A Good Crisis

The lessons we learn from COVID-19 will reshape the workplace environment for decades to come.
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The Indiana Toll Road Administration and Operations Building designed by SmithGroup and completed in 2019
Courtesy Christopher Barrett Photography

“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” Winston Churchill once said. Indeed, the Covid-19 crisis is forcing employers to rethink the notion of an office, and in doing so reconstituting their company cultures. This was the provocative subject at a virtual Think Tank, “Driving Culture in a Changing Environment: Lessons Learned from COVID-19,” held on September 1st and moderated by Metropolis editor in chief Avinash Rajagopal. 

“How do we work? Where do we work? How do we serve our customers more?” asked Josh Peterson, workplace development director at American Family Insurance. “There’s a fundamental mindset shift. We’re moving away from the assumption of [using] an office for all our daily work activities. Instead, the office is becoming a destination for collaboration, innovation, and cross-function work.”

Jen Vogel, an architect at SmithGroup, which hosted the panel, echoed the profound changes under way and how they have served to advance ideas that employers were previously slow to accept.



“Whenever there’s a culture pivot there’s a fear of change,” she said. “But when you’re already disrupted, a ball in motion will remain in motion. We have all of these new human resources rules about remote work and untraditional hours that would have taken years to research and gauge their effects on productivity. Now they’ve been tested and we quickly realized they’re OK and acceptable.” 

“We’re in the midst of the greatest workplace experiment of all time,” opined Rajagopal. “We’ve had to put new protocols in place in a matter of months and even weeks.” 

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The Indiana Toll Road Administration and Operations Building designed by SmithGroup and completed in 2019
Courtesy Christopher Barrett Photography

We’ve learned more about collaboration in the past six months than in the previous six years. Our employees would like more flexibility and a voice in where and how they work, said AmFam’s Peterson.  

As the workplace changes, so too will interior designers’ mandates. SmithGroup’s Vogel told the panel: “When we return to the office, whether it’s 100% or 20% or on a part-time basis, we need to design places to stretch; places for quiet time; even a place where you can step outside,” adding that for this model to work, leaders must make employees feel like there is “technological equity,” meaning that everyone has the digital tools they need to do their jobs wherever they are.  

“It’s all about decreasing heads-down singular focus work and prioritizing collaborative spaces,” said Peterson. “It’s not so much about increasing density. It’s about pushing improved utilization. After all, the whole purpose of real estate is to meet business goals.” 

Even Churchill himself might have agreed. 

The Think Tank discussions were held on September 1, 10, and 17. The conversations were presented in partnership with Hunter Douglas, Material Bank, Versteel, GROHE, and KI.

Categories: Think Tank