The Chinese word for crisis is composed of two characters signifying “danger” and “opportunity”. We are all acutely aware of the dangers that COVID-19 presents, but let’s also focus on the opportunities that can benefit our collective future.
Twenty years ago, I was on the board of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) when we hit an unexpected financial snag. It was serious enough that we had to curtail all programming and events while we sorted out the mess and rebuilt IIDA’s brand and purpose. While the circumstances were dire at the time, in retrospect, they provided an opportunity for IIDA to re-invent itself. All organizations need to periodically refresh their mandate but proposing to make changes or cuts to the status quo is usually a tough sell. No one wants to give up anything, which is why change takes a long time.
However, a sudden crisis offers no choice but to view the organization as an empty vessel and then start to add back events, activities, and programs, evaluating each one in terms of its real value to the organization’s core business. IIDA emerged from this crisis stronger and more stable than ever and has not looked back.
Similarly, how we make design and project decisions in a crisis has changed. With a sharper focus on what’s important and what’s not, designers and principals are finding that it’s easier to strip away incidental issues and make better and more streamlined decisions. When you remove the unnecessary details from a situation, the core needs and values of clients and your business become crystal clear.
Another benefit of working remotely and in collaboration is greater meeting efficiency. When your day is a series of Zoom or Team meetings, being well prepared is essential. Without the physical dimension of communication, interaction must be clear, specific and respectful. While initially, virtual meetings and discussions were awkward, now we begin to see bonding, camaraderie and unity among team members, many of whom have never met in person. The ongoing crisis has taught us to cherish the people in our lives, and that also translates to the way we treat each other at work.
Many design and architectural firms with multiple locations have, in the past, embraced the concept of project teams across offices, with varying success. When assembling a project team, it’s easy to select folks by default with whom you have existing professional and personal rapport. The pandemic has created an opportunity for project directors to assemble teams based on the best skill sets, blind to geographic location. We now see teams composed of folks who may never have met in person, working seamlessly in mutual respect for their contributions to the project.
“The mindset that geography is not a barrier will translate to better hiring practices,” says Claudia Johnson, of the Addison Group, a national staffing agency in Chicago. “Remote work gives employers the ability to expand their candidate pools and discover talent that once may have never entered their hiring pipelines. As more companies embrace the practice of recruiting, filling and onboarding a job role completely remotely, employers will be empowered to hire the right person for the role, regardless of where they’re located, enabling smarter and better hires. Plus, relocation and housing barriers will no longer be a factor when discovering and hiring talent.”
Lastly, we are presented with an opportunity on a personal level. Pre-COVID, we have allowed our lives to become governed by multiple demands, reacting to the needs of others and trying to manage deadlines, social obligations, and family activities. It seemed that every hour of the day was booked, or double-booked as we raced from meeting to meeting, juggling conference calls and business travel. We have accepted being ‘too busy’ as the norm.
Then, suddenly, our world shut down. No running to meetings, no dinner parties to organize and execute, no vacations to plan and no leaving the house. The pandemic has given us an unexpected gift – the gift of time. Time to spend with children that don’t include car-pooling to hockey practice or rushing to ballet classes. Time to re-discover the joy of cooking and eating meals with family members. Time to garden, to connect virtually with friends old and new, time to read, time to reflect, to think, to breathe and to identify the things that are truly important in our lives. Would this have happened pre-COVID? Would we have been able to carve out time from our very busy schedules, while everyone else was running at top speed? Not likely.
So, what will post-COVID look like? We know that what we thought of as ‘normal’ is gone, probably for good. Instead of letting busy-ness and urgency consume our lives again, let’s rebuild an external life with intention, not reflex. Having discovered our priorities, our ‘core business’, let’s make them the building blocks of a new and meaningful existence – a truly curated life, which will strengthen the skills we bring to our clients and customers.
This pandemic is challenging many of our assumptions, as designers. How we design public institutions will change dramatically in the future. Hospitals, airports, theatres, schools, restaurants, workplaces, and any other environments that bring people together will be subjected to new and restrictive functional programs, ones which place health, safety and wellness as an urgent priority. Designers will rise to these challenges, demonstrating the power of community and hopeful resilience in a time of great upheaval. We will move forward, applying our skills of creation and innovation to support a new and different world. It’s not only what we do – it’s who we are.
Carol Jones is a principal at Kasian Architecture Interior Design and Planning. She is serving as past president of Interior Designers of Canada.