented?
To address some of these questions, Anupama Sharma, Managing Director at Gensler Bangalore, puts in perspective her experience of 25 years in managing and spearheading projects across India and the United States.
Meghna Mehta (MM): Architects may start considering responsiveness to diseases and health safety in various degrees while working on projects. How will this reflect in the working of architectural firms worldwide?
Anupama Sharma (AS): It is still early to know the full extent of how the global pandemic will influence our new ways of working and learned habits. However, it is important that we start asking these questions: How is work is changing – what is easier to do at home versus the office? What do employees miss most from the office now? What do they think they may miss from their home-working environments when they return? These kinds of questions will help employers determine what employees value most and what amenities matter. What we already know is - employees will need to feel safe and protected in new ways as a result of COVID-19.
Densification will take a hiatus; spaces will be designed for natural physical distancing. It has been a long run for less space per person. Expect a short-term shift as phases of people return to the office. We think this trend could potentially have a long-term impact if tenants desire to lease more space with increased dedicated spaces within multi-tenant buildings. For instance, a tenant may desire their own entries or dedicated elevators, which give them more control over how and where they can protect their employees from outside elements.
We will require to shift our thinking around dynamic or unassigned seating. We already know from Gensler’s US Workplace Survey, that half of employees with an unassigned seat were not as productive or engaged as those who have an assigned seat. That was before the pandemic. Now, we also expect dedicated space per employee, where, again, they will have a sense of control over their personal space at work, which, in turn, can give them a sense of ease and safety.
Then, the longer we work from home, we will discover new habits and new ways of working, which can turn into additional benefits. We have discovered new ways to collaborate virtually, which will likely continue when we return to the office. Companies that were once more sceptical of remote working, now see how well it can work. We should embrace the best of these new habits and encourage them to flourish. For example, as we see conference rooms designed for more space, collaboration can become a combination of both virtual + in-person, especially since virtual collaboration is now a new normal.
The focus on health and wellness also changes. There is an eminent correlation between employee wellness, productivity, talent retention, and engagement in the workplace. The idea of health and wellness is now expanding. While access to natural light and movement is the key to wellness and is an almost standard practice in many work environments, we believe that new touchless technology solutions, materials, products, protocols, and air filtration systems may begin to mimic what we used to associate more with traditional healthcare environments.
MM: While the building industry might see difficult times, there may be a spike in hospitals and healthcare facilities being designed by government authorities. How do you suggest architects can help the future in this aspect?
AS: Historically, design has been at the centre of solutions to the world’s most challenging issues. That does not change. Architecture and design firms are uniquely positioned to contribute to how we use healthcare for those who are in need of care, for those who are healthy, and to be able to adapt very quickly during times of crisis. Large design firms are being asked for expertise in how to plan, prep, and execute at large scale, quickly, which is important during times such as this.
Further, it is important to have partners who can also think globally and execute at large scale during needs of required surge facilities. This will be different in each city or country where facilities are needed. However, in almost all cases, it is a combination of private and public entities coming together for the greater good of taking care of people in our communities.
As a result of the COVID situation, there could be an increased call for healthcare facilities as government agencies around the world start to invest significantly in boosting their healthcare infrastructure. Besides hospitals and healthcare, we also anticipate significant investment in research and development spaces, for those working on solutions, vaccines, and future modelling analysis.
MM: We may start observing more local collaborations as opposed to global partnerships. How will this affect the industry?
AS: While nothing can truly replace in-person interaction, many companies are always looking at ways to control travel costs. Post COVID-19, it will be about controlling cost and about ensuring employees feel safe and taken care of while travelling. Gensler has operated at a global scale with local teams in 50 offices around the world. It has always been possible to be local and global with the right tools and systems in place. More than 5000 of the firm’s designers were working from home with no impact to design operations or delivery to clients around the world.
Global business is not going to regress. Local presence has often been the right solution for clients. The combination of the two is what delivers design solutions that shape the future of our cities and the human experience.