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Monday, February 08, 2021

Post-COVID home and office design

 Recently someone showed me a group photo from a Pokemon GoFest. My immediate reaction was visceral: this looks way too dangerous during COVID19 times --- too crowded, too many people in a small space, never mind that it was outdoors. Before this year, there was hope that with a vaccine and good public health measures we could return to post-COVID19 times, but now it's looking more and more like COVID19 will be endemic.

In the short-term regardless, remote-work has become the norm, but I think that architects and office designers are still behind the curve on designing for a post-pandemic world. I'll start with the home. Prior to the pandemic, great halls were the fashion for home design. In a post-pandemic world where work-from-home is the norm, the great hall is the biggest waste of space you can imagine. Consider:

  • Tall ceilings amplifies noise and creates echo-y environments, meaning that the space cannot be used for more than one zoom call at a time
  • The open space does not provide isolation, whether you're doing home work, writing code, or even writing a report.
  • The big empty space  does not afford power sockets which are still necessary for power or large monitors, even if your wi-fi coverage was fast enough or you had a mesh router.
  • Finally, any one cooking or eating in the great hall will disturb anyone who's trying to work.
It is far better in the post-COVID environment to have a lot of small enclosable spaces than to have one big space, and home designs in the past 10 years have not caught up to that reality, and many home buyers have fallen prey to fashion rather than the practicalities of working from home.

Going to the office, the situation is even worse. Office designs in the past 10-15 years have been constrained by the costs in high rent areas such as Silicon Valley and the need to pack as many people as possible in a work environment. All the space recommendations of Peopleware for knowledge workers (engineers, artists, etc) have been deprecated in favor of open-floor plans with no walls or doors. There is no way any high end creative technical talent will put up with that sort of environment in a COVID-endemic environment. So you get announcements like DropBox moving out of their offices in favor of pre-reserved collaborative spaces.

I think for very small teams (3-4 people) it's possible to do long term remote work. But if you have a true multi-disciplinary development, you'll soon outstrip the capabilities of Zoom. Even the best remote work environments cannot beat standing together in front of a white board for impromptu design discussions. And for the most collaborative creative teamwork (think video games, or storyboarding a Pixar movie), you will require in person work. Despite my best efforts I have to constantly push people to jump into zoom calls instead of slacking at each other in a slack channel: the bandwidth provided by even an imperfect Zoom call with a shared screen far outstrips most people's ability to express themselves in the written medium!

A big company like Google/Facebook/Dropbox will probably not miss the creativity hit from daily collaborative work (though I'd argue that they do, but just as described in Peopleware, there's no way to measure the business loss from creative ideas not being put into practice, they don't know what they're missing), but if you're a startup (or in a creative endeavor like Pixar or Naughty Dog), you cannot afford to lose this, and if you visit offices like Pixar's, you'll discover that they never adopted the mass open-space fashion of Silicon Valley. (Peopleware cites examples of "skunkworks" projects where the managers successfully placed their teams in non-traditional offices precisely to maximize team work --- the only reason any startup can perform a large company is that they have focus and team work in ways that big companies cannot do) I suspect that the more creative the work, and the more multi-disciplinary the work, the more likely it is that it will benefit from in-person collaboration and team work. Hence, you might want your accounting department to be entirely remote (nobody wants creative accounting), and payroll processing maintenance and programming could probably be done remotely, but putting together a movie, high quality video game, or solving new technical problems might benefit from in person collaboration.

Unlike pre-COVID days, however, you can no longer mandate that your talent walk in the office every day. You have to make them want to do so. A lot of this is building teams where people are eager to collaborate and see each other in person, but making the office a more desirable workspace than most people's homes (which are, as described above, not configured for decent individual creative work, let alone collaborative work) is a good first step.

Those recommendations from Peopleware include:
  • At least 100 square feet of private work space per person, with a door you can close for privacy and/or noise isolation. (Sorry, head phones do not cut it!)
  • Collaborative work environments that are well ventilated, preferably with windows
  • A gradation of private to collaborative to public workspace
Ironically, the pre-built spaces that have these characteristics turn out to be single-family homes built in the 1950s, with low ceilings, individual rooms, and a shared living room work environment. They sometimes even have kitchens big enough for a team to make and eat a meal together. It probably isn't a surprise that many successful startups had houses as office space rather than an actual office building.

If I were to design an office for the future, I would create a hub and spoke design, with large teams divided into smaller teams, each with a collaboration area, and bigger collaboration areas for cross team communications, brain storming, or design. Instead of the monolithic cafetarias of the past, you would construct smaller dining areas that let teams dine together without putting huge numbers of people together to spread disease.

It's fashionable to denigrate offices in favor of remote work now, but I suspect that the future success stories will come out of in person collaboration for the spark and serendipity that cannot occur through scheduled zoom calls. It will take real courage (not the Apple kind) to build these workspaces of the future that cannot look anything like the sardine-packed workplaces of the past, but the ones who succeed will discover that it is well worth the effort, and the reduced cost of offices in the future will be but one component of that.

Additional Reading
Has the Pandemic transformed the Office Forever? (The author seems afraid to draw any conclusions in this article, but it does a good job discussing trends prior to the pandemic)

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