The Role of the Office Will Be Challenged

A Conversation with Sevil Peach

How do you design workplaces that provide comfort and nurture productivity? Having started her London-based studio in 1994, interior architect Sevil Peach has pondered this question for over two decades. While creating office environments for multinational companies as well as experimental start-ups, she and her team found two core values that underpin successful workplaces of all sizes: human connection and collaboration. Will Covid-19 change our workplaces? Should architects and designers consider entirely new office typologies? Sevil Peach’s spontaneous reply: "Don’t panic."

Currently, many people across the world are working from home. You and your staff are among them – although as an internationally active designer, this is probably not entirely new to you. According to your experience and that of your clients, what are the benefits of this type of work, what are the downsides?

Through our work prior to this crisis, we know that there has been a gradual development of the idea of part-time working from home as part of various initiatives to address employee work-life balance. Even then offices were typically only occupied to 60 or 70 percent of their capacity. So this situation is actually not new. We also already had the ability and tools to work anywhere, anytime.

In our case, we were very familiar with working remotely through managing international projects from our offices in London. But for certain types of meetings, we would still travel to meet our clients and collaborators face-to-face. So of course for us too, the current situation also brings challenges. We can’t shake hands, we can’t embrace, we can’t come together as a team. For certain aspects of our work, telephone conversations, emails and online meetings are perfectly okay. But personal interaction is an incredibly important part of communication and for the development and transmission of ideas and emotions. So the current situation teaches us all to distinguish which processes function well remotely, and which ones don’t. Clearly, focused work has been the winner, whilst spontaneous interaction has been the loser. I hope this current situation will also teach us to be more precise in our communications, in order to avoid the constant e-mail ping-pong arising from misunderstandings.
"The office is here to remain, but possibly in a different format"

Do you think people will continue to work from home even when the health threat eventually diminishes or subsides entirely? How will our work culture change?

Once the situation is clearer, more under control, and once we understand and become more experienced in operating within a potentially new framework, people may wish to continue to work from home for part of their time. I anticipate that one of the positive effects of the lockdown will be that we will have understood that working remotely can be effective in terms of output but, at the same time, how important it is to be with one’s colleagues. We are often hearing from friends and colleagues that they are coping but how they really miss people.

We have also now experienced that working remotely can be effective in terms of good use of one’s time as well. In London, one could easily spend several hours a day travelling to and from work. So a conceivable situation might be that someone works two days from home, and comes to the office three days a week – or vice versa. As I have said in previous interviews, even before the Corona crisis, the more we become free to work wherever we want, the more we need an office. We need it for a number of reasons. On a very pragmatic level, the office, whilst it has obviously lost its monopoly as a centre of production, is the natural location to provide key infrastructure and organisational facilities that simply cannot be replicated at home. It is also a physical embodiment of the culture of an organisation, as well as fulfilling a role as a social and collaborative hub.
Humans thrive on face-to-face interaction. We also have an in-built reflex to place ourselves within associative constructs from which we draw support, be that family, a circle of friends, a team, an organisation or a nation. Bearing in mind that there might be exceptions, isolation, as a concept – for instance in a home office – even though it is nice to be able to shut yourself off from time to time, is not a natural long-term human situation. It does not relate to what people’s needs are.

The office is a place that provides the necessary interactions to encourage and foster innovation. It is where you can come together as a team, to meet our colleagues, to communicate, to collaborate, to share experiences, to learn from one another. For these reasons, I think, the office is here to remain, but possibly in a different format. It will need to re-imagine itself. It needs to become the place you want to go to and for a particular purpose, not purely out of habit, but out of choice.

So what do you think it might look like? Will it be less about work and more about the company culture, and if so, how might this manifest?

I think the office, in the future, won’t be just about work with a capital W. What I hope everyone will understand from this enforced experience is that ‘work‘ is actually a matrix of actions and interaction. I hope everyone will also have experienced the validity and benefit of undertaking different tasks in different settings. In this lockdown scenario, those of us working at home are learning to organise our time and to schedule the tasks we need to undertake in a manner and in a sequence that suits us. In the course of the day we may start by responding to e-mails, then spend some time with the children, if it’s sunny we may choose to make our telephone calls from the garden, having first put laundry in the machine, followed by further work, maybe some cooking, even a sneaky snooze. In short, we are learning to effectively manage our time to multi-task and achieve a wide range of different goals each day.

When we are able to return to our offices once it is safe to do so, it is likely that we will want to continue to enjoy this flexibility of how we organise and utilise our time and tasks.
Even before the lockdown, very few of us would sit down at our workplace at the beginning of our day and remain at it throughout the day. We constantly interact and move around to undertake varied tasks, which do not all require the same ‘setting‘.

I think in the future, the office will provide an even greater range of differing settings to support the tasks we need to undertake, creating more of a studio-like atmosphere, with a range of work settings, including teamwork, focused work, soft work, meetings, retreats and communication, all within a framework that supports well-being and safe social interaction.

I certainly hope the days of regimented rows of desks disappearing into the horizon are over, to be replaced by a more pluralistic, people-centric and humane approach. One that defines the office as a series of ‘readable‘ and human-scale places.
I also think that the role of the office within each organisation will be challenged, particularly the idea of having 7000 people in one place every day. I am sure that many COOs and CFOs have realised just how much it costs to run an office now that these are unoccupied, and will be looking to identify what their essential roles are, as touched on above, and what can be achieved in other ways.

It was interesting to hear that before the lockdown came into effect, certain companies, in this instance in New York, were already in the process of setting up satellite hubs to avoid their employees needing to travel all the way into the centre of the city.
A positive effect of this could be that it leads to less traffic and reduces our collective carbon footprint, as well as providing a better work-life balance, given that burn-out is an increasingly serious concern for companies.

Lastly, a few practical questions. What is relevant in the short and in the long term?

In the short term, to respond to social distancing requirements, which could be achieved by identifying who could remain working remotely and who most benefits by returning to the office. This may mean introducing a schedule where people spend part of their week in the office and another part working remotely, which will allow social distancing to occur naturally, due to the reduction of numbers in the office at any one time. In the long term, it will be relevant to establish a working culture whereby the office remains a focal point, an innovation centre and a social hub.

Which mistakes should be avoided when adapting office environments to the current situation?

Initially, I would advise not to panic. Covid-19 is hopefully a temporary threat, rather than a constant one. So we need to contemplate the longer term implications of the adaptations that are currently necessary to provide social distancing and respond to the health concerns of returning employees. I think we should try to avoid retrograde steps – retreating into defensive bubbles conjuring the return to cellular work culture.

When adapting the layout to accommodate for social distancing, which typologies are no longer needed in the ‘new normal‘, and which ones will remain?

I think it is too early – and potentially detrimental – to talk about creating a ‹new normal›. We all need to be aware that we are facing a developing situation. We should remain flexible, responding to it as we learn more about it. Apart from that, social distancing is another unexpected reality and is hopefully temporary. We need to assess and find creative solutions to keep employees safe without a massive churn of existing typologies or products. All the varied typologies that my team and I have introduced as workplace solutions allow people to choose where and how they work, so they naturally support social distancing. I never view workplaces as static, but as evolving organisms, which can respond to the ever-changing organisational needs of companies and to technological changes. Ultimately I think the role and size of the office as a concept will adapt and change to suit conditions.

Publication date: 15.5.2020
Images: © Jansje Kalazinga, Gilbert McCarraghe, TMiyamoto

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