A New View of Innovation and Collaboration in Interior Design

Clients come to us with a problem and ask us to design a space to solve it. For most of our working lives, the problems we solved were things like changes in teaching or working styles, accommodating more people, or expanding a space. If we didn’t solve those problems well, people might not be as effective or productive as they need to be.

These days, the problem we’re solving is how to keep people healthy during a global pandemic. The consequences are dire if we don’t get it right.

Making an environment safe depends on the vision and commitment of the entire campus or workplace community. This type of collaboration has the power to transform education and work spaces and create improvements that don’t just keep people healthy—a worthy goal all on its own—but energize people, encourage efficiency, and enliven collaborations.

Drawing on Broader Perspective to Meet Health Guidelines

As we integrate public health recommendations, we’re keeping in mind just as we always have the wants and needs of those who own, use, and operate the spaces we design. They have challenges beyond social distancing and avoiding high-touch areas. We’re collaborating with more expansive teams now to ensure that, as we keep people healthy, we’re also helping them perform at their best—comfortably and happily.

This means we’re also working with expanded teams to ensure that we’re meeting all these disparate needs. Including input from client operations teams is now standard, for example, so that we get early, critical input about cleaning protocols that inform our design choices and material selections.

Now that we’re working this way and including more voices, I can’t imagine we won’t keep it going even after the current health threat has passed. The shifts in perspective provide benefits for the long term.

From Healthier Protocols, Long-Lasting Benefits

Identifying all the ripple effects of designing to address public health guidelines will take years. In the meantime, a lot of unexpected benefits are already clear. We’ve seen, for instance, that much of the work that happens in offices doesn’t really need to.

Now that so many of us are working and meeting remotely, losing the complications of travel enables us to spend more time collaborating with more people (on screen, of course). We’re problem-solving in real time while screen-sharing or virtually walking a site. It’s hard to imagine anyone is going to want to give up this newfound efficiency even when in-person meetings become common again.

That said, we’ve heard loud and clear that what people miss most about the office, are the people. Our challenge is to bring people together and keep them safe.

In the long term:

    • Classrooms and office spaces will become even more flexible, with adaptable furniture, streamlined connectivity, and more accessible technology. We’ll have more options for learning and working in spaces that suit the project and group size, goals, and work styles, which will likely become a boon to productivity.
    • Expect not to be crammed into dense open workspaces again. Personal space has become more critical for infection control. Well-being will be top of mind. We will see a hybrid of remote and in-person work ranging from focused to collaborative, likely utilized long-term to maximize efficiency and creativity.
    • Meetings will get a breath of fresh air. We are collaborating with our landscape architects to design outdoor conference areas and varied amenity spaces, to provide innovative solutions to concerns about distancing.
    • When you are indoors, you’ll breathe purer air because of enhanced filtration and ventilation methods. Transmission of pollutants and illnesses through the air will decrease.
    • Tight, tucked-away stairwells and reliance on densely packed building elevators, are giving way to centralized staircases open to the area around them. Walkways in general are becoming more spacious. In both cases, this allows for social distancing, but it also makes spaces feel more cohesive and fosters a sense of community by encouraging spontaneous connections.
    • You’ll touch a lot fewer surfaces as touch-free technology works its way through restrooms, elevator lobbies, break areas, and conference rooms. We will embrace product innovation and advanced technology to reduce disease transmission in all space types.


Looking Toward a Healthier Future

From these pandemic hardships and our more acute awareness of infection control come many unexpected gains that will benefit people far beyond the urgent issues we face now. Health and well-being should always be top of mind when solving design problems. Even in less fraught times, insights from experts on disease transmission and recovery will likely not just keep people healthier but bring greater well-being in general.

Meeting outside, for example, does a lot more than reduce the likelihood of transmitting illness through air droplets—a pressing concern at present while we deal with COVID. Getting outdoors also provides a dose of Vitamin D that boosts the immune system. And there’s research to support the benefit of getting outside for increasing mental acuity and improving mood. For decades we’ve known that hospital patients with views of nature recovered from surgery faster than those who had no window or could only gaze at a parking lot. Based on the effects of previous outbreaks, we can assume that COVID will have lasting impacts on our physical and mental health. It’s incredible to realize that planting some trees can mean better health for people—just because they get to see them. Imagine this effect enhanced even further if people can move their workspaces to nestle under the leaves.

There’s so much to be gained when we combine the perspectives of many with design practices rooted in solving problems. These are tough times, but I look forward to seeing what they inspire us to do to improve lives down the road. Here’s to healthy spaces and happy people: together and safe.

Lacey Causseaux, RID, NCIDQ, LEED AP, Fitwel Ambassador
Director of Interior Design, Associate