Jun 23 , 2020
The Paradigm Series | Part 3: The future paradigm of the spaces we live and work in
Voice of the Community: Maria Recaman

Through my Paradigm series I have referred to the concept of a paradigm as a pair of glasses with coloured lenses that we are constantly using to make sense of the world around us. Depending on its features, we see and understand reality in a specific way.

In Part 2, I reflected on the importance of using water-resistant lenses as we move forward and past the COVID-19 pandemic. This is because:

  1. There is a submerged invisible world (biases and paradigms) that we overlook and hardly ever question.
  2. By using the water-resistant lenses, we become more aware of our own biases and paradigms, and consequently we are able to critically reflect on them.
  3. By critically reflecting on them, we better understand our own decision-making process, and therefore we become more conscious about the decisions we make.

In my final part to the Paradigm series, I will explore how by becoming more conscious about the decisions we make, we can actively start shifting our paradigms, focussing on the everyday spaces we work and live in.

Using common objects to make sense of abstract ideas, such as shifting our paradigm is a very human thing to do. A metaphor takes an idea that is hard to understand and compares it to a simpler and more concrete one, one that we all can recognise more easily. So, when deciding how to approach the last part of the Paradigm Series, referring to a well-known object seemed practical. I’ve chosen the ordinary door and here is why.

Doors are an essential element of our lives. We find them everywhere, and we rarely question their presence. If anything, doors help us make sense of the world around us. A closed one may mean that the space behind it is off limits, while an open door may be an invitation to continue. In short, doors help us navigate the space we live in, in bigger ways than we actually give it credit for. But why should we? They are just doors.

Have you ever made the mistake of pushing a door, instead of pulling it to open? You’re not alone. These ‘bad doors’ are everywhere. Then why does it keep happening? Remember, our brains rely on previous experiences to anticipate certain things happening in the near future. So, when we come across a door, given its characteristics our brains assume that it functions in a certain way. However, it may not be the case. And that is because of the door’s design, not us. A door with a design that tells you to do the opposite of what you are actually supposed to do or needs a sign to explain how it functions, is known as a ‘Norman door’.

It is only when our lives are disrupted by Norman doors, is when we understand the impact they have in shaping our behaviours, and how little credit we usually give them for. And it is not only doors, our behaviours are constantly being shaped by our built environment. This includes all aspects of our surroundings that are built by humans and support human activity: buildings, roads, bridges, parks, crossings, and walking paths.

In fact, our relationship with our built environment is a very interesting one. In 1943, Winston Churchill said: “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”. Architecture is the reflection of our values, but for the most part we take it for granted. The evolution of office design in the last century is a compelling example.

Office design in the early 20th century was a by-product of the Industrial Revolution. Office plans resembled production lines and sought to improve efficiency and create a constant workflow, very much like assembly lines in factories. For a visual representation, I suggest watching this scene from the movie Brazil.

Fast forward to the 1950s, in the aftermath of World War II, workers’ needs and wellbeing started to be included in the design process. The result was a more flexible space that recognised the different types of work, task and functions. Designers also acknowledged the link between workspace personalisation, privacy and productivity, giving shape to the (in)famous modular cubicle.

Naturally employees personalised their cubicle, almost to the point of making it their home away from home. Although cubicles did not have doors as such, the enclosed space gave the impression of being off-limits. However, by the 1980s corporations realised that cubicles were in fact, profitable and efficient and soon enough, all offices started to look very similar, as the layout was being copied over and over again, turning offices into monotonous, dull environments. Its influence was such that it shaped corporate dynamics and organisational cultures. By the 1990s cubicles were being mocked in popular culture as it symbolised the monotony of working for a corporation. I highly recommend watching the movie Office Space.

As the world welcomed the new millennium, the virtual office became the next best thing. Cubicles started disappearing while clean open spaces and flexible ways of working became the norm. The ease of internet access and the numerous technology advancements that characterised the early 2000s once again changed working dynamics and organisational cultures, as workers did not have to be tied to their desks. Alternative working spaces such as quiet rooms combined with more social spaces acknowledged the flexibility of work at the time.

Nevertheless, the (over)popularisation of the casual office, best portrayed by tech firms such as ThoughtWorks, has had its own flaws: while corporations struggle to make their particular ways of working fit to the latest design trend, employees complain about the lack of privacy and overflow of distractions (the lack of doors is understood as a constant invitation to interrupt someone’s work).

If we look at the evolution of office design, it becomes clear that architecture is indeed a representation of our values. It also clear that both architecture and our values are not static and are in constant evolution, as one is shaped by the other.

Now, as social distancing restrictions ease, what is to be expected of workplace design? Could we use it in our favour to continue to shape our own values?

Let us start by saying that even though working from home is not new, COVID-19 pushed many companies and employees to experience it, allowing businesses to continue operating. In fact, some companies have already considered moving to a more permanent work-from-home reality, but this would definitely mean more than setting up a desk and a chair in the corner. As the professional/personal physical distinction disappears, residential design will need to offer new solutions to better suit the at-home worker. Again, the importance of everyday objects such as doors can make all the difference. It would also mean letting go of the bundy clock 9-to-5 mentality and instead, allowing a more flexible approach to guarantee a professional/personal life balance, and avoid work burnout. More importantly, companies should ask their employees whether they like working from home and whether they would like to continue doing it. Surprisingly (or not) some would prefer to go back to the office.

Back in the workplace some observable changes have started happening as a response to COVID-19. For example, Cushman & Wakefield, a real estate management company, has developed a new workplace design concept called 6 Feet Office. It aims to help clients “prepare for their employees to return to the office”, while complying with social distancing guidelines. By introducing targeted adjustments to the existing design, such as visual cues to signal off-limits spaces or walking paths, the 6 Feet Office lay-out can help regulate employee behaviour and minimise the likelihood of community transmission. Others have foreseen the cubicle making a comeback, as its partitions will definitely encourage social distancing and will make people feel safer.

Furthermore, some architecture firms had already anticipated how post COVID-19 offices would look in the near future. In 2013, Bee’ah, the Middle East’s fastest growing environmental management company, commissioned Zaha Hadid Architects to build its new headquarters building in Sharjah, UAE. The design incorporates artificial intelligence and smart building solutions offering a contactless user experience. Employees will rarely need to touch the building with their hands. Office doors will open automatically using motion sensors and facial recognition (bad doors will no longer be a thing), while lifts, and even coffee, can be ordered from a smartphone.

The COVID-19 aftermath could also mean a widespread usage of sensors and scanners to monitor users as they navigate the built environment. Thermal scanners that monitor body temperature, or allowing contact tracing could prevent community transmission, but they raise privacy issues. They could also hinder employee morale if they felt that they were being policed. The self-regulating alternative raises safety issues but could prevent companies from dealing with future legal matters.

Needless to say, the pressures that COVID-19 has put on organisations are overwhelming. As national restrictions are lifted, organisational leaders are expected to make timely and informed decisions to help employees navigate the post-pandemic corporate world. And as if this situation was not already difficult, there is a catch-22.

On one side, if our brains look to the future by examining the past, this could be a case of ‘better the devil you know’, where our brains favour what it is already known, over other uncertain options. On the other side, if faced with too many uncertain alternatives, our brains will have a very difficult time making a decision, if any at all, fearing the possibility of making the wrong one, while potentially waiting too long to come up with a better alternative.

What if we could overcome the catch-22?

When referring to landing craft design during World War II, Winston Churchill said: “‘Nothing avails but perfection’ may be spelt shorter: ‘paralysis’”. He might as well be referring to the situation we are facing today. If going back to normal is not an option and the uncertain alternatives scare us, what can we actually start doing?

The answer may be literally and figuratively to ‘get the foot in the door’. Literally, because foot handles are a simple yet innovative solution to the Norman doors of the world (it is also a hands and germ free alternative). And figuratively because it means that by not using our hands to open the door, as our brains would expect to, we are looking to the future by not examining the past.

I believe we can start moving forward into the spaces we live and work in more consciously. By doing so, we would realise how our behaviours are constantly being shaped by our built environment, and then we would create spaces that not only represent our values, but that continuously shape them.

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