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Rethinking Office Dynamics to Foster Creativity & Adversity

10 MIN READJuly 24, 2020
Before this global pandemic hit, the trend was leaning toward highly densified cities and urban centers. According to the UN, by 2050 more than two-thirds of the human population would be living in an urban area. But how will this trend adapt to the “new normal” in a post-COVID world and how will city design reinvent itself to fit social distancing?

Will Less Physical Interaction Lead to Creativity and Adversity Gaps?

Carlo Ratti, Director of the MIT Senseable City Lab and the Founding Partner of Carlo Ratti Associati discussed with GRI Club members some of the possible challenges city planners may face as a response to COVID. Whether it's a university campus or workplace, people connect differently at a physical level in comparison to virtually. Ratti explains that there are two types of human connections: weak ties and strong ties.
  • Weak ties are relationships between members of different groups, or friends of friends. These ties lead to diversity of ideas as they tie together disparate modes of thoughts.
  • Strong ties on the other hand are relationships between those that work, live and play together frequently. Since they are utilized often, they require more management to keep healthy and over time, strong ties tend to think alike as they share ideas constantly.

COVID-19 has worked as a perfect sociological experiment to test the impact of absence of physical interaction. Thus far, it has resulted in weaker ties disappearing as they are created from physical interactions, greatly impacting social networks. Physical interaction fosters the creation of weaker ties that are essential in creating diversity. Whereas, online or the virtual spaces result in polarizing the community.

In a nutshell, humans need physical interaction and spaces such as offices to promote the serendipitous exchange of ideas, thoughts and experiences which lead to creativity and innovation.

Work Shift’s Impact on Productivity

The last six months has sent the economy in a spiral never experienced before, with high volatility and a complete standstill of activities due to quarantine. This has pushed for a newfound appreciation toward working from home and digitization, as well a more positive view of data and the insight it can provide. As each country has adapted their own measures to contain COVID-19 from spreading, there have been various behavioral responses and cultural shifts arising in cities throughout the world.

During the presentation, Ratti commented that workforces that consist of planners, engineers and designers have arguably been forced into adopting the digital way of working to increase efficiency. As a result of reduced travel and physical meetings have helped them focus more on the actual planning and design work. In the past, many experts have disagreed on the concept of smart cities, but things are starting to change. Local governments that were unable to generate insight and actionable intelligence from the data before, have now been able to appreciate how data leads to an increase in investment through city data, whether it is purchased from private players or collected by the city itself.

Universities, which are the urban anchors for development, are also undergoing various changes attributed to long-haul travel requirements and immigration policies shifts. How we teach and how we learn will also undergo changes. For instance, online workshops have increased quality due to an improvement in platforms that facilitate virtual communication. The future of universities and educational institutions could become a blend of physical and virtual solutions, and step away from the traditional 100 percent physical interaction.

Flexibility to Alter Office Dynamics

With the quarantine, the workforce is growing accustomed to this newfound flexibility. Although some of this flexibility may stick around, most workers will have to eventually return to the office. Some people believe that telecommuting has not only increased productivity, but that most people are working more than before. The rapid digital transformation has allowed teams working in different geographies to work together faster, easier and more efficiently.

TCS, a large IT company in India, estimates that 75 percent of its workforce will work from home within the next five years. While in the minds of few, the target of 75 percent may seem far fetched, when analyzing a target of 50 percent working online, it would make a world of difference across business lines.

This flexibility has come with new concerns to increase accountability and monitor how people work. It is also making people question the need for traveling, when ZOOM calls can connect you faster, even for in-country conversations. This could lead to a shift in relationships as physical meetings were seen as a gesture of good faith or social etiquette before. Although working online has resulted in some cases, in increased productivity, social interaction is a need and human nature.

The entire world is slowly learning how to live with the pandemic and the changes it has brought upon society, opening up many opportunities for improvements. How will we start adapting these changes? Industry leaders believe that the government will need to take the lead and set up an agenda for these changes, nevertheless, the government has not been as flexible or resourceful as needed to take action. Stimulus packages and investments for cities should contemplate funds for digitization and data. For urban planners, this will mean that cities will have to be looked at from a different angle, balancing digital and physical interactions to make future-proof resilient cities.

How will Real Estate be Impacted by the Home OfficeDesign Trend?

Many companies may implement a work from home policy, which could gravely impact the future of the real estate office sector. For instance, a reduction in the overall office capacity by 10 percent is likely to have a huge impact globally, particularly in cities where offices make up a huge portion of the real estate.

A question that arises when we try to look at the post-pandemic offices, where we are to spend less time in office, how can we orchestrate the new type of office life which choreographs social interaction to promote weaker ties? The key challenge faced by the designers is how design can be used to enable a workforce that spends less time in office and at the same time create a comfortable and safe shared working environment.

This change in working pattern is likely to have a ripple effect across cities in terms of transport and retail, requiring the industry to be a lot more adaptive and understand decision making processes. When it comes to city design, these new perspectives and challenges will allow for a recalibration of systems and an increase in data usage. City planning will broaden its scope in how it solves complex and even ordinary problems, with new tools and, perhaps a new mindset. Cities may not be “normal” ever again, and when this pandemic passes, many things will be very different from what we were used to in the past. It is up to the industry to make it a “better normal”.


This is a summary of what was discussed during the latest GRI Club APAC eMeeting: Redesigning the COVID-19 City: Will the pandemic change the face of urban planning in cities? on July 16, 2020. The conversation’s leaders were: Carlo Ratti (MIT Senseable Lab and Carlo Ratti Associati), Anupam Yog (National University of Singapore), Adam Beck (Smart Cities Council ANZ), Dori Nguyen (Utopia), and Marlon van Maastricht (Khatib & Alami).
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