The Future Of Post-Pandemic Workplace Design | Bob Fox

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Chairman and Principal of FOX Architects, Bob Fox dives in to the permanent changes Covid-19 will have on workplace design, the most important one being how workspaces will need to be designed to connect and bring people together to collaborate and interact rather than just for productivity and space efficiency.

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Transcript

Frank Cottle [00:00:17] Today, we have the pleasure of hosting Bob Fox of Fox Architects, which Bob founded in 2003. 

Frank Cottle [00:00:26] It’s an integrated, award winning architecture and design firm based in Washington, D.C.. Bob is a principal who oversees the firm and all of its activities have been in the architectural and design trade for 30 years now. In 2010, Bob launched Work Design Magazine, which I’m a great fan of. It’s a digital publication that explores all aspects of design and architecture. And he’s got over sixty two thousand leaders, architects, facility managers and consultants that follow him on Work Design magazine. So welcome Bob, great to have you aboard. 

Bob Fox [00:01:11] Thanks, Frank. I’m looking forward to the conversation. There’s definitely a lot going on in the workplace world these days. 

Frank Cottle [00:01:17] Well, I say great to have you aboard, too. I’ve also mentioned to the audience that Bob and I are great friends and great lovers of the sailing world. So you’ll probably find some of our language salted with a little of that. 

Bob Fox [00:01:35] Yeah. Now, always looking for an excuse to get out on the boat. 

Frank Cottle [00:01:39] Absolutely. Bob. We’re sort of in a covid-consciousness right now that dominates a lot of conversation. But we all know covid is going to go. It’s going to change. It will migrate away. We’ll get it behind us. But a lot of design changes as a result of covid is going to end up being permanent. Can you address the things that you think will outlast, covid in design, change and structure and the way people use the workplace? Can you give us your insight on that? 

Bob Fox [00:02:14] Sure. Yeah. I think, you know, Frank, one of the things that Work Design Magazine that we just did was the next work environment competition. And we started that back in April. And we had a lot of interesting sort of submissions for that. And one of the things I think that came out loud and clear is that getting through this, the work environment now, I think is really becoming more about connectedness for people. One of the things that we clearly saw in the data that we got from that was that as designers were thinking about the workplace, the open work areas or the collaborative work spaces were less about work and more about that people connection. 

Bob Fox [00:02:59] So I think you’re going to see that rise up in importance in the way that people are thinking about how we design these environments. The other thing I think that you’re going to see is that, you know, we’ve all had, I think, experiences working remotely, you know, looking at the workplace. You know, I think in a way that, you know, like I’m sitting here, I’ve got a microphone, we’ve got laptop computers, you know, high speed Internet connections. 

Bob Fox [00:03:27] All of those technologies are advancing. And I think those are all going to be brought into the workplace. So where before we had things like huddle rooms. Now I think we’re going to see things like Zoom rooms that are essentially setup for, you know, video conferences on steroids, basically. So I think those are just a few of the things that we’re going to start to see integrated into new workplaces. 

Frank Cottle [00:03:51] Well, from a flexible workplace sector, is the center’s coworking centers, etc., Zoom Rooms are already becoming common enough because many of those centers have videoconferencing or some variety of videoconferencing already. But they weren’t really exploiting it. They were really underutilized systems. Today, however, I think that that’s going to help draw people together. So I would agree directly and I know you’ve worked on some project with companies like Convene as an example that’s in our industry. 

Frank Cottle [00:04:32] They’re primarily a larger meeting format for organization. Do you see people continuing to have larger format meetings or do you think that those will end up being held remotely like we’ve seen conferences being done today? I know I used to go to a conference every 45 to 60 days somewhere in the world. Now I go to a conference once a week, somewhere in the world. But I’m still sitting in my same chair at home. So my ability to gain more knowledge more quickly about our industry and about what’s going on has increased as a result of these changes, not decreased. How do you think that will impact design?

Bob Fox [00:05:18] Kevin Kelly in his book. What technology once wrote in there that the old technology never goes away. And so I look at it and say, you know, we’re going to keep a lot of those things. But you’re going to have a lot more choice. So they’re going to be many more options. I think that out of this whole covid experience that we’re going through now, the work from home will continue. I think the flex workspaces will continue. And I think the office itself is going to take on a new meaning and different kinds of functions. So, you know, I think when it comes to conferences and meeting space, I think you’re going to find that people are attending those, you know, in a variety of different ways. So it may be somebody who’s coming in remotely. Maybe somebody is there, you know, in a physical presence way. And I don’t know if you just saw in The Wall Street Journal this morning, you know, there was the virtual remote, you know, the Oculus, you know, experience. And so, you know that that’s very new. I mean, we’re using that in a lot of the designs that we’re putting together. But, you know, this is about people interacting and creating avatars. And I think that’s something that’s going to become much more prevalent in the future. 

Frank Cottle [00:06:37] Well, I mean, when you look at what Microsoft is doing with their hollow land. 

Bob Fox [00:06:42] Sure. Yeah…

Frank Cottle [00:06:43] They’ve gone beyond creating avatars,  you’re basically migrating your entire presence to a remote location technologically. And I think that that will end up taking over the avatar structure at some point pretty quickly, because the technology is there. Just a matter of controlling the cost and managing the bandwidth. Well, I definitely think that will have a big impact on things. 

Frank Cottle [00:07:14] You know, people were talking a lot about the term destination offices. That seems to come up and we hear large tech companies in particular talking about how they’re going to be reshaping their work, how they’re going to be reshaping all the teams that work in those larger companies, etc.. What does the term destination office mean to you? 

Bob Fox [00:07:39] For me, I think that, you know, if I look at what the function of the office is going to be in the future, you know, it’s gonna be a place that you go to interact and to collaborate and for companies to innovate. So I think that most people are going to approach it and say, look, you know, if I don’t need to be in the office, you know, I can get work done at home, I can get work done in a flex work environment that’s more convenient or, you know, my team may be in a flex work environment, but that that offices you’re gonna go there for specific reasons. And I think the challenge that most organizations have today, you know, we can be productive, you know, just about anywhere. But it’s our ability to create and to innovate that we really struggle with. You know, when we’re remote or we’re moved from each other, you know? So I think that, you know, in order to do that effectively and for organizations to to stay on on their game, basically you’re going to need spaces that people can come together, interact, share ideas, iterate those ideas, you know, create new things and, you know, develop the innovation that we need to keep our economy moving. 

Bob Fox [00:08:51] So I think that’s that’s what you’re going to see. And I guess that’s what people refer to when they say destination office. 

Frank Cottle [00:08:58] Well, you know, I was chatting with the head of strategic planning for one of the largest global tech companies the other day. And he made an interesting comment when we were talking about the same issue. And he said “we’re not going to have meetings anymore except on Zoom. But we’re going to have creativity events in our offices”, basically what used to be a brainstorming session, now we’re calling it a creativity event. Same thing, different words. But what used to be, let’s get together and go over the agenda from the meeting. They don’t plan to have those in person anymore. And I think the differentiation that you’re talking about falls into that same category. The humdrum on the interesting work is done just great over Zoom. 

Frank Cottle [00:09:51] But true creativity, spontaneity, the energy you need to develop sometimes in the creative process will still occur in person and offices will be reshaped physically to accommodate that. But I think that that’s something that we can definitely see coming forward. 

Bob Fox [00:10:12] Yeah, I would completely agree, I think that, you know, until we have some technology where, you know, we can read people’s body languages, you know, capture the inferences in our voices, make the eye contact, you know, that that that goes into a lot about how we interpret and perceive things. And, you know, that’s where I think the biggest gap with the technology is today. And so I think, you know, we’re still going to have to to meet and interact, you know, in a physical way to to perform at our best. 

Frank Cottle [00:10:45] Well, the other thing that you have to consider is how can you buy me lunch if we aren’t together? 

Bob Fox [00:10:53] Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that’s that’s another thing. Yeah. If you look at, you know, how people meet and, you know, getting to know somebody and building that relationship, you know, that’s much harder to do over a zoom meeting. 

Frank Cottle [00:11:05] So it’s I think you can take established relationships and maintain them through another technology format, but you are never going to have the ability to create new relationships as strongly. I know a little old guy that I used to know that used to say, you don’t know your client well enough unless you know the name of their dog. 

Bob Fox [00:11:30] Well, I think it’s also a generational thing, too, because, you know, I think, you know, those of us that are boomers, you know, probably more comfortable picking up the phone, calling, having a conversation with somebody that we know when we’ve met lots of people through our careers. You know, somebody that’s just starting out, that’s recently graduated isn’t going to have that same no knowledge or comfort level or relationship. And so how are they going to build those now? You know, the digital natives are probably using more social media things. 

Bob Fox [00:12:03] But even still, I think you’ve got to be there, you know, you know, to see and, you know, you know, interact with people to gain that comfort and, you know, build a strong relationship with somebody. 

Frank Cottle [00:12:17] I think that’s true. And you could use a dating site almost as a good example of that.  You can only do so much over the Internet and you don’t really know how real a person is until you are directly interfacing with them in person. And that relationship development is so critical to lasting agreements on how to accomplish things, whether it’s within the company or between companies, that we’re going to have to find that the proper mix will go forward. That’s for sure. 

Frank Cottle [00:12:54] Shifting gears a little bit of — design, the way we use space, etc. is very often dependent upon a particular location. But other characteristics of that location of the central business district of a major city, Manhattan, D.C., etc versus the secondary and tertiary markets might be a village out on the edge of a commuting zone, or it might be a nice town in the middle of the commuting zone. How do you think the central business district locations are going to change based on central business districts that rely on public transportation and in particular, how do you think they are going to change? Because what we’re seeing is people don’t mind being in the office anywhere right now, but they don’t want to go back to commuting and they don’t like public transportation very much anymore because it’s very difficult to control who you’re sitting next to, how clean it is, etc., etc.. How do you think all of that will change relative to a long term basis? 

Bob Fox [00:14:10] Yeah. You know, that’s a fascinating concept, and I think there’s a lot of things that play into that. You know, the public transportation thing is one where, you know, I guess we’ll have temperature sensors and maybe handwashing stations or hand sanitizers, you know, to get into that. But also if you look recently, I mean, the number of people riding bicycle’s has increased dramatically. 

Frank Cottle [00:14:37] You know, I have to interrupt you right there. I have a friend of a very nice regional bike shop here in Southern California. His sales are up five hundred percent for the year. 

Bob Fox [00:14:51] Wow. 

Frank Cottle [00:14:53] They have inventory backordered all the way to next June. 

Bob Fox [00:14:58] Wow. 

Frank Cottle [00:14:59] That is just just staggering. 

Bob Fox [00:15:01] But if you look at all the alternative forms of transportation here, the scooters, you know, I think, you know, you’re seeing a lot more people ride scooters around…

Frank Cottle [00:15:12] I mean, yeah, electric bikes is where the business has migrated. 

Frank Cottle [00:15:17] And you can arrive at the office. You don’t have to drive all hot and sweaty if you’re riding an e-bike. And you have a pretty good time. 

Bob Fox [00:15:26] Yeah. No, actually, I’ll share. I bought a bike and, you know, I got it because when I get home, I have a big hill to get up. It’s a couple miles long and. And I got it thinking I’d ride it like a regular bike. But I pretty quickly learned that, you know, I don’t have to sweat if I don’t want to. So, you know, I started writing it into the office and you know it. I have a six mile commute and I could do it just as quickly as I could in my car, you know, on the bike. 

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Bob Fox [00:15:52] And it was a lot less stressful. 

[00:15:56] You don’t have to worry about parking places and this and that. But all these things really impact design. They impact the way we work and how we get to work, where we’re going to choose to live relative to where we work in the future. And I think that back to the public transportation impact on a central business district, the central business district has two issues. Number one, getting to it. And number two, the large corporate and government, particularly the large corporates that have historically been in the central business district, now telling eighty percent of their workforce of that, they can work from home, one or two days a week, one day a week of everybody working from home across the city, that lives outside of the city is a 15 to 20 percent vacancy factor in the commercial space in that city, all of a sudden. Two days a week? 30 or 40 percent potential vacancy factor. So what is going to happen to that commercial space? How is it going to be repurposed? And will it change the way people that work in the city will live in the city because they don’t want public transportation. Vacant commercial space will be repurposed under residential, which might drive the price of residential down a little bi inthe city, making it more affordable for people to live there. How do you see all of that? That’s part of the workplace, is how you get there, where you live, relative to where you work at all tied together.

Bob Fox [00:17:36] Yeah, no, I agree. And I think, you know, it’s very much part of the workplace. And I think longer term, Frank, I don’t think that it’s going to have that big of an impact, because if you look at that very dense urban environment, you know, there is a lot of things that happen in that. 

Bob Fox [00:17:58] And, you know, just walking down the street, you know, you’ll get an idea. 

Bob Fox [00:18:04] You know, I feel like one of the big challenges that we have today in our society is this whole concept of diversity and inclusion. And for me, you know, I think it should be obvious. It’s, you know, through our differences that our eyes are opened and we learn new things. And if I had to go through the, you know, the same commute into the same small town and see everybody that’s the same on the same main street every day, I would not be as creative or as innovative as if I’m in a larger urban area where I get exposed to different people, different ideas, different settings and different experiences. And so, you know that that is, I think, a necessary part of the workplace, because, you know, we have, you know, all these different things that we get exposed to. There was a research project and I can’t remember where I saw this, but it was a physicist who had looked at large urban areas versus smaller areas. You know, people walked faster. You know, they they had they were they were more dense. Obviously, they made on average, had higher incomes. And so, you know, all of that was because of that urban centers ability to increase productivity to, you know, increase new ideas, to create new things. You know, if we do away with those, we’re not going to have the ability to do that or to do it as well as we’ve done historically. So, you know, I think you’re going to see a period where, you know, we probably go through a, you know, maybe a year or two or three of, you know, excess office space. But, you know, I think once we get through this Cauvin, you know, crisis and, you know, we get some good leadership, you know, in our government. And, you know, there’s less chaos than I think you’re going to see all of those things return to me. I’m not gonna say normal. It’s going to be different. But, you know, we’re gonna we’re gonna be back in those dense urban areas again. 

Frank Cottle [00:20:05] Well, you know, it’s funny, everybody says, what are we going to go back to normal? And I hate that “go back to normal” because it sounds regressive to me. I always think of normal as tomorrow. It’s not today. It’s not yesterday. Normal is always what you do. So the next thing you do is create normal. So hopefully there’s no going back on on anything. 

Frank Cottle [00:20:30] You know, you make an interesting point about diversity in cities. And I agree with you completely. You know, years ago we started the Alliance Network. We were competing against a very large monolithic company in our industry. And we used to absolutely claim and use as a competitive capability that our differences were our strengths. And when you’re competing against the monolithic organization that doesn’t have differences, you absolutely can find strength in the diversity of your structure, the diversity of your ideas. Your problem solving techniques. All of those things, you drive growth very effectively. No question about that. 

Bob Fox [00:21:15] Yeah, I just experienced it with the competition that we did. And you know what? What I think the jurors missed the most was that ability to interact. You know, I get exposed to others’ ideas. You know, look at how somebody else was perceiving it to provide that different viewpoint. Because we did the competition virtually. 

Bob Fox [00:21:37] And, you know, we used space tricks as a software platform where you could speak in what your comments were. But there was no interaction with other jury members. And I think the jurors felt like that was one of the sort of biggest gaps or missing pieces from their experience. You know, going through that. 

Frank Cottle [00:21:57] Well, you know what? What did the winners of that accomplish? I know it was quite a competitive structure. And Work Design Magazine laid it out brilliantly. What did the winners come up with as the top two or three takeaways that we can leave the audience with today on upcoming changes in the way people work? 

Bob Fox [00:22:20] I think that what we saw was increased flexibility, increased choice, healthy, safe work environments were a priority. I think there’s a real focus back on people. It’s almost as if the work itself was less of a priority and it was more about the connectedness of people, because I think that’s what people were missing most. The feedback that we got out of the work from home situation was really interesting because I think people felt like that’s where they could concentrate the best. That’s where they were the most productive. That’s where they spent the most time. But it came at a huge cost. And that cost was they weren’t able to interact with their peers in a way that they felt comfortable or productive. You know, like I mentioned earlier, the collaborative workspace was one where the work itself was not the priority. It was the ability to connect with people. That was the priority. So I think you’re going to see this, you know, the workplace. And I think even in the flex work environments well into coworking space, what we saw was really interesting was that it was more about the team and interaction than it was about the individual, you know. So so I think you’re going to see these work environments become more about that interaction, the sharing of ideas, you know, the ability to exchange and iterate ideas, you know, and helping companies to, you know, find that new innovation. 

Frank Cottle [00:23:52] No, I absolutely think that that collaborative structure that for working brought back to a lot of companies as a concept, building internal communities within your company that collaborate and work well together is critically important overall as well. 

Frank Cottle [00:24:12] I think that probably a pretty good takeaway for the way people would be rethinking design as they go forward. 

Bob Fox [00:24:23] One of the other things I’ll add.. So had you asked earlier about the meeting space? You know, and this is one of the things that I think this, you know, convenes and flex work environments can do very well. 

Bob Fox [00:24:35] I think that the primary office space is going to be something that becomes much more exclusive. 

Bob Fox [00:24:42] And, you know, your guests and visitors may be limited in, you know, how far they can go or, you know, get into the space. And I think you’re going to see those meeting spaces and flex work environments become where people choose to meet. And so I think those spaces are going to be geared to safe meetings, you know, efficient meetings, high levels of service, you know, all the amenities that you need, that technology, the audio visual stuff, all of that stuff is going to be, you know, centered in a location that people will go to. And the office stuff, I think will become more exclusive. 

Frank Cottle [00:25:20] Yeah, I would agree that it’s going to be the interfacing or intersecting space between visitors and coworkers within and all of us. Absolutely. You see that in a lot of high level financial firms or in firms that do secure work with the government or things of that nature already. And historically, they’ve done that. But that hasn’t been common internally within companies as much. 

Bob Fox [00:25:49] Well, I think it will become more of a mass market type of service, too. 

Frank Cottle [00:25:53] Yeah, I agree. I agree with that completely. Oh, there’ll be a lot of changes coming along. No question about that. And some of them will stick. Some of them wont. This whole period of covertness, so to speak, has been disruptive in a lot of respects. 

Frank Cottle [00:26:11] But my experience in 40 years of being in this industry is that out of these. Dynamic, and  challenging times, as everybody’s calling from a lot of changes that really help us believe leap forward as opposed to get stuck in and go backwards. So I’m very much looking forward to the next generation that we’ll see starting out in a few years. And I think it’ll be a fun and creative time overall. 

Bob Fox [00:26:43] Yeah, I would completely agree with that, Frank. You know, you were talking about the people that said get back to normal. And I think that’s a mistake to look at it like that. 

Bob Fox [00:26:52] I would look at this this whole period of time that we’re in right now very opportunistically. And I think that, you know what the technology is going to enable us to do are, two, for us to customize and individualize things and put a lot more nuance into our workspaces. And so I think those are the things that are going to really drive organizations forward. I think that if you look at the way that space has been designed in the past, there are, you know, sort of like one size fits all approaches where a lot of the things are the same. They may look different or have different finishes. But I think now what you’re going to see are organizations saying, hey, I need this type of space or, hey, I need this tool in my workplace or I need this type of support that is going to be very focused on, you know, the type of business that they do, the type of work that they do. So I think that, you know, we’re in this period where I think it’s opening the doors. People are stepping back. They’re looking at it in a new way. I think there’s going to be tremendous opportunity to drive the workplace forward in the future. 

Frank Cottle [00:27:59] No, absolutely agreeable. Bob, we’re running out of time here. So before I ask you how people get in touch, you know, I’ll get by my sort of comment from what we’ve been discussing is the good old days… are tomorrow, not yesterday. For all of us. 

Frank Cottle [00:28:20] And Bob, if people want to reach you, how much the best way for them to do so. 

Bob Fox [00:28:25] Yeah, Frank. My email address. I’ll give you it’s [email protected](dash)Architects(dot)com. So, you know, anybody can feel free to reach me. My Linked in is Robert D. Fox and linked in, you know, so those are probably the two best places that somebody can get a hold of me. 

Frank Cottle [00:28:47] OK. That sounds great. 

Frank Cottle [00:28:49] And I’m going to encourage everybody to take a solid look at Work Design magazine. Also got a tremendous amount of content, very vital to the way people will work in the future, that what people are doing innovatively today. And it’s well worth the time. 

Bob Fox [00:29:12] Yeah, Frank. Yes. Yeah. You can also reach me through that as well. But you know, the one thing I’ll add to that is that the one thing I’m very proud of with Work Design magazine is that all my peers are the ones that are contributing to it. So, you know, when I built the platform, I felt like there was no place to go to talk about, you know, what was happening in the industry. And now that content is all being generated by my peers. It’s all, you know, very high level stuff. And, you know, I think that’s the thing that I enjoy the most about. 

Frank Cottle [00:29:41] It looks great. 

Frank Cottle [00:29:44] Well, Bob, thanks again for the time spent with us today. Really appreciate it. We’ll look forward to getting on the phone another time in just talking to you about .sailing

Bob Fox [00:29:53] Frank, this has been a lot of fun. Thanks. I really appreciate the opportunity. You know, there’s a lot happening out there right now. And, you know, we’re always looking for new, great new ideas. And, you know, you’re at the heart of a lot of that. So I enjoy the conversations. 

Frank Cottle [00:30:07] Ok, take care buddy.

Bob Fox [00:30:07] Thanks, see ya!

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