Over the last year of coronavirus restrictions and working from home, countless articles predicting the future of the office have flooded the internet. Often it is clear that these predictions are in line with what would profit each author — for example, claims that “the office will endure” coming from corporate interior design firms; proclamations that “downtowns will thrive again” by urbanists; confidence that “hub and spoke is the future” by commercial real estate brokers; or encouragement that “now is the time to invest in a large home in the suburbs” by residential real estate agents. It seems to me that these attempts at thought leading are self-serving and that we should view them skeptically. Rather than forecast the growth of our individual market sectors, wouldn’t it be better if we considered what is good for society?
Starting this summer, I tuned out the prediction articles, unable to appreciate what seemed like vague claims of authority on our future lived experiences. Recently however, I tuned back in to check the pulse. My research has left a couple questions, namely: What influence do architects and designers have in crafting the future? And if we have influence, what is our responsibility to shape that future for the common good.
I turned to Mike Courtney, futurist and founder of Aperio Insights, to discuss some of the claims touted by the real estate industry and to help answer some of these questions of how to frame our visions of the future. Courtney has been leading clients through what is called Foresight for 20 years. Foresight is the process of strategically planning for what is possible and probable in the future. The following comprises a collection of insights from my experience in office design (bias noted) as well as Courtney’s insight on Foresight perspectives.
1) The world evolving tends to be an AND instead of an OR.
The future is not a choice between several options, or as Courtney jokingly says, choosing between chicken, fish, or beef. “We can have all three — we don’t have to give up one to go to the other.” The key is looking at something’s desirability. When thinking about downtowns and their future viability, we should be thinking about why they are desirable. There is a pendulum effect of giving up something one loves for a time — especially if it makes you sick; eventually desire causes the pendulum to swing strongly back in the other direction, even to overcorrect. In the end, we land somewhere in the middle. When we look at history, technology, and culture, we can see that people want to be together, so we will find ways to incorporate that past and blend it with our future scenario. It will be an AND instead of an OR.
A key component of designing for AND is determining timeless human needs. In the past, we have thrown everything that encompasses “work” into one bucket and called it “the office.” Similarly, we have called everything personal “home.” However, we can break these worlds down to the individual timeless needs in our lives to help us determine what is best moving forward. “When are the times when it is good to be together and when are the times to be apart?” Courtney says. “Let’s design for that.”
I recently asked Daniel, a millennial software engineer who recently made the leap from New York City to Austin due to COVID-19, if he planned to live in an urban center moving forward. His response was: “I see myself in cities now, but I really just care the most about the community/people I have in my life, because I can technically work from anywhere. So while I don’t plan on moving from a big city to something smaller anytime soon, if the social side of things were taken care of, I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to it… Outside a city, I have to use existing connections and technology to find work and opportunities (both career and social) I’m interested in. I can’t just walk past any of the 300 people on my floor and strike up conversations. Dense cities diversify ideas and help people to see people different from them every day.” Technology and tools are not timeless needs. Human connection is a need.
Another scenario where the AND principle is helpful is the concern that a trend toward automation will lead to a jobless recovery. We can consider how we might couple automation AND human ability. Courtney gives the example that there was a time when the backhoe was new and vastly reduced the number of people it took to dig a hole. Similarly, in the future, we must leverage human ability for meaningful tasks requiring human intelligence, while leveraging automation to make life less stressful and easier for human beings.
2) Values are everything, and prioritization of our values is changing.
Courtney cites a handful of tools to anticipate the future: the Futures Triangle, Tension Pairs, and Systems Thinking. The Futures Triangle enables us to evaluate the weight of history, the push of the present, and the pull of the future. For each company, one corner of the triangle may be stronger based on company values. This tool can help organizations to determine plausible future scenarios.
Identifying Tension Pairs can reveal nuances in the future. Just like cost is in a balance with quality, seeming opposite scenarios of the future are often in tension with each other. Examples would be city centers booming versus meeting their demise or evaluating the home office versus collective office. It is never fully one or the other, and the question is not “Is it relevant,” but “How might they change?” Using Systems Thinking, we can consider the larger implication of our decisions. According to Courtney, the purpose of Foresight is to “try to make the world a better place,” and using systems thinking is critical to this endeavor. “Whoever said, ‘Yes, I really believe in commuting!’? This is an opportunity to reset the world closer to the values we hold, not wait to go back to something.”
Motivations need to be with the well-being of people, not solely with the economic benefit of selling a larger home, leasing a higher rent tenant space, designing a headquarters office, etc. Only a portion of the world has the benefit of choosing one’s own adventure in this time. We need to consider all people, not just those in a position to leave the city behind in favor of a summer home in the country. In the past, capitalism has called us to develop in silos and not consider communities holistically. The crippling of our world has revealed that there will be no money to be made if we do not shift our focus to designing what is good for people.
3) Workplace trends of the past are accelerated.
Some of the trends that already framed the office are only accelerated due to the COVID-19 health crisis. As brokerage companies predict the continued increase of flex office space, distributed satellite locations, and shorter lease terms, such short-term notions will require doubling down on sustainability efforts to reduce waste and protect resources.
One conviction espoused by design firms is the continued requirement of the office for recruitment and brand expression. I would argue that the future will require that we think of company brand as a living organism. With flexible leases, architectural expressions of brand may become more and more accessory, temporary, digital, or movable. Connection with the brand will be strongest when not solely dependent on a communal office — both for clients and employees.
Another trend felt in recent years has been user control within an office. User control is now amplified to a new arena, extending beyond the realm of a physical office and associated office hours. Looking to the future, the workplace becomes more about a lifestyle than a place. The physical office is reduced to one of many tools available. As A+I states in their video “The Evolution of the Workplace, According to A+I”: “The places where we work become a choice, not an expectation. Work is in us and the workplace becomes… where we want to be.”
Jeremy Tillman, founder of Dallas-based TrainUp, has transitioned his 100-percent-in-person team to 100 percent virtual due to the pandemic. “As we continue to service clients on a national and international basis, we may never have a large physical presence in a given city again,” he says. “I think the small office co-working space for small teams or individual contributors has a strong future at some point, but we expect we will have to stay nimble and flexible.”
4) The future of the workplace will not be determined by a survey.
There has been quite a shift over the last nine months in employee engagement among design firms. Initially, it seemed that processes tended to be top down; however, as the months have progressed, firms have solicited input from their employees and client surveys. Surveys are critical to getting authentic feedback, but we need to keep in mind that that is just what it is: feedback, a reaction to something that has already occurred. We need to do the work of ideating and testing potential solutions for the future versus just reacting to what we have known in the past and assumptions of future ideas we have yet to try. Our past or current comforts may not be what is best for us. There is an immense world of distant working and hybrid working that is yet to be discovered. The vast majority of office workers are new to these concepts. As expected, we are not good at it yet nor have we discovered its possibilities.
5) Trust is the oxygen of the distributed working world.
According to Laïla von Alvensleben, head of culture and collaboration with digital workspace platform MURAL, a mistake with virtual working that managers make is worrying too much about whether people reporting to them are getting their work done. “Without trust you are not going to have a very efficient team and not a great culture.”
According to Gallup, managers account for 70 percent of variance in the Gallup employee engagement score; however, most managers are not skilled in building culture and trust. Only one in 10 managers have the talent to manage, and “another two in 10 people exhibit some characteristics of basic managerial talent and can function at a high level if their company invests in coaching and developmental plans for them.”
With these studies being done prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, even broader efforts are necessary to train workers on what culture is and how to establish and grow it if companies want to succeed with distributed or hybrid working models. Healthy, functioning teams are not a given. It takes work and intentionality. Von Alvensleben sees culture as the sum of behaviors, actions, and how we treat each other. I would add that it is not just how we treat each other, but also how we perceive each other, which is where trust comes into play. As Tillman frames it: “Company culture is about how team members interact with each other and with clients. The respect they show each other and the respect to clients stems from company culture and values and often has to be modeled from the top. Office space isn’t a requirement to build a strong culture.”
6) The golden chalice is creativity and innovation.
One of the biggest concerns with distributed working is the ability to collaborate for creative and innovative solutions. Hybrid work models (a combination of in-person and virtual) seem at first conception to be even more of a barrier to co-creating than a fully virtual work model. We know from experience that creativity can occur when we are together in person, but this in-person collaboration is the only model many companies have known.
In a New York Times article, Aaron Levie of digital cloud service Box claims that their company has actually been more innovative virtually. The virtual world has allowed Box to have conversations as larger and more diverse groups, leading them to more innovative idea generation. Sonia Clarke with The Difference, a division of professional service giant PwC that facilitates collaboration and co-creation, similarly affirms, “You can do true collaboration virtually.” It requires preparation on the part of managers and training for teams to become comfortable learning new tools (MURAL, Miro, Coggle, etc.), but if all ages can learn how to master the video call, workers surely can make an attempt at the leap into virtual co-creating. Immersive VR meeting and co-creation platforms do currently exist (Spatial, Glue, MasterVR, etc.), and while it may be some time before companies provide headsets to every employee along with their company-issued laptop, it is a logical next step for remote togetherness.
The concept of considering the impact of our decisions to the 7th generation beyond us is often attributed to the Haudenosaunee tribe. When designing the future, if we do not take lightly the power of our professional bias toward the built environment and remain open-minded to consider a broad cone of plausibility, we can foresee a future that imagines the best for human and planet well-being. We know that physical and digital worlds will continue to meld more and more each day, so the matters of the future will center on the quality of that meld.
Following the Great Depression of the ’30s, many people continued to save everything possible; having developed the value of not wanting to waste anything, they were stuck in the extreme mentality of lack, as Courtney says, “still saving scraps of tin foil” for the rest of their lives. This year will call on us to identify our allegorical tin foils, evaluate our values in light of ourselves and others, and learn how to take the extremes of past and present ways of living to shape a balanced future. As urbanist Richard Florida states: “We are going through a great urban reset. I would argue this is the greatest urban reset in a century. It is our opportunity. No, it’s our obligation together to do this.”
Let’s create for what we truly value.
Sara Barnes is co-founder of Agent Architecture in Dallas.