Picnics Instead of Conference Calls – The New Work-Life Integration

Holding a meeting while your feet dangle in the water or architects bringing the natural world into the office – sounds surreal? This may well be an accurate picture of the future. We’d certainly like to think so! 3D artist Paul Milinski
(@paul_milinski) inspired us to think about the integrative living and working spaces that, post-coronavirus might not be as far-fetched as you would think. 

Although the beer gardens are gradually starting to fill up with contact-starved people once again, around half of the digitally employed population is still working from home. Minimizing risks is the name of the game here, especially for employers who don’t want to be grabbing headlines for all the wrong corona-related reasons. And the advantages are plain to see: home offices don’t put a drain on internal resources or a burden on the environment. Less commuting means fewer emissions, less time spent in traffic means more time at home. Deceleration, which many of us are experiencing as a welcome side effect. Nevertheless, after the past few months, the jury is still out on whether it has improved our lives overall. While it has been exposed as a complete myth that childcare duties can be juggled with working from home, the productivity of employees has risen right across the board – a nominally positive effect, which does, however, mask the risk of work-life imbalance. Calls outside of office hours and lunch breaks in front of the computer can certainly dampen any employee’s enthusiasm. But do these kinds of crises need to banish us to our homes? Being outside is so much healthier, after all. And can Zoom meetings really replace the analog small talk among colleagues or are we conference-calling ourselves into isolation?

What does a person need to be happy? The scientists are unanimous: relationships, work and nature.  

Up to now, this was so obvious that the current debates almost overlooked its influence altogether. According to a survey commissioned by the German government prior to the pandemic, spending time in nature was cited by 95% of adults as an integral part of a good life. But it’s not only the level of contentment that rises with the proximity to green spaces: cases of diabetes, joint disorders, anxiety, depression, and many other issues also fall. Experiments with study participants who were sent for walks, either along streets or in nature, showed that spending time among greenery, near to natural light sources and with improved air quality, actually increased concentration and creativity levels and lowered stress levels. 

Zen work Pod as a small wooden cabin
Zen Work Pod by Autonomous

The roots of wellbeing can be found in the great outdoors – and not in plants on our desks. 

So what lessons can be learnt and how can we reconcile our digitalized working world with our basic need for nature and community? The booming model of remote working – i.e. without a permanent workspace – was an option before COVID-19 and allowed people to pick and choose their own location. Business insiders even believe that the more people have the opportunity to work where they want to, the more people will choose country life with its more affordable housing, as opposed to hectic urban living. An unobstructed view of nature lifts the spirits, as studies showing the positive effects of greenery with recovering patients have proven. 

These findings, combined with the self-quarantining of workers, is a boon for the inventors of mobile garden offices. Minimalist, Cubist-style wooden boxes like the Zen Work Pod by Autonomous or the Minimod by architectural firm MAPA, which can be set up anywhere – in your garden or out in nature – are shifting the workspace from the domestic environment to a natural outdoor oasis. Even more flexible, but more susceptible to weather conditions, is the portable Nōmada outdoor desk designed by Mexican architect Enrique Tovar, who was inspired by the COVID-19 crisis. It’s easy to fold up and transport has a storage space with a lid and a flat work surface that can even be written on. 

Minimod spot as life and work integration into nature

Admittedly, these are solutions that are neither generally affordable for the broad public or universally practical. Instead, the easing of restrictions simply means that many workers will be heading back to their offices. And isn’t the office always a kind of working stage? At least that’s what Mateo Kries, Director of the Vitra Design Museum, thinks. In an interview with German magazine Zeit, he emphasizes that discussing creative processes over the phone has its limits: “You do need real meetings with real people sitting across from you.” 

An idea from the USA that picks up on this principle is called mobile working: working from home combined with attractive co-working spaces or so-called cozy hubs outside of the business location, in addition to a few actual days at the office headquarters. Smart companies who have already integrated the positive effects of nature are using interior courtyards full of greenery or rooftop gardens as spatial alternatives for working. These kinds of outdoor solutions are also perfect for physical distancing rules in times of Corona, because, according to the virologists, infection rates out in the open are around 20 times lower than indoors. Setting up seasonal open-air offices on available green spaces or improvised workspaces in airy buildings close to nature, like greenhouses, for example, are all possible options. At the end of last year, park benches equipped with electricity and Wi-Fi were being test-run in three German municipalities, Constance, Essen, and Panketal. 

Nomada woooden desk outside in a field
Nōmada Desk, Enrique Tovar

Such developments evoke images of workshops in the woods and meetings in the park and certainly sound like a good definition of work-life integration: a term that could spell the end of the endless balancing act between the two spheres. Instead, there’s an attempt to combine work and leisure not only in terms of time but also space. The corresponding hybrid fantasy worlds, in which life and work, nature and architecture blend together, are being created by Paul Milinski. With his retro-futuristic indoor-outdoor settings, the Australian 3D artist gained around 200,000 followers on Instagram in just one year and was nominated for the German Design Award. In April the Gestalten Verlag published his surreal spatial creations in a coffee table book entitled “Dreamscapes & Artificial Architecture”: waterfalls in the bedroom, staircases winding through moss-covered hillocks, a lunch spot in a Caribbean cove and rooms that are a cross between a spa retreat, James Bond villa, and business lounge. It’s certainly easy to imagine the living and working spaces of the future in this style. Back at the beginning of the 1990s, the Memphis school of Italian designers including Ettore Sottsass and Andrea Branzi dreamed of modern, colorful offices that were styled more like living spaces and vice versa – the only thing missing as a third dimension was nature.

If the right to work from home becomes enshrined in law, if urban hubs like roof gardens facilitate communication and offices are designed in a more nature-oriented way, it could make for an attractive mix of how we will live and work in the future. Let’s hope that we will soon be able to leave not only COVID-19 behind us but also the outdated concept of open-plan offices that has definitely had its day.

3-D-Artist Paul Milinski creates retro-futuristic spaces, where architecture and nature, living and working merge into each other

Photo Header: 3-D-Artist Paul Milinski