The Tech World Models a Solution for the Post-Covid Workplace. Here’s Why:

It’s November. Eight months ago, we thought this remote working phenomenon would only last a few months at most, and then we would resume our old lifestyles and behaviors. Writing that sentence today feels almost ludicrous now, since I think we’ve all come to the conclusion that the end’s not near and there is no turning back.

As businesses search for innovative strategies to adapt to the radical change we’ve experienced, traditional processes that lack flexibility and agility are proving inadequate. Instead, processes rooted in iteration and experimentation have become much more appealing, especially to those in my world.

My name is Elfreda, and I’m a workplace strategist. For about a decade, I’ve been working with corporate businesses and their people to develop design strategies for the office. My work not only includes the consideration of the physical environment, but also the less tangible digital integration, as well as factors that influence employee behavior, relationships, and interactions within the workplace.

Architecture and interior design processes have remained relatively consistent for centuries. There has always been a sense of permanence in what we’ve designed and built. But, COVID-19 is pushing the industry into a completely different realm — one that is based upon user-centricity, that allows architects to adapt and iterate in a way that assumes less permanence. In this circumstance, the result is that users witness flexibility and continuous improvement over the time period in which they inhabit a space.

But what does this mean for the corporate world and its army of employees?

As I write this, the entire industry of workplace architects, interior designers, engineers, strategists, and furniture vendors are scrambling to design offices that are safe and productive — refuting the idea that the workplace is dead.

But what if our ideas are wrong or don’t work? What if the pandemic is the catalyst that we needed to change the fundamentals of workplace architecture and design forever?

In considering these questions, I look to Steve Todd of Nasdaq, who shared that the workplace is a journey, not a destination, in a panel at Unwired’s WORKTECH North America event. He clarified that we should remain flexible and ready to change as events unfold, and that our assumptions about the future may turn out to be wrong. While I’m not an expert in predicting the future, I concur with his assessment.

So, what do we do?

Every design industry is familiar with iteration. Iteration typically happens in architecture based on aspirations and expectations rather than real-time user feedback. Consequently, much of the value of iteration is prematurely lost once construction is complete.

This is because iterating the physical office environment is oftentimes cost-prohibitive, and disruptive. When something doesn’t work, people put up with it, or they figure out a workaround that makes the problem tolerable.

On the other hand, product design, software design, and pretty much any other design industry is more openly iterative to its users — whether they realize it or not. For example, think about the number of iPhone versions that have been released over the years: each one is better than the last. In its current state, architecture and interior design don’t function in that way, but I believe those days are numbered.

What if we learned from product and software design, and created things that were less permanent where “versions” of the solution were “released” and changed or updated over time?

What if, to get the future of the workplace, we had to try and test our ideas by building them, and iterating as new situations arose?

If we went down this path, collecting and acting on feedback would become a normal and valuable process for architects. We could even use a real-time review system for clients to provide specific feedback, which the designers — in turn — can analyze regularly and make periodic updates while people continue to occupy the space. Essentially, if we forego the idea of designing for permanence, and ensure the process of making changes isn’t too complex, we could drastically shift a user’s experience in any given space.

If there are any architects or interior designers reading this, you might be cringing at the idea, but hear me out — wouldn’t it be exciting to build something that we are responsible for tweaking, reinventing and improving over time, and that people will actually use and enjoy? I don’t know about you, but in the era of COVID-19, that sounds like the type of change that will propel the profession and protect its relevance well into the future.