What We’re Missing

By Karen Cvornyek, President, Asia

April 29, 2020

As a Canadian who has been working in Asia for the past 15 years, I’ve been following with great interest the musings and predictions about how our experience of the COVID-19 pandemic will change the way we work. The general consensus seeming to be that, while we’re all looking forward to getting back to our offices for some face-to-face time and that sense of being part of something bigger, we’re also going to want to maintain the flexibility to work from home more. We’re finding ourselves to be more productive, have greater flexibility and generally loving the gift of time that is usually wasted in a long, and sometimes stressful commute.

There’s been lots of discussion about how we’re adapting our homes so that we can work remotely – often jockeying for space with WFH partners, older kids taking online classes,  younger children requiring constant attention and pets excited that their humans are home all day.

Maybe you are in a suburban home with mom working at the dining table, kids in the basement or in their bedrooms, with a garden for some respite. Or perhaps you find yourself in an urban scenario, a condo or apartment where the bedroom now doubles as your office or you have to shift your computer to one end of the kitchen counter when you want to make dinner. You and your partner or roommate each choosing your own corner of the living room.

Most of us don’t have home offices (or at least not one each!), but we usually have a corner, a spare room or somewhere we can set up. I found myself in Toronto when international borders started closing and I’m working from my dining room table. It’s not a huge inconvenience as my family only ever uses it on holidays and I have a door to close between my Teams Meetings and the rest of my family’s activities.

Looking at where my colleagues around the world live, a simple analysis shows that a typical residential apartment in the center of a big city like Shanghai or Singapore can be over USD 13,000 per square meter, and over 18,000 in Hong Kong, whereas in Toronto or Seattle, a city center apartment can be had for half of this cost. The typical North American suburban home is around 200 square meters + yard + garage. While the average Hong Kong or Shanghai apartment is around 50 square meters, but this relatively small domestic footprint belies the richness of the amenities on their doorstep; shops, restaurants, social clubs, spas, gyms, great schools, offices and bars are all within steps of their front door. Life is lived beyond the walls of the home. “Working from Home” in Asia can be a radically different proposition for many families.

Concept rendering for master plan project, Vietnam

There’s a lot of speculation about how much office space we’ll need if we all start working from home some of the time, or how our homes will adapt to provide better work space, but I’m not thinking so much about what we need, as why we need it. Will working at home make us more social? Will we want to live out loud in the middle ground between home and office the way people in Asia do? With cars off the roads and people on the sidewalks it’s become evident that our city ratios are all off.  I had to stop my car in the middle of downtown Toronto the other day for a flock of geese while people on the sidewalks were executing complicated maneuvers to try to maintain a safe distance while passing each other.

The Gift of Reimagining

If we all made a list of the things we miss and the first things we want to do when we can finally leave our homes again freely – how far will we have to go to find those things? And how safely and quickly can we get there?

We’re limiting our opportunity by only considering the implications for individual building types; offices, homes, malls. The reset button has been pressed and we have the opportunity to rethink how we want our spaces to serve our needs and desires in the future. For the sake of argument let’s say our office footprint could shrink by 30 – 50% – what is our dream for the space we win back? What do we want to do in those spaces that enriches life and society between work and home? As tragic as our current situation is, we have also been given a gift: the opportunity to re-assess what is truly important, what we miss, what we value and what we desire. As designers of the built environment we see so much possibility to do more with what we already have.