In-office working isn't going away — but it'll look different for decades to come. Photo courtesy Eric Laignel/IA Interior Architects

Reflecting on what we have all recently experienced, our physical relationship with the workplace has out of necessity become more fluid. However, we believe that this pandemic will be the catalyst that will accelerate positive change in workplace design.

The shift ahead in workplace design will not simply be driven by performance measures. There is a renewed longing for a workplace that is driven by direct human experiences – one that enhances face-to-face encounters, offers spaces tailored to the moment, and deliberately fosters health and wellness. We all are reexamining the next generation of office buildings in search of a solution.

Emerging diagnostics

Prevailing strategies assume we will return to physical offices after the delivery of vaccines. However, projections for herd immunity across the world, based on the current rollout policies, vary widely — up to 10 years. As such, this disease will likely be impacting our lives and our livelihoods for much longer than we had ever imagined.

It is critical for us to now consider how to build resilience into the design of our buildings in order to confidently and safely welcome people back to the office this year. Ultimately, workplace safety will be a baseline with a winning workplace experience that truly beckons people back to work.

The human experience

For those professionals able to work from home, the past year has been reduced to living in a physical silo, reliant on technology to facilitate connection and as a substitute for community. Research has reaffirmed the extraordinary value of in-person human connection to solve complex problems and provide a sense of wellbeing.

The average office worker spends up to 35 percent of their work day collaborating and directly engaging with others. It is in this context that breakthroughs and innovation actually happen. It comes as no surprise that, of the people surveyed, the majority consistently express a desire to return to their office and colleagues.

Successful design will also be measured by the ability for space to address other needs such as social interaction, flexibility, comfort, and wellness. Intentionally blurring the boundaries between living, working, and playing benefit the experience.

Business leaders have now received unprecedented insight into employees preferences and they witness firsthand their work lives at home. For those that leverage these insights, there is a payoff. Employers see a 21 percent increase in performance and 17 percent increase in employee health. These desires are age agnostic and invite inclusivity according to research from Brookings.

Modeling for a shifting agenda

The new workplace will again become the center for collaboration and human engagement. While employees have the possibility of working anywhere, as designers, we need to deliver a workplace that offers a compelling, safe, and healthy experience. Our goal is to create a workplace environment that allows people to be healthier and feel safer than they may be in their own homes. By integrating superior smart building technologies, thoughtful planning and innovative design, the next-generation workplace experience has the power to realign priorities within our built environment to best serve the health and wellbeing of its occupants and users. Below, we outline a day in the life of a hypothetical workplace that exemplify this new approach.

The Ground Floor and Lobby Experience. Upon arriving, generous and clear pathways will intuitively lead to the main entrance. As the central node bringing people together and serving the entire complex, a spacious day-light filled lobby will establish the entire circulation experience for the building. Proper design of entrances will reduce touchpoints, contamination, and user anxiety. Automatic sliding doors, automatic revolving doors, and swing doors with touchless actuators will facilitate a touch- and stress-free arrival and circulation experience including interface with security. Elevators with destination dispatch will safely deliver employees to their selected floor.

Connections & Conveyance. Corridors and stairs are not just important means of conveyance, but they also inherently activate spaces and multiply the face-to-face encounters people pine for. By encouraging the use of stairs, elevator demands can be reduced. Furthermore, welcoming open stairs, when paired with atriums or other common areas, encourage communication and collaboration between employees. Stairs offer an excellent alternative for trips down to the ground level or between adjacent floors. To encourage stair usage and create a safe, anxiety-free experience, several design elements might be considered, including: improved visual connections between a stairwell and floor for users to see those entering and exiting; providing larger landings as waiting areas for slower users; and, where requirements allow, incorporating exterior stairs aid both natural ventilation and visibility.

Fresh Air. In the workplaces currently in design, employees will have enhanced access to abundant fresh, clean air as a result of the adoption of advancements in filtration strategies and technologies. Beyond the pandemic, these workplaces will actually be healthier environments with the ability to significantly reduce cases of air-transmitted illnesses such as the flu and the common cold. Employees will be healthier than before. In the transformed workplace, health issues that previously contributed to absenteeism will plummet and foster greater productivity.

Impact of Light. Our next generation buildings will bring employees closer to daylight and welcoming daylight into the building is invaluable by whatever means possible. Intuitive design can prioritize occupants' health and comfort with a number of passive and active strategies. A daylight-filled atrium breaks down isolation between floors, provides visual connections between people, and channels daylight deep into the buildings. In fact, throughout Europe, planning guidelines suggest that no employee should be farther that 21 feet from a window. While reducing solar heat gain, a high performance enclosure can maximize daylight harvesting, provide occupied spaces with abundant natural light, and offer users access to outdoor views. The significant health and productivity benefits of providing users access to natural light and outdoor views have been well documented.

Outdoor Places. User-oriented outdoor spaces, such as plazas, patios, and green roofs, offer a place for respite, fresh air, sunlight, and nature. The value of which has been underscored by the pandemic. While many recent office developments have incorporated such spaces to some degree, in a post COVID-19 world, they have become a must-have amenity. There is already an increased expectation for significant private and shared outdoor terraces, roof gardens and balconies. These outdoor spaces should be flexible enough to support a variety of uses as occupants increasingly look to these spaces for dining, casual meetings, fitness, and a variety of other social activities.

Digital engagement

Smart buildings are just the beginning. Yes, the smart building is an important piece, but connecting the building systems (HVAC, lighting, solar, water, security) to a secure infrastructure that will benefit mobile employees.

When we connect all those dots (building – network – human experience), it pays off in the long run in regards to overall company wellness, happier staff, being more sustainable and in control of our real estate portfolio.

Looking ahead, tomorrow's buildings will need to evolve more than ever before; similar to the Tesla car, these buildings will constantly update according to our preferences. It's exciting to see it learn and offer new features as we become more acquainted. This is the level of design that will be incorporated into the future workplace and make it successful. The building will predict our needs and become our home away from home.

Rewriting the rules

Solutions to a brag-worthy workplaces will embrace the opportunity to rethink design conventions. They will make the human experience the first order of importance to reactivating our buildings. It starts with a proven design process to crunch the data collected on habits and preferences to create fresh concepts for both destinations and passageways. The term "mixed-use" will take on new importance to define our new workplace experience.

Private development and investment will drive such innovation to achieve market interests; ideally with the support of public policy. In Houston, we famously have less restrictive zoning requirements which can foster the advancement of our buildings, businesses, and neighborhoods. It has been an advantage for the city when competing with other U.S. cities for the attention of business leaders from both coasts. Houston is also promoting Smart Cities technologies to local leaders to boost economic development and human experience. These investments are critical to keeping the office experience safe and relevant to our futures.

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Based in Houston, Mark Gribbons is the principal and design director at IA Interior Architects. This piece was co-authored by Jon Pickard, principal and co-founder of Pickard Chilton.


What startup advice and observations trended this year on InnovationMap? Founder lessons learned, the pandemic's effects on the workplace, and more. Photo via Pexels

These are the top 5 Houston innovation guest columns of 2020

2020 in review

Editor's note: InnovationMap is Houston's only news source and resource about and for startups, and some of this year's top stories were penned — or, more realistically, typed — but the Houston innovation community itself. As we get ready for 2021, let's see what guest columns were most read in 2020.

Houston expert shares why prototyping is so important to startups

Making a product that is worth further investing in, one that customers will want to buy, requires several prototypes, sometimes tens of prototypes to prove the concept and perfect your idea. Photo courtesy of OKGlobal

Written by Onega Ulanova, founder of OKGlobal

Rarely in life is anything perfect on the first attempt. Writers write drafts that are proofed and edited. Musicians practice over and over, and athletes train for years to perfect their skills before becoming pros. So, it only makes sense that a product developer would develop a prototype before manufacturing their products.

But why? Why can't a perfectly designed product go straight from CAD to production? In reality, making a product that is worth further investing in, one that customers will want to buy, requires several prototypes, sometimes tens of prototypes to prove the concept and perfect your idea. Success comes through practice, just like with the musicians and the athletes.


Click here to read the full column.

To office or not to office? Heading toward post-pandemic, that is the question for Houston workplace strategy

Far from irrelevant, today's workplace has evolved to support and foster precisely the behaviors and interactions that are missing in remote work. Photo via Getty Images

Written by Erik Lucken, strategy director at San Francisco-based IA Interior Architects

Since the advent of the modern office over a century ago, its design has continually evolved, adapting to new needs driven by changes in the ways people work.

COVID-19 introduced massive disruption to this steady evolution, displacing millions of office workers to fulfill their job roles from their homes. The question everyone is asking now is what happens after the pandemic — if we can all work from home, is the office irrelevant?

Click here to read the full column.

COVID-19 has affected how office space will be designed, says Houston expert

Here's how this work-from-home experiment has affected the office space — from a design perspective. Photo courtesy of Joe Aker

Written by Larry Lander, principal at PDR

The last nine weeks have thrust businesses large and small into an experiment unlike anything we might have ever imagined. The impact has the potential to separate businesses that will stagnate versus those that will accelerate and thrive.

Our workplaces may become smaller as we realize we don't all need to be there at the same time, but they certainly won't go away. They will, instead, be more human-centered, more technologically robust, and more resilient for the next time. So, a warning too: If the office is unsafe, scary, or demeaning — if it doesn't put people first — employees will vote with their feet.

Office workers have been empowered with the sudden ability to choose where, when, and how to work. And, certainly there have been starts and stops and plenty of stories of less-than-ideal execution, but by and large, the experiment has opened our eyes: Work has not stopped, our people are trustworthy, and, in fact, we found out they have kids, dogs, pictures on the wall, bedrooms, and kitchens just like us.

Click here to read the full column.

Houston expert: The Astrodome should be reimagined for the future of the energy industry

A Houston real estate expert suggests that the icon that is the Astrodome should be restored to be used for energy conferences and other business needs. Photo courtesy of the city of Houston

Written by Frank Blackwood, senior director of Lee & Associates - Houston

Over the past several years, there's been a continuous conversation about the iconic Astrodome and what should be done with it. Dubbed the "Eighth Wonder of the World," Houstonians certainly don't want to see the Astrodome go, as it is a landmark deeply embedded into the hearts and minds of our beloved city.

Ideas have been thrown around, yet none of them seem to stick. The $105 million county-approved plan to renovate and build a multi-story parking garage that was approved under Judge Ed Emmett's court in 2018 has been placed on hold until further notice.

Click here to read the full column.

6 things this Houston entrepreneur wishes he’d known before starting his company

Learn from the mistakes of a successful Houston entrepreneur — from teamwork tips to reasons why you should network with other startups. Emilija Manevska/Getty Images

Written by James Ruiz, founder of Houston-based Q Engineering

Recently, I was asked what it took to build a startup in Houston. It has taken me three attempts to create a successful startup, and there were a few things that I wish I'd known right out of the gate.

Whether your goal is to exit through a sale, an IPO, or turn your team of pirates into something that looks like a company, your business model will determine how you earn revenue and profits, and you want it to be repeatable and scalable to survive. With that in mind, here are the things I've learned along the way and what I wish I had known before I started my career as an entrepreneur.

I can't emphasize how difficult starting a company can be. By reflecting on the points I mentioned here, I believe that I would have avoided some pitfalls, and maybe even made it a little farther in the journey.

Click here to read the full column.

Far from irrelevant, today's workplace has evolved to support and foster precisely the behaviors and interactions that are missing in remote work. Photo via Getty Images

To office or not to office? Heading toward post-pandemic, that is the question for Houston workplace strategy

guest column

Since the advent of the modern office over a century ago, its design has continually evolved, adapting to new needs driven by changes in the ways people work.

COVID-19 introduced massive disruption to this steady evolution, displacing millions of office workers to fulfill their job roles from their homes. The question everyone is asking now is what happens after the pandemic — if we can all work from home, is the office irrelevant?

A mass remote work experiment

While many companies had tried some degree of remote work before the pandemic, the mass relocation to home during COVID was new territory for most. And the experiment has offered up something of an epiphany: work-from-home worked. People were able to carry out their job responsibilities, saving thousands of companies from having to shut down and sparing millions of people from job loss.

Now, based on the perceived success of WFH, many organizations are planning to greatly expand remote work, even after the pandemic has passed. Twitter was at the front of the pack in announcing they would allow some employees to work from home forever, and the list has continued to grow well beyond the tech sector.

Success depends on criteria

The lens through which we view this work-from-home period is important. Looked at as an emergency response, WFH can be deemed successful: it helped to flatten the transmission curve of the virus and protected employee lives.

But as we enter one of the most complex and challenging business climates in a century, survival will be about being competitive. And that fundamentally changes the criteria to judge working from home during COVID-19 and whether it should be expanded as a post-pandemic strategy. It raises the bar from "did work-from-home work?" to "did it work better?"; will increasing remote work help to deliver competitive advantage better than having people together in the workplace? That requires a deeper exploration.

Digital breadcrumbs

Work-from-home during COVID is, at heart, a technology story — from the platforms that virtually connected employees to networks and each other, to the embrace of video conferencing and the overnight ubiquity of the Zoom call. While they all existed before COVID, the pandemic acted as a catalyst for their widespread adoption.

Technology use leaves trails of data, like digital breadcrumbs, and many of the collaborative platforms and software providers are generously sharing their data comparing use patterns before and during COVID. So while not too long ago our evaluative methods for this unprecedented period of remote work would have relied largely on subjective or anecdotal measures, today we're able to follow the breadcrumbs and arrive at a more objective understanding of how work changed in this shift from office to home.

What becomes abundantly clear is that it wasn't simply a location swap; we didn't just go about our jobs in the same way at home as we did in the office. There were fundamental and very impactful shifts in the way we worked, with significant implications for business performance.

For instance:

The number of meetings increased. While there is a wide range of percentage increases being reported, even just taking a more conservative estimate, from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the number of meetings went up by 13 percent as compared to pre-COVID patterns.

Meetings turned inward. Since people weren't together physically, they needed to check-in a lot more often. Internal meetings—those with people within the same company — increased to over 60 percent of overall weekly meetings during work-from-home, while meetings with people external to the organization decreased to just below 40 percent, according to analysis by a leading meeting software platform.

Meeting purpose changed. Meetings can largely be grouped into three categories: evaluative — considering options, making decisions; generative — brainstorming, creating new ideas; or organizational — coordinating tasks, reporting. Organizational meetings increased by nearly a third during the peak COVID lockdown.Put another way, during WFH, people had more meetings to talk about doing work and fewer meetings to actually do work.

Meetings got larger. The number of meeting attendees during WFH increased by 14 percent. When people are physically together in the office, more meetings are impromptu, typically involving two to four people. But when you plan meetings in advance, which people have to do when remote, there's a tendency to invite more people. Increasing participants changes meeting dynamics — the more people, the more formal, the more likely it's one-way communication.

Emails to coworkers increased. With the loss of a centralized office and face-to-face interactions, people increased both the number of internal emails they sent by 5.2 percent, as well as the number of people they included in emails by 2.9 percent.

Employees felt less informed. A smartsheet survey showed that despite the increase in virtual meetings and email communication, 60 percent of the workforce reported having a decreased sense of what's going on within their companies, revealing the isolating effect of remote work.

Productive time decreased. With the increase in number of meetings, large swaths of productive time were harder to come by. Calendar analysis revealed that fragmented time—short periods of unscheduled time between meetings—increased by 11 percent during COVID-19.While not ideal for anyone, fragmented time is especially problematic for non-managerial staff, whose job roles tend to entail more individual focus work; it only takes a few poorly spread out meetings to render a day largely unproductive. The result? The work day increased by as much as 3 hours at the height of WFH per Bloomberg report.

Video was a boon…and then quickly a bane. Video conference platforms saw exponential increase in use during COVID, and seemed at first to offer a close substitute for face-to-face meetings. But the way video is synthesized introduces distortions and lags, and even an undetectable misalignment of video and audio confuses the brain, making it work harder, as outlined in the New York Times.People found themselves exhausted after a day of video calls and the scientifically-verified phenomenon "Zoom Fatigue" was born.

Social capital decreased. Socializing has never been something people regularly schedule into their workday; it's very much an ad hoc work mode: a conversation on the elevator or chatting before and after meetings. Those types of unplanned interactions weren't possible working-from-home, and despite admirable attempts to interact virtually, 63 percent of workers reported spending less time socializing with colleagues, and already by April, 75 percent of people reported feeling less connected to coworkers.

Companies became more siloed. According to research by Ben Waber at Humanyze, during WFH we increased communication with our closest work colleagues — team members or close friends at work — by 33 percent. Communication with coworkers outside our inner circle, so-called "weak ties", dropped by nearly the same amount. The problem with that is interactions with weak ties are one of the most effective ways new ideas spread through an organization. When we talk to people we have don't know well or don't see often, it's just much more likely something new is shared.

Innovation is at risk

Taken individually, the changes to work patterns that occurred with WFH might not seem dire — work got done, if not ideally so. But layered on top of each other, the picture is more grim; we had more meetings and our days got more fragmented; we met less with people outside our company; internally, we met less to generate new ideas and more to just coordinate and organize tasks; we became more siloed, we socialized less and felt less connected to each other, and less aware of what was happening within our companies.

What that combination puts most at risk is innovation, arguably the thing companies are going to need most to face the challenges ahead. Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford and internationally recognized scholar on innovation, posits that while we were able to remain productive working-from-home, there may be a steep opportunity cost paid down the line: "I fear this collapse in office face time will lead to a slump in innovation. The new ideas we are losing today could show up as fewer new products in 2021 and beyond, lowering long-run growth."

The workplace advantage

The ways work changed when we tried to do it from home reaffirms why the workplace is even more relevant now, at a time when organizations are going to need to be firing on all cylinders. And it shows that we haven't just been working at the office to bide our time until technology allowed us to ditch it and work from home; we work at the office because doing so delivers higher performance.

Far from irrelevant, today's workplace has evolved to support and foster precisely the behaviors and interactions that are missing in remote work: bringing people together to work side-by-side, to be immersed in the culture of the organization, to socialize, to build trust, and to learn from each other.

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Erik Lucken is strategy director at San Francisco-based IA Interior Architects, which has projects and clients based in Houston.

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Photos: Houston coworking company expands with new location

open for biz

Calling all coworkers north of Houston — there's a new spot in town to set up shop.

The Cannon, a coworking company with locations in Houston and Galveston, has expanded north of Houston for the first time. A new Cannon workspace opened at The Park at Fish Creek retail center (618 Fish Creek Thoroughfare) in Montgomery last month. On February 1 at 4 pm, the new community is holding an open house to tour the space.

“The Cannon is a Houston innovation institution, and we meet demand where innovators and entrepreneurs live—in this case, Montgomery County,” says Jon Lambert, CEO of The Cannon, in a news release. “The goal is to grow The Cannon community – and entrepreneurship overall – regionally, via the Fish Creek brick-and mortar space, and to also expand utilization of our digital community platform, Cannon Connect.”

With 8,100 square feet of space, the facility has 19 private offices, three conference rooms, and several gathering and working areas. Memberships — from assigned desks and private space to day passes — are now available. All Fish Creek members receive access to Cannon Connect, a global, digital community platform that provides resources, networking and building blocks for business growth.

Photo courtesy of The Cannon

This Houston entrepreneur is enabling fashion upcycling for more sustainable style

houston innovators podcast episode 170

When shopping online one day, Hannah Le saw a need for a platform that allowed transactions between upcycling fashion designers and shoppers looking for unique, sustainable pieces.

Le created RE.STATEMENT, an online shopping marketplace for upcycled clothing. Before RE.STATEMENT, designers were limited to Etsy, which is focused on handmade pieces, or Poshmark and Depop, which are dedicated to thrift finds. Upcycle fashion designers didn't have their own, unique platform to sell on — and, likewise, shoppers were scattered across sites too.

"These marketplaces are really good for what they do," Le says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, "but, whenever I think of someone looking for something unique and sustainable, it's hard for me to imagine finding that on these marketplaces."

The platform soft launched in December with 25 upcycling designers and over 1,200 buyers that had been on the company's waitlist for almost nine months. Now that the site is live, Le hopes to give both buyers and sellers quick access to transactions.

"Most designers give up if they haven't sold an item within three months," Le explains. "That's something RE.STATEMENT has dedicated its business model to — making sure that items sell faster and at a higher value than any other marketplace."

Le says that she started with buyers to see what exactly they were looking for, then she searched and found the designers looking to sell their pieces, and the current platform is dynamic and flexible to the needs of users within her community.

"Even today, it changes every single day depending on how users are interacting with the website and what sellers are saying that they need — really communicating with buyers and sellers is how the marketplace is evolving," she says.

RE.STATEMENT's ability to quickly evolve has been due to its early stage, Le explains on the show. She's not yet taken on institutional funding or hired anyone else other than tech support. She says this allows her to quickly make changes or try out new things for users.

"For me, there are still so many things I want to prove to myself before I bring others involved," she says. "To start, it's coming up with new opportunities for buyers to interact with the website so that we can keep learning from them."

Le has already proven some success to herself. Last year, she took home one of three prizes offered at the city's Liftoff Houston competition. The contest, which gives Houston entrepreneurs pitch practice and mentorship, awarded RE.STATEMENT $10,000 for winning in the product category.

"I wanted to see how far I could go," Le says of the competition where she got to introduce her business to Mayor Sylvester Turner and a whole new audience of people. "I had pitched before, but this was the first time that I was onstage and I just felt like I belonged there."

Le shares more about her vision for RE.STATEMENT and the integral role Houston plays in her success on the show.


Houston startup teams up with nonprofit research for decarbonization pilot

seeing green

A Houston tech company has joined forces with a nonprofit to test a new sustainable fuel production process.

The project is a joint effort from Houston-based Syzygy Plasmonics and nonprofit research institute RTI International and sponsored by Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corporation of Americas. Based in the RTI facility in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, the six-month pilot is testing a way to convert two potent greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) — into low-carbon-intensity fuels, which have the potential to replace petroleum-based jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

"This demonstration will be the first of its kind and represents a disruptive step in carbon utilization. The sustainable fuels produced are expected to quickly achieve cost parity with today's fossil fuels," says Syzygy CEO Trevor Best in a news release. "Integrating our technology with RTI's Fischer-Tropsch synthesis system has the potential to significantly reduce the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation without requiring major fleet modifications."

According to Syzygy, the pilot is a step toward being able to scale the process to a commercial-ready Syzygy e-fuels plant.

"By making minor adjustments in the process, we also expect to produce sustainable methanol using the same technology," Best continues.

An independent research institute, RTI International's focus is on improving the human condition. The multidisciplinary nonprofit seeks to support science-based solutions like Syzygy's technology, which has already proven its scale-up capabilities in earlier testing.

Through the partnership, RTI will assist Syzygy with process design and systems integration for the pilot-scale demonstration. Once it reaches commercial scale, the technology is expected to turn millions of tons of CO2 per year to produce sustainable fuels.

"We are excited about the opportunity to collaborate with Syzygy to test and assist in the scale-up of this promising technology," says Sameer Parvathikar, Ph.D., the director of the Renewable Energy and Energy Storage program in RTI's Technology Advancement and Commercialization business unit. "This work aligns with our capabilities, our goals of helping de-risk and commercialize novel technologies, and our vision to address the world's most critical problems with science-based solutions."