Skip to content


Return to Normal: Why and What If

Author Joseph Montalbano, AIA, LEED AP

Tags Insight, News

Modern open-concept office space with exposed black steel columns, ergonomically designed workstations, and pendant lighting. Neutral color palette highlighted by natural light and accentuated by pops of yellow and blue in the seating areas. A collaborative environment is suggested by communal workspaces and a pin-up board-clad corridor.

Each of us has been impacted by the COVID pandemic in individual and likely unanticipated ways. The lessons we have learned and the resulting global shifts occurring create an opportunity not to return to normal but to do better, far better.

As a baseline, it is impossible to imagine a post-COVID world that is not prepared for future pandemics, where physical and emotional health, safety, and welfare are top priorities. Equal to that, could be a world in which we choose to increase personal equity and choice in the workplace. Because the physical boundaries of workplace have been negated during this time, employees have equal access to resources independent of their location. This allows us to imagine a world of varying work modes, where employees are untethered from in-office incentives.

Pre-COVID, we were certainly witness to numerous examples of – and increased desire for – this within the “Play” leg of the “Live/Work/Play” personal fulfillment triangle that we each construct for ourselves. New possibilities that are currently being realized could construct increasingly equitable and flexible environments within the “Work” leg. To make these suppositions a reality, though, various questions must be addressed. Through the lens of the architect and designer, possibilities exist at all scales: the room, the building, the block, the city, the region, etc.

This article delves into the questions necessary to imagine and build a new way of working. While none of the scenarios written about here are particularly novel in and of themselves, the unprecedented opportunity to accelerate the shift to a culture of personal equity and choice that they represent is.


Why do you go to the office?

Pre-COVID this was likely a simple question for most any of us to answer – it was just what you did. Today, we have had the chance to reconsider the benefits of desk working en masse. As we rely on a myriad of technologies to effectively “work together” remotely, we understand that the office is greater than the sum of its parts. We also have a renewed insight into the fact that we go to the office to utilize all of the senses afforded to us as we work within a community, be it to Co-ideate, Co-create, Co-learn, or Collaborate.

What if, in the future, the office as we understand it today, were arranged to support the various Co-s that comprise human connections and bring value to our work outcomes? What if there were no dedicated individual desks? Albeit while relying on technology to do so, this pandemic has given us the chance to experiment, in real time, with these what ifs not as hypotheticals, but in our everyday. Through necessity we have discovered just how easy it is to dismantle the “norm” and adapt.


Where is your office?

As organizations consider a “return to the office”, in a post-COVID world, the decision need not be binary, work from home or work in the office.

In this not so distant future, we could choose to create a distributed network of “work from” nodes providing individuals the choice to custom craft “flex” or “agile” workflows beyond the traditional four walls of the office or the home. Such workflows hold the potential to further balance the personal “Live/Work/Play” triangle, while providing organizations increased flexibility within real estate portfolios. Continued advancements in collaborative technologies (VR, 3D Imaging, etc.), along with changes in institutional infrastructure as we understand them today will support this network and allow it to thrive.

Work from Home:

The COVID pandemic has accelerated the pendulum shift to WFH. And, while primarily tested on an uncharacteristically captive audience, proven that it can work. We are reminded of increased levels of empathy and trust in work relationships at each turn in our current workday; an inquisitive child joining a video conference, a momentary pause for a frozen connection. In the future, even greater empathy and trust will be required as we move to a world in which the workforce is further distributed and the distractions of our everyday world return.

What if, in the future, collaborative technology advancements are made to create greater equity between those operating from the various “work from” nodes? What if, while working at home, in a coffee shop, or other node, team members could easily participate in “water cooler discussions” with other team members at other nodes, just as they would if they were in the office. And what if those team members could effortlessly have impromptu meetings with one another, without missing a beat?

Work Close to Home: A return to regionalism:

Satisfying the innate desire for face to face interaction, reducing the stresses on mass transportation systems and individual commute times while developing less costly and more flexible real estate alternatives for organizations all appear to be possibilities in a post-COVID world.

What if businesses deployed a greater number of smaller nodes to serve a distributed workforce and client base? What if these hubs supported all the desired co-activities of coming together for work? Imagine arriving at these hubs via a walk, bike/scooter ride, or even a short drive. Imagine the repurposing of ground floor storefront spaces as these nodes; assisting in the revitalization of suburban markets, minimizing the number of contact/touch points required for arrival and entry while reducing the number of people in a space.

Taking this further, these nodes could continue to be deployed by independent providers as well as individual businesses. A re-thinking of the office as a service, co-working deployed at a Post-COVID appropriate scale, perhaps even allowing for new, symbiotic partnerships between landlords and tenants or between the tenants themselves.

Work from the Central Office:

While bringing large numbers of office workers together in the HQ/central office may now be a need of the past, centralized headquarters may not be. Furthermore, going to this HQ is now – at least at the offset of this interim period – considered risky.

What if, in the future, the HQ was dedicated to specialized functions and needs. Imagine the HQ serving those that require specialized equipment or those functions subject to regulatory compliance requirements, such as in finance and government sectors.

What if the HQ served as the engagement center? A controlled and manageable environment for the assembly of larger groups of teams. The spaces where things such as onboarding, interviewing, training, learning, cross-departmental collaboration occur to serve the umbrella organization of the various “work from” nodes.

Highly Mixed-Use Campus: Balancing Live/Work/Play

Current conditions have made it possible for us to reconsider the life/work equation. For many, more time with loved ones, the pursuit of hobbies, and an increased focus on personal wellbeing have been unexpected advantages of the current pandemic. On the flip side, feelings of isolation, managing childcare, and supporting home schooling, are new challenges to overcome.

What if, in the future, zoning requirements were reconsidered in order to allow a building or campus to house aggregated use types not typically co-located in order centralize the things we do each day allowing us to live our own Live/Work/Play balance. Re-imagining cities within cities.


Who do you work with?

We’re seeing many near term “return to work” playbooks that assume the same relationship between employers and employees as we had during pre-COVID times. As an output of the pandemic, it is evident that for those not in need of special equipment or performing work of a “physical nature”, working from anywhere, with anyone is possible and productive.

What if as an outcome of this devastating event, an independent collaborator model became the rule instead of the exception? Individuals would be able to provide themselves with more choices with whom to partner with across the globe – be it within the many nodes of a single employer network or across employers. Work experiences would be crafted to satisfy individual desires based on the projects one chooses to be a part of. Employers, then, would have the flexibility to assemble teams comprised of the best and brightest individuals from across a global network for specific assignments, which provides greater business agility. In the face of unprecedented unemployment, increased choice and experiences holds the potential to create equity on both sides of the employer/employee relationship.


Why ask?

While at the moment, it is necessary to focus on short-term solutions that address corrections to existing conditions, as architects, creators, and problem solvers we owe it to ourselves and our clients to step back and ask what if. In this way, we can imagine the spaces that would be necessary to house those what ifs. The scenarios laid out here are intentionally hypothetical but not outlandish – they could become reality. This shift in our professional prioritizations could create a working world with greater equity, choice, experience, health, and well-being. In imagining these scenarios, they might just go from what if to what is.