The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed how we work around the world. From telecommuting and distance learning to virtual events, designers have quickly rethought traditional workflows to stay connected. With the rise of both self-imposed and mandated social distancing, as well as global turn towards remote work, ArchDaily is exploring the impact of COVID-19 and what it will mean for the future.
In this Editor's Talk edition, editors from Dublin, Beirut and Los Angeles share their views on the recent pandemic and its potential to shape how we work.
The COVID-19 pandemic has begun to change the way work around the world. With architects, educators and designers taking stock and looking to the future, what are some major lessons that you think will come out of this crisis?
Niall Patrick Walsh: At the moment, it is difficult to look past next week. But I think when the COVID pandemic is behind us, we will have the space to reflect on how the industry can be more resilient. There are a number of factors that intersect this - how can architecture practices make their workflows more resilient to physical disruption? What softwares are we currently not making full use of? What about the spaces we design? If remote working is going to become a bigger part of our future, what does that mean for residential design? How can we create a work and living environment in spaces that are only becoming smaller and smaller.
Christele Harrouk: I believe the most important thing that we will learn is to slow down and stop producing excessively. Actually, I think our priorities will shift and the whole world will gain new perspectives. I am not saying everything will change drastically, because I don’t believe so, but we will have new considerations, new reflections and new perceptions to take into consideration. Emerging ideas will question our use of space and the psychology behind it, as it will reevaluate our emergency responses, our companies and environment’s resilience and adaptability, and our readiness to face future obstacles.
Eric Baldwin: I agree that's it's difficult to look past the next few weeks or months and draw conclusions. That said, I think Niall's point about resilience hits on a larger question about the relationship between design and working conditions. I would love to see more professions slow down, as Christele said, to address unhealthy work conditions that continue to be perpetuated. From a culture of all-nighters and long hours to informal work and how traditional measures of security are increasingly at risk, we need to take a step back and reassess what isn't' working.
Architecture has long been tied to hours worked, including how projects are billed to clients. How do you think remote work will push architects to think more broadly about a product-based economy, including lessening the numbers of hours in a work week?
Christele Harrouk: Architecture is a very complex field. I think the system should definitely switch to a product-based economy, judging the quality of the work rather than the time spent doing it. I also believe that architecture will always take on an inevitably long process. There is so much to look into when designing and so many aspects to study.
Niall Patrick Walsh: The way in which architects value their services needs to be reconsidered. As you say, an hourly rate is just one way of measuring value. Quantity of work, total construction value, deadlines, scope of works, all these factors could be molded into a new form of procurement, contracts, and billing. As a business model, we need to move away from this antiquated 9-5 approach to work (and, maybe stop fooling ourselves into thinking we only work 9-5 in the first place). Parkinson’s Law says “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion". If we move from a time-based structure to an output-based structure, we could find that tasks which once filled our billable day might only take 3 hours, where the incentive is there to complete your work to a high standard, in good time, and use your newly-earned time to explore your passions.
Eric Baldwin: I know it is a generalization, but I believe the 9-5 approach has become something deeply ingrained in how we work in the United States. I have friends who are working in countries like Sweden or Denmark, and 30 or 32 hour weeks are perfectly normal, and often, the expectation. I do not believe that longer hours equate to better work, which is often the argument I hear from people justifying an 80 hour work week. We can do better; for our health and productivity, but also to change the way we live.
With a background working in the practice of architecture and on built projects, each of you have an understanding of architectural practice, as well as media and communication. What do you think architecture as a discipline can learn from the media, and vice-versa?
Eric Baldwin: As each of us has practiced ourselves, I would say that our additional roles as writers and editors has shown us that architecture has a lot it can gain from media and advances in how we communicate. From how the built environment is experienced to more traditional forms of sharing work and learning from each other, I've often felt that architecture is still behind many other fields. I'm optimistic that this will change, and I think there are many designers trying to bring the discipline up to speed.
Niall Patrick Walsh: Success in media is founded on feedback loops between the writer and reader. Every act is driven by a consideration of what people want to read, and what information we believe is of value to communicate to them. We then see through metrics and feedback where we can improve. Architecture has a lot to learn from that thought process. Today, the technology exists to understand how people use space, their habits, their emotions - if we take the same feedback-based approach to design as we do to media and communication, it would offer a new vehicle for design processes.
Christele Harrouk: What fascinates me about the media world is the speed of creation and the luxury of change. I don’t think architecture can or should follow in that same pattern. I actually think it should do the opposite, slow down and take time to really integrate in its context. Moreover, in communication, we are always on the lookout to deliver what people want to read or generate material that they might need (when they don’t even know that they needed this information in the first place). I think architecture sometimes fails in delivering what people need. It’s true that there is more room for trial and error in the communication world than the architectural field, given the impact of the consequences, but with the right processes, architecture can have its own “give and take” model.
There’s been a lot written on ArchDaily about technologies, tools and tips for working in more digital ways. What are some processes or tools you personally find helpful or inspiring?
Niall Patrick Walsh: Organize your digital space the way you organize your physical space. Keep an organised file system, easily found and referenced. Always be educating yourself on time-hacks, and how you can use digital processes to work smarter instead of harder. For working digitally, I am a strong advocate of early starts. Working with screens late at night is detrimental to your sleep quality, so if I have manual written or reading work to do, I leave that until the end of the day.
Eric Baldwin: I keep reading about the need to keep a structured routine, and I struggle with this. Very rarely do my days spent working from home look the same. I try as best I can to start and end my day with the same hours, clocking in and out. But between those times, my schedule varies widely. I'm an advocate for movement: taking a break every hour, going on a walk, taking a moment to pause or reflect. Taking a break from the screen and finding ways to stay connected, whether it's through Slack or other tools. Also, creating a digital or written list of what needs to get done each day has always helped.
Christele Harrouk: As you know, most of us at ArchDaily work remotely and are constantly on the move. I would say that we have been practicing this way of life for a while and we have our habits. For me personally, it’s all about staying connected, and having your digital tools on you all the time, on your phone, laptop, tablet etc. I not only rely on software for my work, and I could never exchange the basic pen and paper for a app. Other than that, my process consists of always having a planned vision for the day or week ahead, following daily routines, and setting goals to reach.
What is the responsibility of the media during a crisis like COVID-19?
Eric Baldwin: I believe the media more generally has been adding a sense of stress and worry during this time. On one hand, people want to stay informed, but we also don't want every headline to pronounce the world's end. There is something to be learned and stories of what's working, from selfless acts to new ideas. I hope the media (and people more generally), use this as an opportunity to find constructive ways to support one another.
Christele Harrouk: I would say that the responsibility of architecture media is quite broad. Although it is important to stay contextual and generate content that can help improve people’s life during these circumstances, I also think that architecture-oriented media should focus on spreading positivity by discussing topics that are not related to the pandemic. This basically implies that whatever we are going through is temporary and at the end we will go back to our lives, maybe a better version of what we previously had.
Niall Patrick Walsh: For architectural media, I see little merit in regurgitating the live updates of statistics and warnings we see in mainstream media. Instead, we need to internalize our current reality and circumstances, and create content that can help architects and designers steer through them. Given our own experience in digital communication, there is a specific responsibility for us to share what we have learned. The answer to this crisis lies in cooperation at a community level, whether that is physically though social distancing, or digitally through sharing information, knowledge, and support.
As we look to the future of work, are there any trends you think should be front and center in the minds of architects and designers?
Niall Patrick Walsh: We cannot let everything return to its prior state after this crisis is over. Beyond architecture, this crisis has laid bare an economy where the vast majority are one missed paycheck away from financial turmoil, and systems from healthcare to agriculture that have suffered from chronic disinvestment, certainly here in the United Kingdom and Ireland. We need to radically rethink our revenue and infrastructural processes for the future. In architecture, as I wrote a few weeks ago, we need to use this as an opportunity to reflect on the changing nature of work, what it means for traditional offices, and how a new working world will be translated into new architectural spaces.
Christele Harrouk: It’s too early to tell honestly. It’s true that we are going to reconsider it all, from offices, to our homes, our city and streets, parks, transportation modes etc. A lot of trends will emerge, as they already are, but I believe that the ones that are going to stick around will be generated later on, after the storm. Some stuff will change but I don’t believe that drastic measures will occur in the near future. I think it will be a long process of alterations. We have a lot of thinking ahead of us.
Eric Baldwin: While changes are already underway, I think it's no longer just about creating buildings. Architects and designers have unique skills grounded in critical thinking and the ability to imagine new futures. It is revenues and infrastructural processes, but also new frameworks for living that reflect our larger values and local communities. I hope we continue finding ways to come together, to build better, and to address the urgent issues of our time.