As coronavirus-related restrictions ease up around the world, the architectural profession, among many others, is attempting to prepare itself for a comparatively unknown future. Architecture has always been slow to keep up with technology, society, and today’s revolutions; yet somehow the profession adapted successfully during the unstable times of the COVID-19 pandemic. In New York City, we went from commuting across boroughs to commuting across our apartment. Weekly office meetings took place on Zoom, rather than around the conference table. Walking over to a coworker’s desk for a question was replaced by IM chats on Microsoft Teams. These changes have challenged our dependence on paper and not to mention the sample library. Yet, even though remote and digital working methods became implemented practically overnight, the question remains whether and how architecture firms will adjust after the pandemic. Keeping in mind that coronavirus is nowhere near vanishing from our lives, the architectural profession, our peers, and clients cannot simply revert back to how it was prior to the pandemic, especially during the initial stages of easing restrictions. In particular, firms will likely change their operation methods, in terms of physical office space and retaining at least some aspect of remote work.
In New York City, we went from commuting across boroughs to commuting across our apartment.
Even as restrictions slowly lift, maintaining social distancing will affect how offices function. In the physical sense, offices may become more adaptable and smaller as they will not perform at the same capacity before coronavirus. Employees may work in the office in shifts so that half of the team comes in on certain days or hours, while the other half of employees work remotely and vice versa. Since the number of people in an office is reduced, bigger workstations can be shared (as long as they are cleaned properly), or smaller studios may strategically determine who is working in the office based on where people sit so that individuals aren’t working in close proximity to each other. Larger firms, on the other hand, have to address additional issues such as circulation. Not only are some offices reorganizing furniture or implementing flexible partitions, but some are even enforcing one-way circulation, à la IKEA, to allow social distancing by reducing the number of people one would pass by in a hallway.
For larger firms, addressing issues such as circulation will become important, with some companies even enforcing one-way circulation, à la IKEA, to allow social distancing by reducing the number of people one would pass by in a hallway.
Regardless of these methods, remote working is likely to remain more common than prior to the pandemic. For those who were initially afraid employees would be on Netflix instead of AutoCAD, we have learned that working from home is more productive than we thought and can even enhance our quality of life. Digital tools have played a vital role in connecting people to each other and helping us work from home. Zoom and Microsoft Teams, for instance, not only allow us to video chat, but also to share our screens and see what we are each working on. Although it took time for this workflow to feel natural, we now know it can be done effectively. That two-hour commute can be better applied to personal and professional time, and the concept of 9-6 expanded to better accommodate the other demands of life.
That two-hour commute can be better applied to personal and professional time, and the concept of 9-6 expanded to better accommodate the other demands of life.
Some studios will take advantage of the rise of remote working and rethink their structure completely. A younger generation of digitally skilled practices that had already taken root may expand, replacing certain roles and processes in traditional offices by focusing on specific tasks, rather than entire projects. Similar to rendering studios, these new practices may alleviate or “outsource” some of the burden in the design process by remotely assisting traditional firms with construction documents, 3-D printing, or other specialized tasks, thus helping keep office footprints smaller. While these practices and even smaller, less diverse offices will likely lack a sense of office culture, they could potentially mitigate problems with inequality, since physical appearance can be a large factor in the hiring process and even evaluating an employee. On Zoom, where everyone looks imperfect in poor lighting, the “appearance playing field” is leveled, allowing traits such as productivity and hard work to triumph over looks and hopefully even gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. The idea of remote digital offices could even have an impact on cities, allowing more people to live farther away from urban centers.
As the coronavirus pandemic shows little signs of ceasing, technological tools and working from home will remain an integral part of how we work in the future. Although digital platforms help us maintain a sense of connectivity and collaboration, we must recognize that they cannot replace real face-to-face interaction and relationships. While the question of physical offices’ obsolescence has risen during these times, physical offices provide an opportunity to cultivate a sense of studio culture, creative brainstorming, and—more importantly—friendships. Without a return to in-person, face-to-face exchanges (without masks) a lot will be lost, and the profession will suffer. Physical offices help foster camaraderie and boost the mental health of employees. After all, humans aren’t made to bathe in blue light in front of a screen; we’re made to bask in the presence of one another. We still want to overhear conversations, see others’ renderings or material samples, provide (or elicit) spontaneous critiques or advice, discover that hole-in-the-wall lunch spot that our teammate sneaks out to daily, or learn that we have more in common than our email addresses. I know we are all looking forward to Friday happy hours around a table or fire together, even if 6’ apart.