People Matters asked David Calkins, the Regional Managing Principal of Asia Pacific and Middle East for Gensler, the world's largest design firm, to share some thoughts about how COVID-19 is changing office spaces. David, an award-winning architect and interior designer, leads the senior management team in setting strategic priorities and oversees growth initiatives and client activities in the region. Here are the highlights of the conversation.
With remote work proving so successful, many business owners are saying that they won't need office space any more. What are your thoughts on that?
The effectiveness of working from home has been a pleasant surprise. We surveyed all the staff in our region—for me that is the Asia Pacific and Middle East, extending from Sydney to Tokyo, Bangalore, and Abu Dhabi—and we found that the majority of our people, 68 percent, were satisfied or highly satisfied about working from home. They felt that they were trusted by their manager and were more empowered and productive than when they were in the office.
But on the other hand, we miss the socialization; we feel that the boundary between work and life is somewhat lacking, and we're working longer hours. We miss the interactions, the collaboration and feeling that we're a part of our various organizations. And so, we're going to have to be careful about saying that we don't need office space any more. The character of that space might change, but the sense of culture in the organization is so important. That culture is played out by us being in the same office, working together, spending time with each other.
In other words, we still need the office space to create and maintain a culture?
The culture of a company isn't defined by its space, but it can be enhanced by it. The spaces for community, for collaboration and socialization, are hugely important. Take our own offices for example—we're architects and designers; we're very visual people. We like to have our work around where we can see it and touch it and show it to our clients and visitors. The guiding principles of our culture, our identity, are manifested in our space; they are constant reminders of who we are and what's important to us. And if you are not in that space, you don't have those things in front of you as much.
What do you think will happen to office spaces then, if companies really do reduce the floor area they occupy?
If the decision is made that a particular company is going to take 50 percent less real estate, there are implications for the layout and for the character of the space. And if that's what will happen going down, the character and the functions of the office are going to change significantly.
One thing we think could happen is that the office will become more of a collaboration hub, a social hub, and a meeting hub, than an actual work hub. So people might come to the office for meetings with clients, or with teams to exchange ideas and collaborate on solving problems, but the heads-down, focused work will be done offsite—remotely, at home or some other location.
Also, in these days, company culture is really important. We can't ignore the war for talent; the quality of employee experience is really important to us and to our clients, who know that in order to have the best people, they have to have the best office space, the best way of working.
Is there a way for employers to somehow replicate a good office experience for people who are working from home?
That's challenging. One of the things we have tried to respond to is our employees' need for ergonomic comfort in their home working setting. Some of our clients in Silicon Valley have given significant amounts of money to their employees to outfit their home offices, whether with adjustable chairs or suitable working surfaces, so that the setup doesn't take a physical toll on employees who are working long hours.
People are also adapting to working virtually with video calls or online happy hours, but I still don't think it takes the place of face-to-face interaction. For instance, we had a couple of new people join the firm during this period, and trying to onboard them virtually has been challenging. I think many of us are ready to get away from the working-from-home situation.
Working spaces will have to change in some ways as people go back to work what are the more significant changes you're seeing?
We're advising our clients not to make monumental changes at this particular time: to leave layouts as they are, to reduce density, and to do some studies on how things will have to operate in the future. We have identified a list of the top 10 issues to work on, the first one being reducing density: where we might have had a certain occupancy on a particular office floor, we're now looking at cutting that in half. In other words, vacating and keeping vacant every other workstation.
Likewise, the density of collaboration spaces like cafes and meeting rooms has to be reduced: taking away excess furniture that might have people randomly coming into close contact with each other.
Also, we're advising our clients to go to assigned seating instead of hotdesking or other arrangements that might have multiple people using the same workstations during the day.
What about physical interventions®where do you see those going?
There will be some interventions that are quite valuable, one of them being around how visitors come into the space with the registration and temperature screening process. There would be changes around how the air conditioning system works, such as to provide the highest quality of air filtration possible and how much outside air is brought into the space, which is really important to disperse contaminants. There are various disinfection methodologies that could be used within the air conditioning itself.
Other physical interventions might be the installation of equipment that makes the space as touchless as possible, such as motion-sensing doors and light switches. We might even see the designing of spaces without doors at all, to remove surfaces that multiple people are touching.
Then there is the possibility of upgrading materials used in the space, to materials that are treated with anti-microbial coatings, or have natural anti-microbial properties. Overall, we see a lot of positives coming out of this, because we've been talking about designing spaces that promote health for quite a while, and this brings it more strongly to the forefront.