A fireside chat at a safe distance: working environments according to Corona

A fireside chat at a safe distance: working environments according to Corona

The Covid 19 pandemic has turned the world of work upside down: Whether office or manufacturing industry – the spatial concepts are now being put to the test more than ever. And one hunch already seems to be confirmed: The topic will not only be with us for a short term.

In our fireside chat today we have Pascal Gemmer as our guest. As CoFounder and partner of the agency Dark Horse Berlin, he advises companies on innovations and all aspects of productive workplaces.

In an exchange of ideas with Wolf Deiß, Managing Director of Artis Space Systems, we will discuss where this will lead us. What will we need an office for in the future? What are the opportunities and potential we can draw from the pandemic crisis?

Moderated by Katharina Wolter, Head of Communications at Artis Space Systems.

Wolf Deiß / Pascal Gemmer

Katharina: Hello you two! You can guess the first question. The first months of the pandemic are behind us, now we all get out of the general lockdown. How is the situation? How is Dark Horse? How is Artis?

Pascal: Surprisingly good! I think most of the people at Dark Horse basically like changes at first. There was a great willingness to adapt things, for example to make our many workshop formats “remote-enabled” or to get involved in digitization initiatives for Berlin schools. Of course, in March/April/May there were virtually no new projects started in our school. Now it’s starting again. The companies we work with regain on their feet, the home office is organized, business has been adapted to the situation. But we feel with all the people and companies that still have to nibble on Covid-19 and are still looking for ways out.

Wolf: Well, we did not have a lockdown. Our advantage is that the project durations are relatively long. That helped and still helps to keep the production going. We are also confident. And while we like change, we also draw our courage from the experience of having already overcome other crises. After all, we’ve been around a bit longer than that…

Katharina: When you look back on the last months, what were the strongest changes in your daily work routine?  

Pascal: We were lucky that we have all always worked a lot in the home office at times. Everybody knew about it, appreciated it, and the infrastructure was in place. We also quickly got used to voting and discussing in video calls. What is very much missing is the conversation in the hallway, the meetings and the meals together, we are currently looking for solutions.

Wolf: For us it was really a huge change. We can’t produce furnitures in the home office. We can’t give the employees a saw to take home. Some colleagues from the office also stayed at home. But especially those who had to look after their children or belong to risk groups. But this makes ad hoc voting “…do you have a minute” between the office and production very tedious. Short arrangements and production support is very much missing. Normally we can hear in the office when something is about to happen in production and a machine starts to rattle. Then we can react quickly. This is not possible from home. Anyway, I think it’s a false impression that home office is the solution for everything! There are countless companies for whom this does not work, or only to a limited extent. We are one of them.
Incidentally, in recent weeks and months there has been a lot of talk about the difficulties of using a home office and very little about the concerns of those who did not have this choice.

©Artis – Office space of Artis with workshop

Katharina: In recent months, digital tools like Zoom, Google Teams and Co.  have had a boom. Won’t remote communication also make things faster and easier?

Wolf: I think that increasing digitalization per se makes it more difficult to react quickly and solve problems ad hoc. Because digitization always requires standardization. Things have to be decided in advance and programs have to be set up. But then if something doesn’t go according to plan, everything comes to a standstill. The room for improvisation and independent decision-making is dwindling, because we have to stay within the set standards. And that’s why we forget how to improvise and also how to think along a bit. In production, the scope for action has become much narrower due to the digital specifications. But I don’t want to badmouth digitization. In view of the shortage of skilled workers and the high quality standards we have to meet, we have been playing along for many years.

Pascal: It’s interesting that you say that. We are currently struggling with the necessary standardization of remote workshops. Because here’s what we’re seeing right now:
Since online workshops do away with all non-verbal communication (such as body language), even simple things like a spontaneous sequence of brainstorming conversations don’t work: Either you keep interrupting yourself or nobody says anything. To avoid this, we work with a predetermined order and a fixed agenda, including standardisation. But it is no longer possible to react to unforeseen turns of events. The best thing that can happen is that everything goes according to plan. Especially in the context of innovation, new ideas, etc., this is not always beneficial to the result. Creative work works much better together in a physical space with facial expressions, gestures, puffing and eye rolling.

Katharina: How do you think the role of the office will change in the current situation and beyond?

Wolf: Well, we will definitely have a new approach to distance. The time where we all sit at 6 desk blocks lined up next to each other will be over. We will see less of the big “desk deserts”. And now that the transmission of viruses through aerosols is proving so problematic, we will see fewer small rooms. Meetings are more likely to be held on the surface. Phone booths will feel unsafe. There will certainly be interesting disinfection methods, e.g. using UV light.

Pascal: I would also bet that we will see less rather than more rooms. In our case, the office is currently developing into a pure place for meeting and seeing, more comparable to a clubhouse. Sitting at a desk is now also good at home, many planned meetings, for example jour fixes, work remotely very well. What doesn’t work at all, however, is the accidental “running into each other”, chatting at the coffee machine and accidentally finding out things that you wouldn’t have planned to find out. The creation of a meeting, exchange and common identification platform, that will be the job of the office in the coming years. And walls are only in the way.

Wolf: Yes, I have to emphasize that again. Man is a social being. And working is not only about work. But chatting with colleagues about the children or the next holiday works better at the coffee table than in a video call. And how important such a non-work-related exchange is is something you only now learn to really appreciate! If we didn’t have a “meeting place” at our company, the colleagues from production would not be able to meet with their colleagues from the office at all. The office becomes a meeting place? I’m in!

©DarkHorse – Office space at Dark Horse
also cover picture

Katharina: What does that mean concretely? How exactly could an office that works in this new situation look like?

Pascal: First of all, I could imagine offices becoming smaller. Home offices are definitely becoming more important. Large corporations are currently adopting guidelines that recommend home offices two to three days a week, even after Corona. That means: we need less space, save money, and can move offices back to more central locations. Then I think we’ll see fewer desks, and we’ll tend to place them individually and isolated, separated by appropriately flexible furnishings. And in all corners there will be opportunities to conduct video calls in smaller groups. Because meetings where all participants are physically present will become less frequent. And I’m sticking with it: the large, central, free space for random and spontaneous exchange will be even more important than it already is today. With couch corners, separees, meeting corners and of course the coffee machine. Such a “marketplace”, combined with a few quiet workplaces, could be enough for many companies in the future.

Wolf: I think the era of 2-person office drawers is definitely over – if only for infection protection reasons. I also envisage rather small groups of desks, possibly with transitional “drip protection” made of Plexiglas, separated from each other by room dividers such as our Supergrid™. Plus many open meeting possibilities. The “openness” that has now been announced, however, will also bring the subject of acoustics even more to the fore.

Pascal: Yes, the topic of acoustics will become more important, but perhaps soon it will be solved differently than we currently think. I observe how omnipresent wireless headphones with noise cancelling are becoming in all video calls. People are getting used to headphones, and the technology is now incredibly good and affordable. Switch between listening, silence and phone calls at the touch of a button! Give us a year or two, and most people will be able to control their acoustic environment in the office as well. The perceived separation through niches and partitions such as for privacy will remain important, but acoustic separation will become less important. It will become louder in offices, and those who want quiet will press the appropriate button.

Wolf: Although I firmly believe that we will get a grip on Covid-19 in the medium term, the discussions about the workplace of the future will certainly continue to accompany us. It remains exciting, and that’s a good thing!


Katharina: Thank you very much and see you soon!

Pascal Gemmer: CoFounder & Partner Dark Horse GmbH / Dark Horse Workspaces GmbH

The Berlin-based innovation consultancy Dark Horse has been helping people and organizations to shape their future properly since 2010. Dark Horse develops people and cultures, strategies and structures, products and services and working environments.

This text was translated by DeepL and may contain content errors