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COVID-19 and the workplace: An interview with Maddy Mackin Freeman

Director of Design, Maddy Mackin Freeman (2)

We sat down with our Director of Design, Maddy Mackin Freeman, to answer the top questions currently dictating the future of workspace. Maddy has been designing beautiful and effective workspaces for over a decade and is at the forefront of DESIGN+BUILD’s innovation and design initiatives. In this interview, Maddy unpacks the most significant effects of COVID-19 on the workplace, how DESIGN+BUILD has been able to overcome these obstacles, and her thoughts on the future of workspace.

 

How did COVID-19 disrupt the role of the workplace in a traditional sense?

Maddy: The most apparent disruption was that people weren’t physically in the office anymore and had to work remotely suddenly. Some workplaces already had strategies in place for how to remotely connect to their desktop, while others had to quickly enable certain technologies to collaborate while their people were in separate spaces.

There’s also a fascinating byproduct that spawned from remote working where people were forced to reckon with each other’s home lives. Between kids interrupting, cats walking across keyboards, and the many different ways of caring for yourself and your loved ones, we saw a lot of each other’s personal spaces that we were previously able to separate from our work life.

The best-case scenario for these disruptions is that we come back together with a little more compassion, having gotten a greater understanding of how we’ve all struggled. So, I think that COVID-19 physically disrupted the workspace very heavily, but it also emotionally disrupted employees in providing a different kind of understanding of each other. 

 

Are COVID-19 related changes in the way people work reflections of something new or an acceleration of what was already in motion?

Maddy: COVID-19 related changes exacerbated issues that were already present all over the place and in all different parts of our society. As a result of this acceleration, we saw that people who were already suffering suffered more with COVID and its related effects. As for the way that it changes how people work, I think that COVID enabled flexibility in how we work which we’ve wanted for a long time.

Over the last decades, we’ve seen that many businesses moved from a private office style to a more open office model. More recently, we’ve been reversing a little bit from that open office model because it’s not super functional for all types of work. So, this push toward greater workspace flexibility was inevitable to not only be flexible about allowing people to work from home but also to change up the resources that were provided at the office. We’ve seen that many companies have found success by enabling their employees to start working anywhere without necessarily going into the office five days a week. 

This all boils down to the fact that everyone has different ways of learning and other cognitive styles, so the notion of allowing different types of workspaces throughout the office was on the rise already, even pre-COVID. I think these related changes in the way people work are forcing a lot of these already present trends to grow and become more pervasive even in more traditional and conservative business sectors.

 

Has there been an impact from COVID-19 on how employees feel about the workplace from a design expectation standpoint?

Maddy: I don’t necessarily think there’s an expectation from an employee standpoint. But there’s a greater opportunity to entice people to come back to the office. Both employers and employees are missing out on potential collaboration by not having these physical interactions with each other on a day-to-day basis. Building a sense of community is so important, and we typically start our design work based on how we can bring people together and allow people to work in the best way they can.

A big way to entice people back into the office is to provide them with these resources and raise the bar for them a little bit. Because again, we know we can work from home now; we’ve proved that to ourselves and each other. So, why would you go back if it doesn’t feel good to be there?

 

How can companies pivot their workplace to meet the evolving needs of their people?

Maddy: For me, this is a question about the flexibility of a workspace and how we can change it to meet the evolving needs of its people. We’re recommending for all our clients, very, very strongly, that your space needs to be flexible. That could mean allowing things to shift a little bit and become be more physically movable, or it could open a conversation about space conversion and future planning. For example, what happens if we have another pandemic and need to either socially distance or work remotely again? Companies can answer this question by asking, “is there some way that we can break down our space to become more functional in different ways?” So, it’s a question that we will be trying to answer for a while. But I believe that the root of this question comes down to flexibility.

 

How is DESIGN+BUILD evolving to meet the new era of workspace?

Maddy: DESIGN+BUILD has always been rooted in being innovative. We are excited about what we do and how we can do things differently and more effectively. We were already well suited to solve some of these workspace problems for our clients from a creative standpoint. Entering the pandemic, we were uniquely well-positioned to help our clients come up with ideas that made their spaces and budgets very effective and really beautiful for their employees. 

Again, we believe a crucial asset of workspace design is trying to build community in whatever way you can. The way that we design space encourages people to have certain productive and healthy behaviors while they’re in the space. That’s where we always stood, so this “new era of workspace” is just a matter of trying to solve new problems creatively.

 

In your opinion, what does the successful workspace look like, post-pandemic?

Maddy: I feel the answer to this is a combination of all my answers so far. We must incorporate all these different concepts discussed – flexibility, community, collaboration, safety. We have many different options to suit the different ways people work, learn, and think. So, what I’m seeing and expect to continue seeing is providing a lot of unique and different types of spaces to suit each client’s particular requirements. Generally, a successful post-pandemic workspace will be more flexible both in the way they design their space and how they create policy around where and when you’re working.

 

How will lifting mask/ COVID-protocols affect workspace design moving forward?

Maddy: Portland just lifted their mask mandate a few days ago, and I’ve already seen our neighborhood buzzing in such a great way. The parking lots are becoming full again, and we’re seeing each other smile on the street, which is absolutely uplifting. Of course, I can’t predict exactly what it will mean for workspace specifically, but I hope that it just ends up being a return to a new normal. I believe that we are entering a new era of social interaction and connection between co-workers.