These last six months have been a time of pause. This is a time when the future is cloudy and it has been impossible to plan forward, to adeptly forecast for the future or to understand what tomorrow will look like. Like the feeling we have lying by a lake staring at the dark, vast sky filled with stars, our insignificance and lack of power has been overwhelming.
Daniel Gilbert, the author of Stumbling on Happiness writes “The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future”. Prospection is defined as the act of looking forward or considering the future, and having control and being effective (changing things, influencing things, making things happen) is one of the fundamental needs and natural functions of our brains. We have a frontal lobe so we can imagine a future, we contemplate the future so we can make predictions about it, and we make predictions about it so we can control it. The challenge we are all experiencing in this viral environment is our inability to control.
As Interior Designers, at the outset of this pandemic, we immediately began researching and curating information on this disease; the longevity of the surface contagion, which materials are the safest, how to plan space to allow for distancing and separation, how to increase air flow and regulate traffic flow and safe pathing throughout a building. The conversations that we had with our clients all sounded the same; sanitation protocols, proper signage, proper spacing, and then the ‘wait and see’. “We aren’t making any major changes and will just wait for the next number of months until we can understand how this virus will resolve.” they said. But what if it doesn’t resolve, what if this is it?
In ancient times, the Vikings traversed oceans by charting their position against the stars, using the North Star to orient their direction. During the day, they used the position of the sun. Like us, Vikings also experienced days and months of cloudy weather that made it impossible to find their way. But, like those of us who are driven to propel ourselves to opportunity, the Vikings created sunstones to keep them on course during overcast and twilight skies. Viking sunstones were created from various minerals that, when held to a grey sky would allow the light to radiate through the stone to affirm the predicted direction.
Today I have decided that I am tired of uncertainty and I am ready to empower my firm to change the way we look at those stars. Instead of feeling small and powerless, we will be the Viking – we will navigate in the conditions in which we live, will create a sunstone and relentlessly pursue creating opportunity through the best solutions that will serve our clients today and tomorrow. We can’t sit and wait for a change to come, we need to decide to embrace what we have today and to make it work for our lives, our employees’ lives, our businesses and our clients.
What we have all learned since last spring is that we need each other, and that video connections are a dim imitation of an in-person experience over an extended period of time. Even the most traditional businesses moved quickly to ensure mobile work was possible for their teams, but over the months, we are all experiencing Ground Hog day repeatedly. Our business clothes remain in the closet, there are no conventions, awards events, or industry gatherings to attend. Employee engagement is lagging, culture is becoming harder to communicate and we are becoming un-inspired and bored despite the Zoom social hours, online team building games and productivity incentive initiatives.
As noted in an article by Jane E. Brody in the New York Times back in June of 2017, In a study of 7,000 men and women in Alameda County, Calif., begun in 1965, Lisa F. Berkman and S. Leonard Syme found that “people who were disconnected from others were roughly three times more likely to die during the nine-year study than people with strong social ties,” John Robbins recounted this in his marvelous book on health and longevity, “Healthy at 100.”
This major difference in survival occurred regardless of people’s age, gender, health practices or physical health status. In fact, the researchers found that “those with close social ties and unhealthful lifestyles (such as smoking, obesity and lack of exercise) actually lived longer than those with poor social ties but more healthful living habits,” Mr. Robbins wrote. However, he quickly added, “Needless to say, people with both healthful lifestyles and close social ties lived the longest of all.”
Although the introduction of an effective vaccine will change the landscape of our interactions in the future, it will not erase our memories of the impact this virus has had on us. Our awareness of social presence is now changed forever. So, we ask, “What are we waiting for?” since we will never be comfortable working like we did in the past.
With or without a vaccine, we all are evolving to be a permanent Elastic Workforce™. We will stretch between locations of work; doing our focus work in remote locations but will come back together to reconnect, recharge, innovate, collaborate, get inspired, and be challenged. We are already designing for movement, flexibility, volume of space and personal comfort in larger format, community type office settings and design will continue to morph as we study how people are interacting with each other, the furniture and the spaces they are using.
In the past decade, we learned to design workspace that allowed people choice and control in their work environment. Choice in the setting that they worked in; enclosed or open area, seated or standing height (or somewhere in between), space that offered interaction and collaboration or space that allowed for privacy or focused activities. The control part of the equation looked at giving people the autonomy to control and adjust their space to suit their workstyle and ergonomic needs, whether that was desk height adjustability, light levels, temperature, etc. Adding a third element of comfort to choice and control is now a must. Ensuring that employees can feel safe while working is paramount.
It is time to bring people back together in a safe way. As winter approaches, we need the community of our colleagues. We need to share, laugh, and commiserate in person. We need to escape the tight mental headspace that we have been trapped in since the spring and we need to throw open the doors to possibility. Our offices all have the sunstone potential, but we need to think bigger, embrace change and be more focused and clearer in our direction.
We need to be brave; we need to act now, we need to be Vikings.