Italian architect and professor Carlo Ratti directs the MIT Senseable City Lab, which explores how technology is changing cities. How does he see the future of the office post-COVID-19? Maha Khan Phillips reports

What long-term impact will the COVID-19 pandemic have on the way people work?

In as early as 1973, urban theorist Melvin Webber proclaimed that ‘for the first time in history, it might be possible to locate on a mountain top and to maintain intimate, real-time, and realistic contact’.

I don’t think we will work from the mountain top, but certainly COVID-19 has sped up the transition to smart working. I believe that smart working is here to stay.

Twitter, amongst others, is giving its employees the choice to practice smart working, even after the pandemic and all activities reopen. To push the conversation a step further, we can leverage the liberty given to us by technology not only to work from home, but to work from everywhere. A more flexible professional routine could revitalise our social and intellectual fabric damaged by the pandemic.

How will the office environment change as a result?

The crisis is accelerating transitions that have been long in the making. Even before coronavirus, the world had been moving away from the homogenous workplace and professional arrangement.

As a result, we can expect the downsizing of office spaces, and the development of a new working choreography to transmit company culture and connections.

That said, it is unlikely the office would be wiped out completely. It still has important social functions to play, connecting a diverse mix of people and thoughts together. What it needs is a redesign to become more effective.”

You’ve talked about the need for employees to meet and develop ideas, to collaborate, and your research has shown how important this is. Do you think offices of the future will support this?

Initial results of an analysis on the communication networks among the students, professors and administrators of MIT show that interpersonal connections are getting more concentrated on a smaller number of contacts.

A possible explanation is that we are only advancing our strong ties – close relationship forming dense, overlapping networks, according to sociologist Mark Granovetter – while our weak ties with casual acquaintances have been declining.

The office could remedy this situation. Meeting a larger number of acquaintances means a higher likelihood for us to break away from the limited set of beliefs we share with our immediate social circle.

A colleague we do not work directly with could introduce us to a creative approach to tackle an issue, or challenge our long-established preconception. The information we receive from online communicational platforms, sometimes enhanced algorithmically, aligns with our world view or concepts we are familiar with; on the other hand, it is those physical spaces like the office which open us to new learning experiences.

Will employers have to think more about overall wellbeing?

There are different measures employers can take while considering their team’s wellbeing. A more flexible work arrangement would be helpful for the employees to strike a better balance of life. In addition, they should also commit to making the office a safer and more social workplace.

For instance, traditional floor plans with their cubicles are designed to facilitate solitary task execution, which today can be more effectively carried out at home. Conversely, we need dynamic spaces to forge ideation and social relations.