conversation

Shifting the conversation

Challenges and opportunities as the pandemic changes the design dynamic
Tuesday, December 22, 2020
by Cheryl Mah

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the conversation across the building industry. For interior designers, the conversation with clients has shifted to virtual platforms, changing the dynamic of the design process.

Collaboration and consultation have created new challenges and opportunities to work differently with clients. Interior designers are finding themselves leading the conversation in more meaningful ways as the pandemic has forced clients to re-evaluate their spaces and needs.

“How we’re facilitating discussions with clients certainly has changed,” said Lisa Fulford-Roy, senior vice president, client strategy at CBRE Limited. “Because of the pandemic, we’ve converted client engagements to a virtual platform which was a little stressful at the beginning but has certainly worked well.”

She was one of four panelists at Buildex Alberta’s interior design roundtable where the discussion touched on some of the changes driven by the pandemic. Moving to online meetings was one of the first big changes identified by the panelists. Virtual collaboration, which is here to stay, offers benefits such as connecting from anywhere in the world, real time design and feedback, and cost effectiveness compared to physical meetings and travelling.

While interior designers have adapted to the new health and safety restrictions by moving away from the norm of facilitating focus groups and in-person visioning sessions, Fulford-Roy noted it is still critically important to have “meaningful connections with clients and not doing everything through Zoom” and make it “as human as possible.”

“I think the combination of phygital is here to stay and it’s an opportunity to add speed and efficacy and quality where we need to…it starts to erase all those physical boundaries that can sometimes get in the way,” she said, explaining virtual meetings are providing a higher level of inclusivity  and accessibility that wasn’t possible before.

Suzanne Wilkinson, principal at Figure3, agreed and added, “We’re much more real time design now with our clients. Also the questions we are asking are so different now. We’re talking about why do you need a workplace, what does your space need to do for you, why are people going to come in. The conversations have changed quite a bit. I actually think it’s for the better – to think more deeply about the purpose of the workplace.”

The pandemic has also presented opportunities to showcase the value that interior designers bring to the table.

“As designers, I believe we have had an identity crisis in the last couple of years. We were expected to just deliver on work – produce beautiful things, write great specs, have technically sound drawings,” said Ian Rolston, founder of Decanthropy. “But now the conversation is shifting for us to take our rightful place in leading the conversation of how we’re developing space that really connect things that matter for end users and clients.”

The use of virtual tools is allowing designers to rethink how to communicate and collaborate with clients. It is an opportunity to innovate in the delivery of design, service and strategy, noted Fulford-Roy, but a downside is burnout.

“Clients assume you’re on and available. The expectation is you’re going to make time and you’re available in a moment’s notice because you’re virtual,” she said, adding in the future, ground rules will need to be set for expectations as well as which meetings are in held the office or virtually.

In terms of workplace strategies, the ability to work from anywhere is changing priorities and approaches to space.

Solutions still need to be client specific and human-centric, said Wilkinson, but there is a heightened awareness about flexible work strategies and space needs to be more tailored by worker profiles because so many people are working from home.

According to Fulford-Roy, companies they are helping to transition back to the office are re-entering with social distancing and making minor physical changes in the short term to their spaces like plexiglass in reception, hand sanitizer and allocated desk use. “But longer term, it’s going to be really different,” she said. “I see a lot of anti-microbial finishes being specified and touchless technology integrated into high quality design. Health and safety cleaning practices are changed forever as a result of this.”

The pandemic has given designers an opportunity to elevate the conversations around operations and maintenance especially with building systems.

“We’re going to have a more holistic influence on the entirety of the environment – occupancy as well as operations and maintenance,” said Rolston.

Fulford-Roy also sees companies carrying percentages again for future growth because of the inability to forecast regardless of flexibility, and the inability to forecast people’s sentiment around working from home longer term.

“Pre-pandemic, work from home programs had greater emphasis in physical space for team project collaboration training spaces and less emphasis on individually allocated spaces,” she said. “We might see some organizations taking on more space but flipping the role of the office to a hub of collaboration teamwork and connection with lots of social spaces rather than a lot of individual spaces.”

Wikinson believes the office will be about coming together in the future. “It’s to interact with people, experience the environment and socialize. The office needs to be that hub for connections,” she said, noting that technology such as touchless was available before the pandemic but it was a question of affordability for landlords. “I think it’s no longer a choice. It’s the new standard.”

Cheryl Mah is managing editor of Design Quarterly.

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