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Covid-19 is about more than re-imagining offices

Workplace, home and city design are all interconnected, says MVRDV's Winy Maas. There is an opportunity to rethink the built environments we want - and we must be active contributors

Winy Maas: 'Offices should be for a different type of work... what would a desk look like if it was designed for communicating with others?'
Winy Maas: 'Offices should be for a different type of work... what would a desk look like if it was designed for communicating with others?' Credit: Barbra Verbij

Pamela Buxton had some questions for Winy Maas, co-founder and principal architect at MVRDV

Will offices ever be the same again after Covid-19?

Even before Covid-19, office design was already going through big changes. So the question is, will offices ever be the same as what? I think the pandemic will accelerate some of the changes that were already taking place, such as more leisure places, more communication zones between the desks and also more work done at home. It might stop some of the other changes. Even more of the possible changes are yet to be determined. So it’s important for us, as architects and as human beings, to be active contributors to what we want the offices of the future to be like, in light of the virus. A lot of discussion about post-pandemic architecture and cities forgets that agency.

How can offices be adapted in the short term to respond to physical distancing as companies start to get staff back to work?

We did a study of our own office to imagine if we maintain distances at work of 1.5 metres as recommended by the Dutch government. We found that our office has a capacity of 45 per cent of its previous capacity.

Design solutions might increase that a little. But even to make 45 per cent possible there is a more important consideration, which is policies. How do we make sure people don’t spend too much time in close quarters, in corridors and on stairs, for example? How do meetings take place without being too close? In this way, every office should do a similar study before returning to work. They should assess their capacity and write policies that best fit the space they currently have.

What are the main challenges of this?

The biggest challenge will be people looking for easy answers. Some people seem to think we might see a return to 1980s-style cubicle offices with barriers between desks to stop the spread of the virus. I doubt the effectiveness of that. But even more importantly, is that really something we want to go back to?

There is a reverse to the question. How do we ensure homes offer a compelling alternative to offices?

What will be the longer term impact of Covid-19 on how offices are designed?

It is difficult to predict exactly what the change will be, but I can certainly speak about the changes I personally would like to see. I think many companies were forced by Covid-19 to develop work-from-home systems. Companies have seen that having employees work from home on a large scale is possible.

This has had many effects. One is that it has highlighted a big criticism of open-plan office design, which was our previous design paradigm. For years people criticised open offices for creating too many distractions. Office design was already moving in a different direction. Now that argument is a bit changed. Why would you go to the office if you know you can stay home and concentrate properly?

I think offices should be for a different type of work. Perhaps I can provide some insight into this from my own life. In our office I don’t have a desk. I travel a lot - or at least I did until March. And I already work on my laptop, whether I’m at home, in meeting rooms or on the road. That allows me to treat my time in the office differently. If I’m there, it’s to collaborate with others. To share ideas. To create things as part of a team. Zoom meetings cannot replace body language yet…

Most people have jobs that need at least some of both types of work. So the question will be how do we make offices the right environment for working together with others? How do we design spaces that encourage deep collaboration? What would a desk look like if it was designed for communicating with others, instead of closing yourself off from the room? How can meeting rooms be more productive?

Do you think the recent emphasis on agile working and the social, communal aspect of the shared office will continue post-Covid-19?

I hope it will continue. I also hope it will become more nuanced. Improving the communal aspect of offices is much more complex than bringing in a ping-pong table - although there is also room for that, too. It is not only about providing amenities. It is about creating places where people can feel like they can accomplish things effectively. And that they can feel together… at home somehow.

Do you think more people will end up working from home permanently?

Perhaps some people will. But I hope not too many. Because now we are talking about a different scale, the urban scale. The urban impact of huge numbers of people working from home permanently would be significant and probably not positive. Cities are given a pulse by people travelling to work every day, whether they travel into the city from elsewhere or they move within the city. That movement of people is one of the things that keeps cities lively. It makes them fun, exciting places to be. Without that pulse, and without having to consider how long their daily commute would be, people may become less attracted to cities. Urban space could begin to sprawl again, like it did in the second half of the 20th century. That would be an environmental and social disaster and we’d end up regretting it, just as we now regret 20th-century sprawl.

How can offices be designed to give a compelling alternative to working from home?

In a way, I think offices are already offering a compelling alternative. The benefits of working from home could change the way we design offices. But, talking with my colleagues, it’s clear to me that they miss being together with their work mates. Offices that realign with that communal spirit in mind will be popular and productive.

There is also a reverse to your question. If people are able to choose between working from home and going to the office as I’ve suggested - staying home to focus and going to an office to collaborate - how do we ensure that their homes offer a compelling alternative to an office? Working and living in the same space can be psychologically challenging. The usual advice for people working from home is to emphasise the separation between the two. Are people’s homes large enough for this? Will we see a rise in people expecting a spare room or study space for work?

Do you see this as a positive opportunity to re-invent how offices are designed?

'Positive' maybe isn’t the right word given the circumstances, but it’s an opportunity we should take advantage of. Not just to re-invent office design, but also home design, city design and so on, because they are all interconnected. There are still many, many questions that need to be answered. But if life as we know it is going to be changed by this virus, shouldn’t we know what kind of life we want to have first?

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