As every email introduction seemed to remind us in 2020, we were – and still are – living in ‘unprecedented times’. But no doubt, even after a vaccine is rolled out to the general public, and the world begins to return to some semblance of normality, the pandemic will continue to have long-lasting effects.
COVID-19 has seemingly hit fast-forward on a number of trends – from e-commerce, to workplace culture, to attitudes towards the home – and has, in many areas, created a new normal.
Flourishing with flexibility
There is no doubt that the workplace has changed. The pandemic has demonstrated the widespread ‘success’ of remote working, impelling many workplaces to afford their employees greater flexibility regarding how and where they work.
Success, however, is a nebulous concept. While working from home has allowed many workplaces and employees to survive the pandemic, has it allowed them to truly flourish? Working from home, some would say counterintuitively, poses huge challenges to maintaining the work-life balance.
There is now a blurring of the lines between home and work, the result being that employees may not feel any true separation. The younger generation of workers, who are often in share houses or working from their bedrooms and may not enjoy the same luxuries their baby boomer and Gen X colleagues do with home office set ups, could feel this most acutely. Further, numerous studies have shown that, during the pandemic, professionals are working more hours, working through sickness and experiencing more mental health issues.
So many are working longer, potentially in less than ideal physical environments, with a reduced separation between work and ‘life’ and reduced connectivity with colleagues. It’s not all bad however – many are spending more time with family and friends (and pets), less time in traffic, exercising more and eating better too. Using Maslow’s hierarchy as guide, it seems working from home may help us fulfil our basic needs, has a chequered impact on our psychological needs and a potentially negative impact on satisfying our esteem and self-actualisation needs.
So how do we get the best of both worlds (if a dichotomy between worlds still exists)? The key for employers and employees (and society) is how to harness the lessons we have learnt while mitigating the negatives – how do we flourish with flexibility?
Just as people will be afforded more choice to decide where they want to work, the locations themselves will also get a face-lift. Corporate offices have begun to and will continue to operate differently. With the health crisis still at the forefront of peoples’ minds, buildings will become ‘healthier’. The air in common places, lobbies and elevators will become more refined and better circulated. In some countries, elevator manufactures like Thyssenkrupp have developed a smartphone app that enables users to call an elevator without pressing a button, as well as their ‘toe to go’, which replaces buttons with a foot pedal at the base of the elevator.
The big change has and will continue to be seen with respect to the residences from which people are going to work. New research from Stockland has indicated that three in four people are now reconsidering the type of home and community they want to reside in. Australians’ attitudes towards their homes have also shifted, with more than 80% now stating that they are more conscious that their home and environment are intrinsically linked to their overall wellbeing. The phrase ‘there is no place like home’ therefore rings truer now more than ever.
This shift in attitude due to working from and therefore spending more time at home has urged the population to rethink the design, functionality and emotional value of the home – it has become ‘everything’. As such, a main grievance among Australians has commonly been the lack of both indoor and outdoor space, with buyers becoming more likely to consider space-related features than before the pandemic. These considerations centre on things like compact furniture options that are becoming more readily available in order to maximise the space and versatility of a home, particularly in apartments. For example, retractable beds suspended from the ceiling or wall-mounted bookshelves that double as dining tables have garnered growing interest in high density cities where people have begun to realise that traditional architecture is insufficient – the various expectations for a space means it just doesn’t cut it anymore. Even smaller one-bedroom apartments are set to be reimagined to be larger and more versatile, with increased natural light and outdoor spaces.
The amenities that developers are choosing to include in buildings are also becoming more deluxe in an attempt to compensate for shrinking apartment sizes. What has become something of a forbidden outside world is being brought to residents with private bowling alleys, basketball courts and other luxury facilities filling their apartment buildings. Despite continued limits on capacity, this new approach might just foreshadow the types of design and perks that developers and residents will prefer in a post-COVID-19 world.
It is not only the approach to interiors and functionality that has changed, however. COVID-19 has seen thousands of people move out of popular, pricy urban areas since they are able to work remotely from a cheaper location. Underpinning much of this movement is the fact that the old sense of belonging and knowing one’s neighbour and surrounding community is being prioritised, as are the large, green public spaces more commonly offered by the suburbs.
However, whilst the trend in Australia’s net migration is more focused on movement away from capital cities, it remains to be seen whether this is for the long term given that many smaller towns simply do not boast as many of the same cultural perks such as music venues, bars and larger infrastructure that inner-city locations do. People may flock back, or this might just urge some such towns to assume an inner-city culture whilst maintaining their valued public spaces.
Public spaces make a comeback
While COVID-19 begun above all as a public health concern, it has since also become political, challenging and changing the nature of urban design, and pushing the public and government alike to reconsider the use of architecture and city space.
‘Sharing’ used to be one of the principal concerns in urban design and planning. In past architectural practices, effort was directed towards providing more open, public spaces to facilitate social interactions within the community. Instead, the pandemic has led to increased discussion of isolation and social distancing. Providing better, well-used public space seemed to be considered less important and at times, out of question. However, thinking around public space has started to make a comeback, one that is bigger and better than ever, and will form the future foundation for sharing our cities.
In many cities around the world, local governments and councils are reclaiming the streets and other parts of public spaces for businesses to use – from sidewalks to plazas – offering fast-tracked permits so that not only businesses can continue to thrive but that the public can still enjoy and use the spaces they once did albeit in a slightly reimagined way. These public spaces have, in a way, emerged as a critical lifeline for cities and their inhabitants. The streets are also being altered to provide for more COVID-19-safe methods of transport and more equitable use of public space which has traditionally been devoted to the automobile. Moreover, given the risks that many forms of public transport pose, cities are taking the initiative to implement temporary bike lanes on their roads which may become a more permanent, green solution if it is successful. This will also encourage a more equitable sharing of public spaces between different types of users and modes of mobility.
Over the past year, numerous artificial intelligence (AI) innovations have emerged in response to the challenges that arose from life in lockdown. Governments have mobilised machine-learning in a plethora of ways – from contact tracing apps to telemedicine and remote learning initiatives. AI-based tools and solutions work quickly, can be deployed at scale and respond to the dynamic nature of not only the pandemic but to other areas of life.
Recently, Australian digital diagnostics company Ellume partnered with the US Government to rollout their rapid COVID-19 Home Test. The technology allows for self-administered tests, gives results within 15 minutes and boasts a 95% accuracy rate. Users put the nasal sample in a digital analyser and get a result on a linked smartphone app. While only being used in the medical sphere at present, such technologies may spill over into, and be used in, other spheres. Now that people are more inclined to stay at home and enjoy experiences from the comfort of their couches, we may see professional skilled services come to the home, and products such as Ellume’s testing device will make this a safe possibility.
However, as digital transformations grow exponentially, they have highlighted some of the challenges of AI, in particular the ethical dilemmas regarding privacy and security concerns. The positive impact of these challenges is that they are likely to encourage the creation of universal privacy standards and in turn, strengthen the case for further AI adoption. Such standards would increase consumer comfort with third-party data sharing. While healthcare has been the primary area in which COVID-19 has encouraged the use of AI, it is set to have profound effects on the ability to share data and meaningfully collaborate in the corporate world. Therefore, privacy issues aside, there is no doubt that the AI developments that have already occurred will attract a more multi-faceted rollout strategy including retail commercialisation and partnerships with public and private institutions.
A warm welcome to the ‘new normal’
The COVID-19 crisis has paved a rocky road upon which the world has had to travel. While the past has often been deemed an oxymoronic concoction of both freedom and confinement, the future – albeit in parts unknown – appears bright (even for traditionally glass half-empty lawyers). The world and its people have adapted and done so for the better. Technology has embraced the complexities of daily life and responded with abundant solutions. The workplace has in part been uprooted but has seen productivity and an earnest desire for collaboration and reinvention like never before. Cities are being compelled to embrace their people and safe sociability.
While the pandemic has brought with it circumstances that have tested, normalised and embedded structures, it has also inspired creativity and, ultimately, changed the way we live for the better.
 Stockland, ‘There’s no place like home; new research shows home and environment now vital to wellbeing’, (Media Release, 28 September 2020), available here.
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