360° spoke to Carlo Ratti to understand his perspective on how the pandemic has impacted organizations, the role the physical workplace fills for making social connections, and to answer the question, why do we still need the office.
Experiment, Create and Develop
360º: How has COVID changed your perspective on the future of your business and the industry?
Generally, the COVID-19 crisis allows us to focus our work on sustainability – economic, social, and environmental. As the crisis turned into a global pandemic, the priorities in our office changed immediately. First, we felt compelled to react by leveraging our expertise. We developed CURA — a shipping container converted into a mobile ICU pod with all the medical equipment and biocontainment facilities required to function as a regular isolation ward. Executing CURA during the lockdown was a challenge. A lack of physical correspondence complicated the project development, especially with a large number of parties involved.
We applied an open-source approach, and the design and construction processes were underway concurrently. Software such as Zoom and Teams are great for regular meetings. Still, they have not been optimized yet for sketching collaboratively and for many of the activities specific to an architecture office.
The Diversity of Working
360º: Which trends do you think are here to stay, and will change the way you plan to serve your customers?
I do not think that our lives' schedule will get back to precisely what it was before. Think about international business travel. In the past, trips for a business meeting, such as New York to Singapore, was considered mandatory. That was nonsense from both environmental and personal health positions.
Finally, we realized that technology has developed to a point where we can communicate and do business online – and hence hopefully avoid or reduce such travel absurdity. I guess that something similar will also happen at a more local level, by making working from home an everyday practice. In turn, commuting will become a less regular and more flexible activity.
“I believe in the physical workspace, even if we might use it more flexibly.”
On Meaningful Work and Wellbeing
360º: We learned a lot while working from home – why do you think we should still go to the office?
Remote working as a concept is not new. In the 1960s, urban theorist Melvin Webber predicted it. However, having the capacity to work from anywhere doesn’t mean we want to do that. As the sociologist Mark Granovetter argued in 1973, functioning societies are underpinned not only by “strong ties” (close relationships) but also by “weak ties” (casual acquaintances). Whereas strong ties tend to form dense networks – our close friends are often close friends with one another – weak ties connect us to a broader and more diverse group. By bridging different social circles, weak ties are more likely to connect us with new ideas and perspectives, challenging our preconceptions and fostering innovation and diffusion. While video chatting or social media may help us maintain our strong ties, it is unlikely to produce new ones.
A study at MIT conducted among students, professors and administrators during the pandemic seems to bear this out. We built two equal communication networks – one showing interactions before the campus was closed, and the other showing interactions during the shutdown. Initial results, we still need additional validation and peer review, indicate that interactions are narrowing, with people exchanging more messages within a smaller pool of contacts. In short, existing strong ties are deepening, while weak ties falter.
On Creating Communities at Work
360º: What is the role of the physical workplace for your company, and how does it help your organization to achieve its goals?
We try to maximize the formation of weak ties. Our office building in Italy is complete with communal desks, a green courtyard where we have free desks, weekly after-work gatherings, and more shared spaces. We are trying to enable the so-called “cafeteria effect” – you won’t find any more opportune occasion than sharing a table at the cafeteria to establish weak ties. Ultimately, more precise quantification of human interaction in the workplace might give us vital hints on the design of next-generation offices. Spatial behaviour and interpersonal connection could be measured in real-time through sensors and help design next-generation buildings and furniture.