Form follows infection?

A once in a generation opportunity to reshape the workplace.
GRID Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec c2019 Establishedand Sons c Erwan Bouroullec Render 01 300dpi GRID illustration by Erwan Bouroullec

By Sebastian Wrong, Design Director and Patrick Mueller-Hermann, Director, Established & Sons

As businesses contemplate reopening, design must play a fundamental role in defining the new normal.

For office-based businesses, Coronavirus has acted as an unprecedented accelerator for change. Forecasters have long predicted that the future of work would be digital, remote and flexible. The technology has been in place to enable this for some time, but businesses have dragged their feet. Now, with close to 90% of office staff working from home and nearly half predicting a permanent change, both businesses and their employees have finally woken up to the benefits of a flexible, work-from-home culture.

So what happens now? This moment represents a precious, once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape our idea of what our workplaces are actually for, with benefits extending deep into our day-to-day lives, public infrastructure, urban development, and the environment. This is an opportunity for design to be a powerful force for good.

There is no going back to the old normal of long, sweaty commutes and open-plan office floors with little privacy that have been proven time and again to negatively affect productivity.

Flexibility will be fundamental in attracting and keeping talent – the most important factor after salary. Designs that offer functionality, versatility, adaptability, and cost-efficiency will enable companies to trial and adopt new ways of working, especially in a time of economic difficulty.

Like many creative companies, we were already thinking this way and created our AT WORK collection to answer some of these needs. Now we are radically redesigning our own workspace, bringing together what we have learned from creating this collection and the flexible working practices of the creatives we collaborate with every day.

We are already helping our contract clients reimagine their office spaces as places of connection while complying with new safety regulations and distancing – a unique new challenge. And we are providing ergonomic, space-efficient designs for employees that provide a bedrock for a well-balanced work life at home, without compromising on aesthetics or impacting on wellbeing.

Based on our experiences so far, these are our three key predictions for the near future of workplace design:

1. CREATIVE FLEXIBILITY

The creative industries offer salient examples of flexible working and its benefits. Many designers have been able to carry on working almost as normal during lockdown thanks to their fluid approach to work.

At Established & Sons, Sebastian splits his time between different teams, roles, projects and locations and works with other creatives who do the same every day. Advances in technology have made this even easier. Creatives naturally schedule time to think, use more public spaces for meetings and making connections, and often have workspaces close to or in their homes.

Businesses will look increasingly toward the creative industries to define the new way of working. Existing office spaces will adapt to offer comfortable spaces where small groups of workers can meet face to face, while homes will need to offer multifunctional transition spaces that can accommodate work and leisure uses.

Designers, who have experience of this more flexible lifestyle, are best positioned to improve the well-being and happiness of the workforce by providing them with the solutions they need now.

2. THE AGORA-OFFICE

Businesses may be tempted to ditch their expensive office spaces entirely. Yet many of us miss having a place to go – 30% find working from home lonely. We expect a vibrant office environment to become one of employees' top priorities when it comes to finding a job, after salary and flexible working.

The office will become an important symbolic and social space. However, a reduction in the size of central city offices will also transform furniture fit-outs. Office environments will have to appeal to employees in a new way and motivate them to come in with sufficient purpose and frequency to justify commercial rents. They will need to be inviting environments that foster creativity and collaboration.

Rethinking the office’s primary function as a meeting place – reminiscent of the Greek Agora – and replacing rows of desks with a variety of common areas will allow employees to congregate with appropriate social distancing. Regular visits to the ‘Agora’ will re-energise and refocus staff, while days of home working will save hours on commuting and ease the pressure on overloaded transport systems, lower operational costs and reduce the environmental footprint of the office.

Designs like the modular GRID, conceived by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec as a “room-within-a-room”, will allow office interiors to adapt and respond in the short term, while businesses consider how to invest in transforming our office architecture. The GRID system, which includes desk, screen, charging and seating modules, has provided the foundations for the redesign of our own space.

3. ERGONOMIC HOME/WORK

It’s not just the office that needs to be redesigned, but the home too. More than 39% of people who have been working from home during this period have reported being frustrated with the lack of a suitable workspace. Many employees do not live in a space that can sustain long-term remote working without negatively impacting on wellbeing.

We expect to see a rethink of the domestic environment, where – in the words of former Elle Deco editor Michelle Ogundehin – “form follows infection” and spaces are “smart not sterile”. Private workspaces that enable focused working and time to think will be given a new priority in home design, and furniture trends will shift accordingly. In the meantime, remote working areas in the home will need to be multifunctional transition spaces that can accommodate leisure uses as well.

Homeowners and renters alike will reassess their existing furniture pieces and find that they need an alternative to provide the physical support required for desk-based working. Businesses will support employees in the adaptation of the home environment, either financially, through new tools or with furniture. We will see a rise in demand for designs that combine personality with ergonomics – tactile, meaningful, playful and functional.

LUCIO LOUNGE 6851 Sebastian Wrong c2019 Establishedand Sons c James Champion Insitu 01 72dpi Lucio lounge by Sebastian Wrong 2019 © Established & Sons - Photography by James Champion

Over the next few weeks, we will be finishing off our own redesign and preparing to welcome our collaborators and clients back into our space. We will be open for visits as soon as we are allowed so that anyone can come in and experience our AT WORK collection in action.

Discover the AT WORK collection, including the recently launched GRID product family by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec.

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