A new lease on office life: A Q&A with Cayman- and London-based design firm principals Lori McRae and Ben Martin

July 24, 2020Blog

VivCourt offices in Camana Bay. Photo: Frederick + McRae

By Andrea Lumsden and Sue Nickason

What does the office of the future look like? As society begins to reimagine life in a post-COVID-19 world, architects and interior designers everywhere are thoughtfully crafting the answer to this question and developing design solutions for offices and public spaces that incorporate enhanced healthy and safety protocols.

Two of these bright and innovative minds are Lori McRae, interior designer and principal at Frederick+McRae in the Cayman Islands, and Ben Martin, financial advisory principal at HKS in London.

Lori McRae, principal at Frederick + McRae, Cayman Islands = LM

Ben Martin, principal at HKS, London = BM

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the commercial real estate industry, with pundits suggesting that for a growing number of workforces in different sectors, working from home may become the “new normal.” Do you believe that argument has merit?

LM: COVID-19 really put remote working and technology to the test and proved that for many industries, remote working is here to stay. What this “new normal” looks like will vary for each organisation. The line between the home and office is blurring; however, the working from home model is not viable for everyone. Many employees do not have the physical space necessary to provide them with an environment conducive to focused work. Setting clear boundaries between work and home life is another issue. Some employees experienced issues with the lack of separation between work and home during the shelter in place regulations and looked forward to a return to the office. Interaction with colleagues will see the office continuing to serve as a place where people can collaborate and socialise.

Variety and choice for where you work – be it the home office, the traditional office or another environment like a coffee shop or outdoor spaces – will, however, become more desirable.

BM: Given that I am now a few months into lockdown and have been working at home reasonably effectively for the full period, it would seem fair to say that this has become my ‘new normal.’ The sheer duration of the lockdown here in the UK has required many of us to embrace some of the new virtual ways of working that previously we may have shied away from. For example, we are now very used to Zoom calls, web-based servers and project brainstorms where only one person at a time can talk (which is actually not such a bad thing).

The places where we live, work and play are increasingly integrated. Our Camana Bay Town Centre on Grand Cayman is one such example. What impact do you feel the pandemic will have on how these types of communities are created in the future?

LM: I believe the pandemic has brought the need for such developments to the forefront. Sustainable communities like Camana Bay incorporate residential, commercial, retail and dining offerings within their town centre and in doing so, reduce the need for a car to get to the office, to go shopping or to socialise.

The concept of traveling from home to work on public transportation has been challenged. Such modes of transportation do not support health and social distancing protocols. We are seeing cities around the world limiting cars and focusing on pedestrian traffic. Cycling lanes, pedestrian walkways, green park spaces and careful consideration to density will play an integral part in the development of new communities.

BM: Clearly, living within Camana Bay is almost the antithesis of living outside of London and commuting into the centre of the city via public transport every day. We’ve all learned an awful lot about social distancing over the last few months and I have no doubt that even in Camana Bay there will be challenges associated with effective social distancing, but these would pale into insignificance compared to social distancing on the London Underground, for example.

One of the takeaways from this experience certainly seems to be a greater openness, particularly amongst those of us employed in the service sector, to consider alternative ways of working and places of work. If it’s the case that you really can be effective in your job no matter where your office is located, then I’m sure that we’ll see more people choosing to base themselves within more modestly sized master-planned communities that offer a great combination of leisure amenities, shops, cafes, restaurants and bars just seconds from their front door, or the door to their office – if that is actually a different physical space.

PwC lobby in Camana Bay. Photo: Frederick + McRae

Lori, what opportunities or innovations have you and your team identified in architecture and interior design in commercial real estate?

LM: For both interior design and architecture we may see a move to more private spaces allowing people to socially distance, focus and feel safe. More quiet, personal spaces will be incorporated into public areas.

Developers may look to touchless fixtures, and further automation to building management systems to minimise the touching of surfaces in base building common areas.

Ben, lodging properties catering to business travellers will not be immune to the impact of COVID. HKS also has a robust hospitality design portfolio and, in Cayman, we have a growing hotel portfolio, which welcomes meeting and incentive travellers each year. Can you share your opinions on the outlook for innovations in hotel design resulting from the pandemic?

There is already a wealth of articles out there with specific recommendations focused on operational changes for the lodging industry, but there are certainly a few key principles that are likely to influence design going forward. These may, for example, relate to entry controls; staff and guest circulation; air flow; the use of touchless technology; and the introduction of apps to manage wait times and queuing for guest service provision, such as dining.

One thing is for sure, whilst we all want to get the economy moving again, we mustn’t forget that there is still much to learn about how this virus behaves and what precautionary steps could or should be taken to protect our health in the future. With the goal posts continuing to shift in terms of government guidance regarding behaviour and design, there are clearly risks associated with making significant radical changes to design and operations that are costly and hard to reverse. For now, we need to focus on temporary solutions that will see us through this tough time whilst keeping a very close eye on the findings of the scientific research as it unfolds.

What types of design changes do you anticipate to commercial properties in the future?

LM: The integration of technology will be even more important in the future development of commercial properties. The pandemic magnified concerns about indoor air quality and the human interaction with physical surfaces. Motion-activated, touchless fixtures, and further automation to building management systems will be increasingly important.

We are seeing a shift towards human-centric interior design. Attention to mental wellbeing and a new appreciation for staff health and comfort levels in the office environment will drive the move towards the de-densification of office spaces.

As a designer I am excited to be on the cusp of the next evolution of the office environment. As with all new ways of working, we will continue to monitor the global developments and will adapt these concepts to creative solutions that make sense in our local environment.

BM: Time and duration considerations are key here. There is no doubt that various temporary measures will be put in place to facilitate a return to working from the office, but I think that the jury is still out as to whether some of these changes will become permanent, affecting not only the design and internal layout of office space but also our very patterns of behaviour in terms of work-life balance.

Every day we are learning more from the research and experience of others around the world; we’re all still figuring out the long-term implications of COVID-19. Let’s be honest with ourselves and with each other – and let’s talk again in a few months’ time and see where things stand then.

Lori McRae is an interior designer specialising in corporate, commercial and retail interiors. Her 25+ years of industry experience and knowledge of the Cayman Islands commercial landscape have attracted top clients in the financial services industry.

Ben Martin is a leader and financial advisory principal at the HKS London office and helps clients make strategic decisions on real estate investments.

About the authors

Andrea Lumsden has worked with Dart since 2013 and has been writing professionally since 2003. Graduating from University of Central Florida with a BA in Communication, Andrea has worked with clients across a range of industries, including financial services and real estate. Raised in the Cayman Islands by Costa Rican and American parents, she’s a New Yorker at heart who enjoys reading and travelling with her husband and three children.

Sue Nickason has been VP Marketing and Sales at Dart Real Estate since May 2017. Originally from Canada, Sue has worked in luxury residential-resort development in the Caribbean for over a decade. Sue and her team are committed to promoting the unique value proposition of the Cayman Islands to those seeking to establish a personal and/or corporate presence here. They serve as trusted advisors and offer exceptional service, timely market information and a warm “Caymankind” welcome. Sue earned a BA (Honours) from Mount Allison University, an MBA (Distinction) from University of Guelph and has completed studies/earned certificates in journalism, economic development, adult education, customer service, revenue management, and protocol. In 2020, Sue received her Certification in Investment Migration from the Investment Migration Council. Sue is a member of the Christie’s International Real Estate Master’s Circle and an Angel in the 100 Women in Finance network.

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