The Path Forward

By Dan Noble

We all long for a return to “normal”, but “normal” has changed forever. After any major societal disruption—war, natural disaster, civic unrest, terrorism—our world is rocked a little. Sometimes rocked profoundly enough to bring on meaningful change. I believe we are in one of those times now. There is no going back. There is only moving forward to reshape our world into the more equitable, healthier, more economically viable world we think it should be.

Our first steps to achieving this, are realizing and accepting that we are in a time of profound change. Reading, listening, observing and reflecting need to follow realization. Then, it is time for action. We need a plan to move forward and fix the things that need fixing. It helps to break down the task into three modes: –What can I do as an individual? What can I do as a team member? And what can I do as a citizen of my community and the world?

Let’s start with what we can all do as individuals. First, take a deep breath and try not to panic. Change is scary, but it’s also exhilarating. Opening our minds to new possibilities and new points of view and balancing those with our own core values, is humbling and exciting at the same time. It’s important to read, think, talk, question and, sometimes, forgive. It’s a time when we need to grant ourselves and each other grace and space to figure out our next steps. We need to move beyond politics and make rational decisions based on proven facts.

Let’s start with reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. The facts are that it can kill you. There is no vaccine. And it is highly contagious. With any highly infectious disease, we need to increase hygiene and disinfect the things we all come in contact with that could spread the germs; we need to wear personal protective gear when around others; we need to limit our exposure to large gatherings of people; and if we are infected we need to isolate ourselves, seek medical help and trace where we think we were exposed and who else we might have exposed so those people can be tested and quarantined if necessary. Those are the things we need to do to combat the disease. We can’t return fully to work, school or any of the other things we need and want to do without managing the spread of the infection.  But we can return to these activities if we’re smart and think of the whole community.

What can we do as a team, as a business? We can create safer environments where we can gather online and in person.

What can we do as a team, as a business? We can create safer environments where we can gather online and in person. We can create new policies and procedures that support working remotely as well as working in a shared physical environment. This takes leadership. We need to put the things in place to facilitate online collaboration and we also need to realize that online collaboration is not always equitable. Not everyone has access to the equipment, high-speed internet and technical support available in our workplaces. And people need to be around other people. It is the human condition. We crave interaction and that craving cannot be satisfied entirely by Zoom calls.

So, how do we scale this up to the community, the city, the state, the nation and the world? Again, it comes down to the basic principles of how to manage contagion and leadership. We need to get the spread under control. We need to isolate, treat and trace those that are or may be infected. We need to adhere to guidelines for how we co-exist safely while we go about living our daily lives. It isn’t so much about “re-opening our economy”. It’s more managing the disease so we can get on with life.  This in turn will set the wheels in motion to open up our economy.  The means justifies the end.

We can reopen businesses, restaurants, schools, churches and sports arenas if we all do our part to avoid exposure to and transmission of the disease. It will take some personal sacrifice, planning and creativity, but it can be done.

As architects we are uniquely qualified to assist in creating healthier environments and making our cities more resilient for future pandemics and disruptions. Our firm has been working with the world’s leading health organizations for many years to understand how to reduce infection transmission through design of the physical environment. This knowledge now applies to all physical environments. Our commercial interiors team has developed a comprehensive Flexible Work Experience (FWx) strategy that balances our face-to-face collaborations with time working away from the physical office based on research into employee health and safety and maximizing productivity. Our education team has plans in place to help students and teachers return to schools safely. Our urban design and research teams have developed a comprehensive report on how we can make cities and higher education campuses more resilient and self-sustaining.

With the advent of new technologies, new materials, new methods and a new will to work together for positive change, this could be a time of great progress for all. And, as people thrive, business will prosper and grow. During the last five months the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” has come to my mind several times.  It’s during times like this that our human ingenuity shines and quantum leaps are made in human behavior and striking innovation.

This is no “pie in the sky” dream, this is our new reality. We have to apply what we have learned in new and different ways. We have to collect creative minds from all walks of life. We have to have compassion and empathy for one another. And, we have to innovate and move forward. New business methods and paradigms will emerge. Economies will recover. Building a healthier world is the key. Let’s get to it.

Dan Noble

Dan Noble is President and CEO at HKS. An architect, Dan leads the strategy and development of a global design firm. Under his leadership, the firm has won numerous design awards from organizations such as the World Architecture Festival and Fast Company. Dan values character, purpose and relationships, and instills these values into the firm’s culture.