How is it possible that we are aspiring to go “back” to normal when everything we knew as normal has now changed? Putting on a suit and taking the train to the office isn’t our understanding of a daily routine anymore. Not after quite a few months of lockdown and time working from home.
The team at Wood Bagot’s, led by Amanda Stanaway, has acknowledged this fact and has made not only one but four different proposals of what a workplace may look like to suit the new needs after this pandemic outbreak: “Simply reducing density and cleaning more is not giving companies a good reason to bring people back to the workplace” – she stated.
Released on June 11th, this statement-article titled “Where do we work from here?” is freely published on their website, and has gotten some media attention since. Theoretically, it should work as it comes as a result of round tables and discussions with top leading companies in each sector, but how effective are these four models in real practice? Could they work on their own, or are they yet one more utopian architectural proposal?
Let’s go through each of them individually, analyze their strengths and weaknesses, and see how they would apply.
MODEL 1n: CULTURE HUB
The Culture Hub model is based on a dual categorization of the tasks developed at work: any “focused” activity, any task requiring attention, deep focus or quite thinking would be carried out at home, leaving the office as a space for the “messy” side of the job. That is, meetings, informal exchange of ideas and social interaction would take place on alternate moments, and solitude would make time at home more effective.
The main perk of this model is the sense of organization it may bring when separating different tasks into different environments. There are some “breaks” between different roles, there is a commute and there is a whole new space around, which would facilitate association and effectiveness.
However, it is not taking into account the teams. The chances are high that some “focused” work needs to be done on a team basis, requiring people to gather together at the office for a task that does not suit the proposed environment there.
MODEL 2: IN AND OUT
The In and Out model is based on agility. Such a concept is everywhere right now. It seems every company is looking to become agile. And this one model proposes an office work “on the go“. It would give employees the freedom to decide how and where to work. Just a few desks at the office that could host whoever feels the need to go to the office at any moment, and that are not meant for a specific task, unlike in the previous proposal.
This style is not something we are used to within the traditional understanding of an office, but it makes sense in these times and suits a society that is rushing more and more every day. Nonetheless, the sense of belonging is lost here. In such a changing space where teams are constantly rotating, it may be difficult to find yourself comfortable and develop your identity at the office.
MODEL 3: COMMUNITY NODES
Community nodes is described as a “decentralized headquarters” model. It relies on disaggregated nodes of employees grouping together closer to their homes, and independently from the employer’s workspace.
For this model to succeed, all the co-working culture would need to be more spread. Even though it could work in some cities such as London and New York (where the creative community is huge and those spaces have found a soil to grow), it would be quite difficult for employees from rural areas to find their co-working space.
The positive aspect of this proposal, on the other hand, is that it is not relying on the employee’s home state. Based on the human aspect, an office should not take for granted the conditions of the homes of those who work for them. It is impossible to know if their space and their environment are adequate for working from home, and both models before were blind to that issue.
MODEL 4: COLLECTIVES
Collectives proposes the un-making of the open-plan office design, but it does not go back to the traditional desk layout. Instead, it divides the space into a series of smaller, well-divided co-working studios.
Although a significant portion of the surface would be lost to circulation spaces, this division could create an isolated yet team-friendly atmosphere that would suit some of these new needs. Furthermore, it would not require any external spaces for it to work.
As architects, we need to apply critical thinking and a “wide lens” vision to our designs. It is indeed true that we are in need of change, but we should not allow ourselves to be blinded by utopia. Feasibility and humanity must lead our way, and these four models on their own are lacking either one or the other.
These options call for a community spirit that fulfills our cultural side. But we must not forget that architecture (good architecture) is built around the user. And those users, as individuals, may not find themselves in a favorable position for Wood Bagot’s model to work.
Privilege, remote connectivity, a healthy working atmosphere at home… They should not be taken for granted and, if we are to reimagine the office as a decentralized working space (which is most likely the place where things are naturally moving towards), we should make it in parallel to the reimagination of our homes as working spaces.
Trying to instate one without the other is like building a car but sparing the wheels: it won’t work, and it won’t go far.
Wood Bagot’s four proposals for workplace design post-pandemic are a good start point, and now we need to apply all our skills as architects to combine and develop them in order to move from “proposal” to “reality”.