After 20 years working with Fortune 1000 companies, Stantec’s Washington, D.C., principal Pablo Quintana faces what might be his biggest professional challenge in helping companies get their employees back to work in the middle of COVID-19. Quintana has always had interesting ideas around workplace design strategy: For starters, he believes that every office absolutely must contain some space where doing any work is forbidden. And, he believes that casual chat and collaboration is essential to improving efficiency. He specializes in person-centered workplace design -- and although the pandemic has completely obliterated in-person collaboration, he still thinks people are better together.
Quintana has created corporate and commercial spaces for titans like Google, Volkswagen, and Microsoft. One of Stantec’s recent office projects consists of hundreds of Lego-like cubicle pods that can be endlessly deconstructed and reconfigured in blocks of 10 by the large tech engineering team that occupies them. Quintana also worked on the giant Google slides that have become a part of tech industry myth and legend. His firm created a blue-sky park atmosphere indoors, many stories up, for corporate advisory firm Gartner. But these days, he’s challenged on many new fronts. As companies prepare for a return to work, thousands of their employees are scared and resistant…and also, possibly, at risk.
They're also saying, "Maybe we never have to go back. Maybe remote is actually better." But Quintana doesn’t believe that. And he definitely has never believed in being confined to "your spot" -- a tiny postage stamp of confined space -- in the office or in the world. This is, of course, exactly what many people attempted to do during COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, and what’s proving not to be sustainable long term.
We asked Quintana what’s next. And what’s after that?
Q: When everything started going into lockdown, stay-at-home mode back in March, did you have the sense that the world was about to change? Tell us about the conversations you were having with clients.
A: Thinking back to earlier this year, it’s amazing to consider how little we knew at the time about this virus and the impact it would have on our daily lives. Initially, I think many were expecting a 2–4 week pause and that we’d be back to work soon after. No one truly anticipated the length and depth of the crisis. We had never seen something as sudden and widespread as this before. As we all processed the fact that our sense of "normal" would change significantly because of this unprecedented situation, we also had to take a step back with our active projects to thoughtfully assess what the new normal would mean for the design of these spaces. Fast forward four+ months and we are actively advising clients on re-entry plans and protocols as well as future design concepts informed by the lessons of the pandemic. I feel strongly that this period of reassessment will lead to better, more thoughtful future planning for all kinds of activities, be it working, living, leisure, etc.
Q: What are you doing to create a sense of community and shared human experience in your shared spaces now that people need to be "safely distanced" at all times?
A: Shared and communal spaces are the glue for most coworking and co-living environments, so it's important that we find a way to re-envision these spaces. We are working on design ideas for shared spaces that are both safe AND compelling. While some features may become a thing of the past -- like shared utensils and plates in workplace kitchens -- there is still great opportunity to continue to envision spaces where groups of people can safely gather, learn, and share ideas.
One concept we’re exploring is to replace large communal spaces with multiple, distributed, smaller spaces to avoid large gatherings. The lower the densities, the lower the risk. Another approach is to plan larger spaces that can flex between the indoors and outdoors. Complementing large indoor spaces with outdoor amenities could be a solution for crowd control and managing anxiety over large gatherings.
Q: Further to that: Humans weren't meant to function in isolation, although many of them have been trying. What are trends you think will emerge in built spaces to create an atmosphere of physical distancing while still allowing for human connection?
Office-planning trends prior to the pandemic were focused on open-plan concepts with higher densities, more communal spaces, and smaller personal spaces. The goal of these spaces was to explore new ways of working by increasing collaboration and facilitating human interaction. In many ways, we were trying to bring in the collaborative and inspiring settings of everyday life within the walls of an office (coffee houses, restaurants, playgrounds, parks, etc.).
In the near term, I expect workplace settings will move away from these trends towards a more "managed" or "focused" work environment where individuals are encouraged to work alone or in smaller groups. As a result, we may see an increase in personal space allocation with more focus on cellular spaces (larger workstations and/or more private offices) and less emphasis on social and collaborative spaces. Looking long term, however, real change will come in the way of a complete re-imagination of the function and purpose of the future office. I envision the "office" as a distributed concept, a combination of nonadjacent spaces, and not as a singular construct. Something like this:
Office + Work From Home + 3rd Place = The NEXT Normal
This is not a new concept. We have been talking about the workplace as an extension of home and vice versa for some time. The difference is that those who are able to work from home have been forced into this remote work experiment overnight. In response, we unleashed the power of technology to help us reconnect in a "virtual universe" through platforms like Zoom, Teams, or Webex. So far, the experiment has worked, albeit with some limitations.
You may notice how everyone is constantly working on improving their "backdrop" that's broadcast behind them to the world, a type of personal set design. We are creating new spaces within our homes and elsewhere that are now part of everyday life, whether it be a home office, workout area, or game room. All this energy and creativity should not be lost, nor should the freedom to choose how and where you work, live, and play. The proverbial cat is out of the bag now: We know we can do this. We also know that we need balance, and social interaction is part of that balance.
Q: What are some things you're focused on behind the scenes -- or behind the walls -- that are ultimately making things better engineered for this new world?
A: At Stantec, we are focusing on a multi-discipline approach to re-entry and re-imagination. This involves combining aspects of planning, engineering, wellness, sustainability, technology, and even hygiene protocols. As a workplace planner/designer, my focus is on the physical solutions: physical distancing, safe collaboration spaces, choice of work environment, safe travel paths, touchless access points, etc. I work closely with a diverse group of Stantec experts across various practices who are helping leverage a full menu of options for the eventual return to work.
As part of this effort, Stantec recently conducted a Workplace Transformation Survey of over 130 Stantec clients across North America. The survey found that 88% of respondents are eager to get back to the office with the proper safety protocols in place. Thoughtful planning to support this return to work includes both immediate and long-term strategies, like rearranging floor plans and occupancy limits for social distancing, evaluating HVAC systems for opportunities to integrate fresh airflow, and use of smart building systems for touchless operation of lights and temperature control.
Q: What do you see as a path for "just for fun" spaces to come back?
A: First and foremost, the key ingredient for the successful full return of these spaces is patience. It needs to be a slow, gradual process guided by science. Much like the return to work, we need a plan of action that helps mitigate risk and alleviate anxieties. We also need a rethinking of communal activities and the places in which they occur. Spaces that combine indoor and outdoor options are part of the answer. That might apply to venues like museums and galleries. Reduced density is also a consideration, particularly in the case of theme parks, rides, etc. We will have to get used to a changed landscape for large gatherings and "fun" activities until the current situation is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.