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Gensler Q&A: What does the world’s largest design firm think about the transformation of workspaces post-COVID-19?

With COVID-19 putting an unprecedented focus on workspace design, AMEinfo has spoken to Gensler, the world's largest architecture and design firm, to learn more about how workplaces have changed - and will change further - in the post-pandemic world.

"The coronavirus pandemic will cause major shifts in how we experience the world and the workplace. When this crisis ends, we may well discover that there have been fundamental changes in the way we work and in the workplace" "With Covid-19 being the biggest disrupter, many workplace aspects are bound to change permanently. We are currently seeing a high demand for a ‘touchless workplace’" "A Gensler survey found that half of employees with an unassigned seat were not as productive or engaged as those who have an assigned seat"

WIth COVID-19 pushing more and more employees to work from home (WFH), there has likely never been a greater focus on workspaces and how their design influences productivity, performance and morale. It’s for this reason that there exist endless guides on how to opimize your working space at home.  

Sooner or later, however, employees will have to return to the office, and the challenge now lies in optmizing the workspace for a world post-COVID-19 where social distancing will likely continue to be practiced for quite a while. How do you optimize the workspace for the future of work, then?

Hoping to learn this and more, AMEinfo spoke with Tim Martin, Managing Director of Middle East at Gensler, the world’s largest architecture and design firm.

Can you brief us on your operations in the Middle East, and what Gensler’s own experience with remote working has been like?

After Covid-19 was announced as a global pandemic, we took the initiative and mandated working from home prior to our cities going into lockdown. Being a global firm which promotes integration, our business is already set up for global connection, communication and collaboration. So, our shift to a complete remote working situation was seamless. 

The firm has 6,000 designers working from home (WFH) with uninterrupted operations in real-time design, modelling, and collaboration with our clients and key consultants. Our strategic visioning and reviews sessions, team meetings, and construction administration are being held virtually and we are continuing to find new and innovative ways of delivering design.    

Gensler is very research focused and we were keen to understand how our teams felt about WFH. During the third week of our transition to this new style of working, we launched a survey to assess our people’s well-being, challenges, and overall experiences, using one of our proprietary tools that we have been using with our clients as part of our workplace strategy toolkit. Within a week, 78% of our region’s workforce responded, and several key takeaways emerged that are now helping inform how we plan to return to work in the region and how we can partner with clients to do the same. 68% of respondents were highly satisfied with their WFH experience. 

During the time of the survey, the Dubai and Abu Dhabi offices were under a complete lockdown. Our people reported greater levels of trust, productivity and empowerment compared to working in the office. This then led us to ask questions on the habit of presenteeism and how we can offer the same level of experience when returning back into the workplace. Additionally, having the flexibility to arrange work schedules and save on commute time significantly impacted personal and family relationships in a positive manner. That said, feedback from the survey and clients show that most people still prefer to be in the office as they miss socializing with colleagues and impromptu face-to-face meetings that create the community. We are using these insights to create a hybrid of working, social and community experience by merging the top benefits of working from home and from the office.

Read: COVID-19 has launched the World’s Largest Remote Working Experiment

What is your opinion on the way businesses in the region have handled remote working practices, based on your experience with clients? Any common mistakes, challenges, or lessons to be learned?

Overall, we have found that many companies in the Middle East responded quickly and with clear directions. The local governments led the way with resilient leadership. While some may have felt anxious in the earlier day, these businesses are indeed capable of adapting quickly when they need to. In the early days of lockdown, the common challenge we heard was that the lines between work and non-work were blurred in new and unusual ways. Conference calls intensified and became unfocused, after progressing into the first few weeks.  The circumstance has now improved as people are managing the boundaries between personal and work life. The biggest challenge continues to be social interaction and those chance encounters. 

COVID-19 and the requirement for social distancing have put unprecedented attention on the need for well-informed workspace design. What are some of the tools Gensler has designed to optimize this process, and how do they help businesses?

Design has been at the center of solutions to the world’s most challenging issues. That doesn’t change. Architecture and design firms are uniquely positioned to contribute to how we use design for those who are in need for well-informed workspace design, and to be able to adapt very quickly during times of crisis. As the largest global design firm, Gensler is being asked for expertise in how to plan, prepare, and execute at large scale, quickly, which is importance during times such as this. 

We have created a set of toolkits to enable an easy and smooth transition back into the workplace. We are also looking at both company and employees standpoints. The six main toolkits we have established revolve around Workplace Re-entry, an immediate response which allows us to work with our clients to look at occupancy scenarios and support spaces. Another popular tool is our employee pulse survey that gauges what our clients would like to see when they return to the office based on their insights from WFH. We have an in-house team who develops new wayfind graphics to remind and encourage people to keep best practices while they are on the way to and stepping into the workplace. We have been working closely with FM (facilities management) and change management teams to develop a service to support them during this period of change. Some of our most impactful tools allow portfolio modelling and work strategy modelling, allowing us to help our clients look at future work scenarios, footprint optimization, and possible stretched workday impact on their current assets. Overall, this is about helping our clients and other businesses through an optimized process of returning back to the office.

Read: How to keep your team focused and productive during uncertain times

With some countries easing lockdown restrictions, like the UAE, a major question businesses of all sizes are asking themselves right now is how they will make a smooth transition from remote working and back to usual life at the office. How can businesses ease this transition, considering the social distancing practices that will need to be upheld for the foreseeable future?

It’s still early to know the full extent of how the global pandemic will influence our new ways of working and learned habits. However, we have explored how and what we do bring back to the office as we plan the eventual return in the near future. Gensler has launched a new Workplace Survey to specifically start asking these questions: How is work is changing – what is easier to do at home versus the office? What do employees miss most from the office now? What do they think they may miss from their home working environments when they return? These kinds of questions will help employers determine what employees value most and what amenities matter. What we already know is employees will need to feel safe and protected in new ways as a result of COVID-19. Which also means we are planning for: 

  • Densification will take a hiatus; spaces designed for natural physical distancing

    • It’s been a long run for less space per person, expect a short-term shift as phases of people return to the office. We think this trend could potentially have a long-term impact if tenants desire to lease more space with increased dedicated spaces within multi-tenant buildings. For instance, a tenant may desire their own entries or dedicated elevators, which give them more control over how and where they can protect their employees from outside elements.

    • We have started to shift our thinking around dynamic, or unassigned, seating. We already know from Gensler’s US Workplace Survey, that half of employees with an unassigned seat were not as productive or engaged as those who have an assigned seat. That was before the pandemic. Now, we also expect dedicated space per employee, where, again, they will have a sense of control over their personal space at work, which, in turn, can give them a sense of ease and safety.

  • New ways of working: The longer we work from home, we will discover new habits and new ways of working, which can turn into additional benefits. We have discovered new ways to collaborate virtually, which will likely continue when we return to the office. Companies that were once more skeptical of remote working, now see how well it can work. We should embrace the best of these new habits and encourage them to flourish. For example, as we see conference rooms designed for more space, collaboration can become a combination of both virtual + in-person, especially since virtual collaboration is now a new normal.  

  • Focus on Health & Wellness: Gensler has long understood the correlation between employee wellness and productivity, talent retention, and engagement in the workplace. The idea of health and wellness is now expanding. While access to natural light and movement is key to wellness and is almost standard practice in many work environments, we believe new touchless technology solutions, materials, products, protocols, and air filtration systems may begin to mimic what we used to associate more with traditional healthcare environments. 

Read: What Are The Middle East’s Working From Home Habits?

COVID-19 has forever changed many aspects of our daily work-life. What are the most significant changes you expect we’ll see in workspaces?

The coronavirus pandemic will cause major shifts in how we experience the world and the workplace. When this crisis ends, we may well discover that there have been fundamental changes in the way we work and in the workplace. What we do know is that the workplace still matters.

With Covid-19 being the biggest disrupter, many workplace aspects are bound to change permanently. We are currently seeing a high demand for a ‘touchless workplace’ – a workplace that not only is frictionless but also very much ‘touchless’. We will see the implementation of various technologies that are readily available to us. Virtual assistants may soon be integrated into the workplace environments to help us control lighting, climate and appliances, just like in our homes. Motion sensor gestures will become the new touch initiated actions, like waving your hand to slide open a door. We will be seeing a lot of advanced technologies that are currently being used discretely in other industries like hospitals. UV lighting disinfection is another example that will be implemented in the workplace design. Another change that we see implemented to help us curb viral transmission is ‘data rich work environments’. With the help of data collecting technologies, we will be able to track patterns and identify risks in the workplace. Whether it is through monitoring oxygen levels or supplying fresh air to detect employees’ temperatures through thermal imaging. Post COVID-19, it will be about ensuring employees feel safe and taken care of in the workplace. We continue to deliver design solutions that shape the future of our cities and the human experience.

Read: The working world has changed – 7 reasons to promote flexible working solutions