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Empathic Design and the Workplace of 2020

Text with spaced out letters reads "Social distance" over a photo of a man wearing a mask

Text with spaced out letters reads "Social distance" over a photo of a man wearing a mask

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Whether you’ve fully embraced working from home or are clamoring to get back to the normalcy of your organized work desk, the question on everyone’s mind seems to be, “when is it safe to go back to the office?” At Otherwise, we are zealous proponents of incorporating empathy into branding, and we believe that same practice extends into the physical space. So how could empathic design and the workplace call for a reimagined standard for the office?

It’s no surprise that COVID-19 precautions have made an enormous impact in the commercial real estate world. Architects, designers and planners have quickly adapted to the principles of flexibility and adjusting strategies to address evolving sanitary and safety concerns. But perhaps the solution lies closer to the core of architecture. The essence of architecture is a structure designed for a purpose, whether it be housing, work, healing, learning, etc. And modern day office design — until fairly recently — was understood to be an approach to creating functional space for productivity and performance. Offices have evolved to the open, amenity-filled spaces that were common until early March; we are learning, however, that the collaborative nature of open workspaces isn’t particularly compatible with a global pandemic.

As office design prepares for another big shift, it won’t just be a reaction to recent trends. The added security and health apprehensions due to COVID-19 call for expanded ways of thinking that are rooted in empathy — designing around what people are actually experiencing emotionally within a space. Considering the needs of the end user isn’t a new concept in design or architecture; one young industrial designer, Patricia Moore, actually traveled to over 100 cities throughout the United States and Canada dressed as an elderly woman to literally put herself in someone else’s shoes. Her research helped craft the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and proved the power of empathic design. If business leaders want to adapt, input from and emotional consideration of users is crucial.

In a recent interview with Architect Magazine, Caroline Quick, a senior principal at T3 Advisors, explained that, “Leading with empathy will be important…more than ever, every single vertical is collaborating to figure out how to do this: architects, general contractors, engineers, and end users. Everyone is having more transparent, open conversations.” And Quick is right; whether an office is large or small, everyone needs to be a part of the problem solving process. Ideas, solutions or concerns are valid from every level of an organization, and an empathic approach can help establish a holistic, big picture view with case-by-case needs.

Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to returning to the office amidst COVID-19. Plexiglass and directional stickers cannot address every single concern. By viewing an office as a space that contains human emotions, thoughts and fears, we switch our perspective from utilitarian to empathic. And that might be the shift we need in 2020.